"Why is he screaming?"
"He's screaming because his hair's growing so fast. It's frightening. He starts with a crew-cut, and 10 seconds later he's got hair down to his shoulders."
"But what was that red stuff?"
"That's his brain exploding. Eventually his skull blows up because of the pressure of all the hair stuck inside his head. It's a tragedy, basically. It's very moving."
Believe it or not, this isn't the transcript of a gruelling late-night interrogation session involving the best minds in the FBI and a singularly disturbed serial killer. Instead, it's the salient details of a conversation that took place between my girlfriend and me, 35,000 feet above the English Channel, when we were reviewing her first jottings on Nintendo's latest DSiWare treat, Flipnote Studio.
We were flying over the Channel because I've just come back from a holiday. Barcelona, as it happens. So, how is the city of Miro and Gaudi, home to the narrow and ancient streets once walked by George Orwell and the teenage Picasso? Sadly, I couldn't really tell you. I have a few fragments of memory - the nasty Triffid-style columns of La Sagrada Familia perhaps, Gehry's flimsy golden fish-thing sculpture glinting in the afternoon sun by the Olympic Village, or a few seconds spent watching a staggeringly untalented busker on La Ramblas attempting to mime, by the looks of it, the tricky business of unpacking Ikea furniture - but most of the trip was sacrificed to the joys of rudimentary animation.
Flipnote Studio, part memo pad, part lo-fi cartoon production facility, is absolutely riveting, and downloading it the evening before jetting off for a week in a foreign country is possibly the stupidest thing I've done since that time I stapled my maths book to my trousers in primary school and didn't notice for a whole day.
It's worth mentioning that Flipnote's a free download, too, although personally it's cost me £150 or thereabouts, since it enforced my upgrade from DS Fat to DSi from the moment I first saw it demoed, earlier this year, by the friend of a friend who works as a game designer in Japan. But more important than the price point is the fact that it's just astonishingly easy to use: a typically beautiful piece of interface design, always simple, generally intuitive, and yet allowing for a surprising degree of overall control.
Behind the boldly utilitarian start screen, with its Communist orange - which suggests it could contain the training manual for a 1950s tractor - and windfall of pixelated frogs - this, frankly, spoils the previous illusion somewhat - lies a powerful time-waster, an application that, for me at least, gives the DSi a real sense of its own personality. Don't get me wrong, few will pour their lives into this like they may have done with a Mario 64 or a WipEout, but it serves the same role, as an early(ish) release that helps define the possibilities of the hardware it runs on.
The basics are simple. Starting a new animation in Flipnote takes you to a blank page. Draw a brief scribble on it, and press right on the d-pad: this will bring you to your second frame (pushing left will take you back to your first again), leaving your original drawing visible as a light grey ghost in the background if you want to use it as a guide to trace around or alter. Then, it's a simple case of repeat until finished, until your clumsy animated clown has fallen in a bucket of water, your neutron bomb has gone off in a dirty scribble of smoke, or your sketchy Darth Vader has disappeared down an open manhole.
Different brushes and colours - not a huge array of choices, but more than Bob Godfrey had for Henry's Cat, and look how that turned out - are available from the game's compact menu, where you can also play through your work in progress, cut and paste frames, and change the speed of the animation. You can even record and then dub your own sound effects - I found this last part quite a fiddly process, personally, but I have fat fingers and no rhythm, so the problem's most likely me rather than the software.
Unlike so many other collisions of videogame systems and creativity tools, the whole thing's totally unthreatening to use. Most people, no matter how much they love LittleBigPlanet, for example, have the same experience the first time they settle down to make something with it: total paralysis in the face of a blank canvas, tricky three-dimensional painting tools, and a dizzying wealth of menu options. Flipnote couldn't be more different; it scales to your skill frighteningly well.
Fond of art yet blessed with no innate talent, even I was able to get something up and running within five minutes of downloading the application, starting off by drawing a scribble, moving onto the next page, drawing another, then another, and then another, resulting in a strangely delightful (to me at least, though the enthusiasm of friends and family seemed a little forced, to be honest) animated dust cloud within moments. From there, I took the central swirling motion and added a poorly-drawn TARDIS into the mix in order to recreate the opening of Doctor Who (I even thought about humming the theme tune and sticking that on top, but I was on a bus at the time) before creating what will go down in history as my masterpiece: Batman Eating an Ice Cream.
But here's the brilliant part: the Dark Knight may have started off enjoying a sneaky Cornetto, but in the current version - it's a work in progress, as Gaudi himself might understand - the tone has become a little more serious. That's because the most appealing aspect of Flipnote Studio is how easy it is to go back and make changes. At its simplest level, all you're doing when you make a film is creating a series of simple doodles, which means you can erase elements, change them, and move on to the next frame to do it all over again almost effortlessly.
Seconds after having the idea, Batman's Mr Whippy had become a grappling gun (this is the kind of concept Joel Schumacher probably would have run with if he'd been allowed back to the franchise after his last effort), and then I added a puff of smoke and a sudden snaking wire before tugging him up out of the frame in a blur of cape, leaving behind a moody cityscape that I'm still rather proud of, even if I couldn't get the rain to work quite the way I wanted. I'm not saying it's the single greatest piece of cinema the Caped Crusader's ever been involved in, but I do suggest you look for my name in the credits of Christopher Nolan's next film.
But making stuff yourself is really only half the story here, and to enjoy the other half you won't even need to hop aboard Nintendo's maddeningly effective incremental-improvement gravy train. That's because Flipnote also allows you to upload your animations to the Flipnote Hatena website for the rest of the world to peruse, enjoy, and leave nasty comments about. This being Nintendo - and also because the website is maintained by an external company - there's a fearsome amount of legal glumf to click through every time you venture online, but while that's annoying, and the DSi-side web interface is rather poky, it's still fairly easy to zip about the Hatena site and marvel at the anonymous creativity of the internet.
A kind of home-made YouTube, Hatena's loosely organised into different themed channels, and there's already a huge number of animations on offer. Some of them, like mine, are so terrible you almost feel bad for the electrons which were interfered with in order to let you watch them, but some of them are genuine marvels. There's a lot of anime riffs of a worryingly high level of quality, along with the predictable muddle of videogame references, irritating web culture memes, and angry petitions for the release of Smash Brothers DS. (Good luck with that one.)
Like the Interestingness page on Flickr, capable of sending out a random blast of mesmerising weird beauty whenever you have a little bit of time to waste and F5 to hand, Hatena's swiftly becoming the kind of website you can lose yourself in utterly, missing hours rather than minutes as you scroll through the swathes of casual brilliance or quirky oddities. Most animations clock in around the hundred-frame mark, although some are significantly longer and more complex, and while there's typically the rare bit of rather grotty stuff to be found, a rating system and friendly community ensures the more questionable entries tend not to stick around. Go on, check it out now before somebody removes that troubling depiction of Mario roasting his brother's head on a stick. (Not joking.)
Despite its modest appearance, then, Flipnote Studio genuinely offers the best of both worlds: a tool for unlocking creativity you didn't even know you possessed, and a window into an ever-growing world of genuine talent. Smartly-built, easy to use, and powerfully addictive, as a free application, this is going to take some beating. Thanks, Nintendo. Just don't download it before you go on holiday.