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Opinion: Professor Layton And The... Unrelated Story?

Opinion: Professor Layton And The... Unrelated Story?

October 4, 2010 | By Kyle Orland

October 4, 2010 | By Kyle Orland
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[Gamasutra's Kyle Orland examines the tenuous relationship between story and gameplay in Level-5's Professor Layton games, suggesting that the thin connection hurts both portions of the game.]

In the vast majority of games, the story and the gameplay and inextricably intertwined.

Whether the game presents a sprawling, branching narrative based on player choice or simply implies some sort of background motivation for the action (“Once upon a time, a team of Giants from New York really wanted to go to the Super Bowl...) it's usually impossible to completely remove the idea of the story from the idea of playing the game.

Level-5's Professor Layton series of Nintendo DS puzzle games provides a rare exception to this rule. In these games, the storyline and gameplay progress almost entirely in parallel, with the happenings in one having little to no relationship to the happenings in the other.

Each game in the series could quite easily be split into two wholly independent parts –- one an animated movie of the story, the other a collection of dozens of unconnected puzzles -– without being much worse off. In fact, in many ways, the separated products would be more focused and satisfying.

Take the latest title in the series, Professor Layton and the Unwound Future. The game's overarching narrative tells a charming, if simplistic, tale of time travel and mystery through animated cut scenes and text-based conversations with various London townspeople.

But this narrative and these conversations are constantly interrupted with puzzles, each of which is set up with its own micro-narrative that, more often than not, has nothing to do with the main story's larger direction.

Here you are, looking for a mysterious, tyrannical, future version of yourself, when the shopkeeper you're pumping for information demands you solve a puzzle about sorting pies for no good reason. Or a bartender withholds information vital to the case unless you can solve a puzzle about stacking glasses. Or a banana peel on the ground inspires Layton himself to take time off from the search to discuss a banana-based puzzle with his apprentice, Luke.

Sometimes the justifications for the transition to a puzzle are even thinner. There's the woman that thought of a puzzle while walking the Thames, and felt she just must share it with you. There's the bored security guard who thinks up puzzles to pass the time.

At one point, a talking rabbit brings up an aquatic-themed puzzle he says he thought of while swimming away from the science lab that once held him captive. For some reason, the idea of a talking rabbit seemed less fantastic, at the time, than the ridiculous justification for his out-of-the-blue puzzle.

Rather than enhancing the story, these jarring, tenuous transitions to puzzles serve to take the player out of the experience, reminding them quite clearly that the narrative is merely a transparent vehicle for the “main game.”

Conversely, the story sections themselves could easily be seen as meaningless, ignorable distractions for players that care primarily about solving puzzles. Even players who are equally fond of both the story and the puzzles may be frustrated when one type of progression is interrupted by the other for a long stretch.

That's not to say the game doesn't sometimes succeed in weaving the theme of a puzzle into the larger story. Most often this happens when a random townsperson Luke and Layton encounter requests the help of the famous Professor Layton in unraveling the situation. Maybe a restauranteur needs help repairing his broken back door, or a wife needs help making out her husband's cryptic, chicken scratch handwriting, or a construction worker needs help cutting a piece of wood into precise shapes.

These puzzles are slightly more engaging than those introduced by some variation of “I thought of this puzzle when I was bored or otherwise occupied; maybe it will interest you.” They also provide some interesting, subtextual acknowledgment of Layton's reputation as a master puzzle solver, helping establish his character far better than mere exposition.

Still, it's hard to get heavily invested in the problems of random strangers you happen to encounter on the street, especially when you realize you will never speak to many of them again for the rest of the game.

No, the puzzles that work most effectively as narrative devices in the Layton games are the ones that are actually key to helping Luke and Layton's mission. The most memorable of these in The Unwound Future occurs early in the game, when a future version of Luke challenges Layton to card-based puzzle to confirm his identity.

Layton promptly solves the puzzle (with the player's help), then turns the puzzle back on Future Luke with a clever twist, thus proving his supposedly unassailable genius and engaging the player in one fell swoop.

Unfortunately, these memorable meldings of puzzle form and story function are extremely rare in the Layton games, especially when compared to other recent genre efforts like Telltale's recent Puzzle Agent.

It's widely acknowledged that the storylines in most works of pornography are there simply to provide an excuse for the action the viewer is really interested in. The story in the Layton games largely doesn't even live up to this low standard of integrated narrative.


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