The Professor Layton games are fantastic pieces of work. (If you don’t want spoilers for their stories, though, please go play them and then come back.)
The first game quickly establishes some quirky characters and ground rules for the Layton game world, notably the preponderance of puzzles and people who love them. Smaller puzzles are nested in a larger mystery, though curiously, the player doesn’t solve that mystery so much as tag along. We’re introduced to a world that is oddly modern and yet antique at the same time, and a twist in the story introduces futuristic technology. It isn’t beholden to any particular time setting, so it can be “modern” for many players for years to come. The story is ultimately about the love of a father for his daughter and a test of character for our heroes.
The second game pokes a bit more into Sherlockian waters by forcing the good Professor to find scientific explanations for some rather mythological and mystical mysteries. It steps back a little from the impossibly intricate technology in the first game, but still has absurd architecture and weird science. The underlying story is one of love lost, selfishness and sacrifice, reconciliation, and hope for the future.
The first two games have heartfelt stories with surprisingly honest emotion, but the third game is even better. Yes, all three have tons of puzzles, and each gets progressively better with smarter puzzles and better controls… but here I’m talking about the good Professor himself.
Professor Layton and the Unwound Future is Hershel Layton’s story.
It’s heartrending, chilling, poignant, cautionary and engrossing. Not bad for a collection of puzzles on a handheld gaming platform.
As further prelude, may I recommend a great article from before the third game from the gentlemen at Experience Points?
The Unwound Future doesn’t answer much about the good Professor’s racial or ethnic identity (which I consider a good thing, after all… I’d rather measure a man by his actions than his inheritance). It doesn’t explain why Luke tags along like a leech-puppy hybrid. It does, however, explain a great deal about the Professor’s curious hat, his gentlemanly mannerisms, his nemesis and his almost single-minded devotion to solving puzzles. (Even more spoilery spoilers after the picture, fair warning!)
Simply, Hershel Layton is a broken man, and The Unwound Future kicks him while he’s down, teasing him with hope and then removing a piece of his personal puzzle… again. Layton will be forever broken, forever searching to piece his life together, always frustrated. Solving other puzzles are his only solace, his only outlet for closure and resolution. In this, he is one of the most human characters in games that I’ve seen in a long time. He is damaged, but he soldiers on, hat firmly on his head.
To be sure, there are other broken characters in the game. The primary antagonist proves to be a severely traumatized and sympathetic character, even after he engages in some domestic terrorism with a death toll likely in the thousands. The secondary antagonist is revealed to be almost as deeply wounded as the Professor, and far from an evil man. A villain from the earlier games is revisited and made far more sympathetic. The true villain of the story never receives his just rewards, and his story is left open. These political implications have strong connotations in today’s political world, and the game doesn’t grant fictional justice. Every character is asked to step up and accept painful truths and then be strong anyway, even when the world is hostile.
Further, there’s a twist to the knife. The concept of time travel is presented as another mystery to be solved, and in true Layton style, a grand conspiracy and coverup are revealed. Time travel is revealed to be a scam… and then, agonizingly and astonishingly, it is revealed again as a reality. The Professor is granted a few precious moments with the love of his life, only to have her knowingly go back in time to her death. After convincing everyone that time travel isn’t possible, he finds that it most certainly is. After telling everyone to accept that they need to move on, and demonstrating that he’s willing to forgive even in the face of great loss, he is teased with the possibility that history could yet be changed, and that maybe, just maybe, the “bad” guys were right. The axis of his world is shifted, ever so slightly, and the careful pretense of rationality that he has held to is undermined again by the delayed results of the very event that shattered his life.
In the ending sequence, after displaying a somewhat ungentlemanly bout of agony and emotion, he is not offered solace or peace, but rather told (gently and kindly, but painfully) that in the face of his most heartbreaking loss:
“You’ll be strong… because that’s what a gentleman does.”
…and then we see him cry. A gentleman, hat in hand, beseeching the heavens for peace he knows he will not see, even as the “what if” questions continue to eat away at him.
What more can any of us do?
How many of our sorrows are ignored by throwing ourselves into distractions or puzzles that have solutions? Is this not one appeal of games, that there are solutions to the problems in-game, if only we play enough or well enough? The character arc for Hershel Layton stands in contrast to that very nature of games, intentionally subverting his oft-repeated refrain “every puzzle has an answer”.
These games have a lot of heart, especially for what could have been thinly veiled Brain Age-like games. While I find I disagree with the choice to hurt the good Professor the way they did in the third game… that I care at all is testament to the character and story.