Liv Tyler lays prone on her bed in a pair of blue pajamas, propped up on her elbows and gazing intently at the screens of a Nintendo DS Lite. Her hair is casually pulled back, her cheeks slightly flushed. The camera pulls in for a close-up as she emotes and hums to herself while playing Brain Age 2. And like that, I’m in love with Liv Tyler again, watching her in this moment of feigned intimacy. Perhaps not quite as revered as texting but certainly as significant as latte slurping, playing a DS has now entered the public realm of things starlets do in their spare time. This commercial and the broader association of the Nintendo DS with female celebrity signify a turning point in the cultural rise of videogames. Once, videogames were the purview of the young, nerdy and male. Now portable games, like a good book on a rainy day, have become something all of us, even celebrities, turn to for a few moments of solace.
From a practical standpoint, the runaway popularity of the DS in America doesn’t make much sense. The majority of Americans drive themselves to work, and those who can afford it reserve entire rooms of their houses for world-class audiovisual systems. Yet in spite of all that surround sound and HD potential, Americans find themselves drawn to the three-inch screens and tinny speakers of the Nintendo DS.
It’s clearly a mistake to assume that portable gaming is an ancillary choice, an inferior alternative to the experience of console gaming. Yet until just recently, this was how portable consoles were pitched to the American public – as a secondary experience. While you may not be able to play Super Mario World on the go in the full 16-bit glory your home system offers, Nintendo can provide a roughly similar experience on a tiny monochrome screen. But gamers have realized the experience of playing on a console is fundamentally different than playing on a portable system.
Console gaming has become a full-blown ritual. We sit in our dens with the lights dimmed in front of 42-inch screens awaiting the orchestral fanfare of the system start-up screen. It’s a process that has grown more elaborate with each generation. Gaming on a console has evolved into a cinematic experience, one in which players lose their sense of self as they become totally absorbed in the screen. Even the Wii, which emulates the casual act of TV watching through its channels and point-and-click remote interface, dominates the room. Today’s console experiences are designed to supersede all the other forms of media that share our TV space.
Contrast that with the intimate experience a portable game system offers. People sit in bed, on a plane or sprawled out across the floor. The TV is on in the background, somebody is making dinner – life continues as we play. Occasionally we pause and respond to distractions cheerfully, hardly concerned that our concentration has been broken. Is it any wonder that casual games first took off on portable systems? We play a few segments of WarioWare between long commercials and coo ourselves to sleep with the sounds of Electroplankton. Portable systems don’t dominate living spaces; they become a part of them.
Hardware manufacturers have tried to force public opinion on portable systems only to see their efforts repeatedly rebuffed. Early on, Nintendo was very much about portable games acting as the younger siblings of proper console releases. Big console games were always ported in one fashion or another to the Game Boy. They went so far as to port Donkey Kong Country‘s pseudo 3-D, pre-rendered graphics onto the Game Boy’s sickly yellow and black screen. Even as late as the initial launch of the DS, Nintendo still showed grand aspirations with perfect ports of Mario 64 and the console imitative Metroid Prime Hunters. But among portable consoles, none has been as ambitious as Sony’s PSP in trying to reshape the way people use their devices.
The PSP represented the first major attempt to bring the home entertainment system into the portable realm. Other handhelds had similar ambitions, like NEC’s Turbo Express, Atari’s Lynx and Sega’s Nomad, but none had the force of will (especially financially) that Sony brought to the table. The PSP would serve as a thematic preview of the PS3. A shiny, black monolith of a handheld, the PSP offered nearly current console technology, complete with a widescreen display. The PSP also interacted with the PS3 and Sony’s online offerings in a number of unique ways. As an enthusiast’s game system, nothing has rivaled it. But three years after its launch, how do most people use their PSP? The demise of the UMD as a movie format indicates that the PSP, like the DS, is still just a game system.
Portable games also reflect this new set of expectations. While the PSP has some genuine console moments in games like God of War: Chains of Olympus and Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, most of its games represent something wholly different from their console brethren. Although they may be based on a console franchise, portable games work within the limitations of the hardware to provide an experience that is no less ambitious. We can see this idea at work in the innovation of a game like Patapon and the unprecedented scope of the upcoming GTA: Chinatown Wars.
Portable games have also become scrap books of videogame history, particularly of that moment in the mid-90’s when Japan dominated the development scene. Square Enix is famously involved in an archeological excavation of their back catalogue. But mostly we see Japanese developers fine-tuning genres that no longer have a place in the living room, genres like the tedious dungeon hacking of Etrian Odyssey and the sidescrolling adventure offered by the Castlevania series. To see any of these games on a 42-inch screen is ultimately disappointing, but on a three- to five-inch screen, these games retain a quaint dignity befitting of our memories of them.
Portable gaming is the equivalent of comfort food. It will never demand our attention the way console games do, but like chicken soup we’ll inevitably turn to it first no matter how divine the pine nut foam with a side of foie gras may sound. The raw emotion a great console game is able to elicit just isn’t the domain of portable gaming. Rather, our most cherished memories are those of the portable system itself. I recall throwing my Game Boy across the room, only to pick it up a few moments later and start playing again; the hilarious failings of the Lynx and Virtual Boy, the unrealized potential of the Neo Geo Pocket and the first time we blew on the DS. We cherish these devices and the moments of small joy they bring to us. That’s why we buy DSs and PSPs: not for any one experience a game can offer, but because these systems allow us to lie in bed, as cozy as Liv Tyler, while we smile and giggle our way through another lazy Sunday.
Tom Endo is The Escapist‘s Acquisitions Editor. He hopes the next DS commercial features the following: Natalie Portman, Rashida Jones, Mario Kart and a pillow fight.