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Posts Tagged ‘Professor Layton’

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 Mysterious Identity of Professor Layton

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!)

image shamelessly copied from the link under the photo, gamrfeed

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.

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I’ve had my eye on Machinarium for a few weeks now, so I had to try out the demo:

Machinarium

I liked it, and will probably pick up the full game one of these days if it goes on sale.  I like some adventure games (“The Dig”) but don’t like others (“King’s Quest 7”).  The genre really is a mixed bag.  Machinarium’s demo plays fairly well, though, so I recommend at least the demo to anyone who is interested.

For a pair of differing opinions, check out Andrew’s experience over at Of Teeth and Claws and Nels Anderson’s take at Above 49.

In the meantime, the demo reminded me of the importance of trust in game design.  There was a point in the demo where I found my gamer instincts warring with reality.  Naturally, Here Lie Spoilers…

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The game is all about clicking on stuff, trying to find what you need to solve puzzles.  Sometimes, you have to combine objects you’ve gathered to progress.

Level 2 has your character trying to get through a security checkpoint.  You need to devise a disguise to get past the sentry.  At one point, you pick up a traffic cone as part of the disguise, but there’s still a stack of cones left over.  You can click on the stack, and the character throws a cone into the nearby canyon.  This is where I ran into trouble.  I wasn’t sure that I’d never need another cone, so throwing them in the canyon seemed like an irreversible move that I might regret later.  I never want to get stuck in a game, so I don’t like irreversible moves.

Thing is, you need to throw all the cones overboard to get to a puzzle piece under the stack.  I only found this after I had exhausted all other possible moves and just went ahead and threw caution to the wind.  I didn’t want to get myself stuck, but the devs were a step ahead of me and made the game so that I couldn’t get stuck.  My instinctual desire to keep all potential puzzle pieces around until I had it solved, a sort of MacGyver/Packratitis affliction, ran contrary to the solution of throwing away potential puzzle pieces to get to the solution.

This might just be a set of mixed expectations, just as much my fault as the designers, since often in these adventure games you actually do need everything and even a lot of apparently useless stuff to solve the puzzles.  In a way, this skirts Twinkie Denial conditions of “extreme lateral thinking” and “no lateral/logical thinking”.  Some pieces just don’t make sense unless you’re reading the devs’ minds, and some are blindingly obvious in their function… which means they don’t really work that way in the game’s logic.

Still, I don’t like throwing pieces away that might have a use later.  I had to trust that the devs knew best by having my little character throw the cones away.  That wasn’t something I did lightly, and I find that it reveals a slightly untrusting/adversarial relationship that I have with puzzle designers.  (In contrast, the only reason I’m still working on one puzzle in Professor Layton and the Curious Village is because I do trust the devs that there’s an answer to it, despite evidence to the contrary.  Funny how that works out.)

All in all, this is probably just as much, if not more, about my approach to the game.  I don’t like throwing away potential puzzle pieces.  I don’t like needing to trust the devs that much, especially when the puzzles themselves may well get increasingly obscure as the game goes on.  I detest needing to read the designer’s mind; to me that’s the sign of lazy puzzle design.

I do still like the game.  I’m leaning toward buying it at some point.  It’s just not a perfect game, and this tenuous trust between player and designer can make or break a game, especially one based on puzzles.  Players need to know that they will have all the tools and pieces at their disposal, and that their cleverness will carry the day.  That’s the backbone of the puzzle/adventure game genre, and really something that should be the core of the design.  Obscure elements or lack of communication of clear goals, tools and pieces can kill a game like this very quickly.  Some of this is UI design, some of it is game design, but players need to be able to trust the designers… even if (maybe especially when) they default to “not trusting”.

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