Professor Layton & The Curious Village

In an essay on interactive fiction, writer and game theorist Nick Montfort describes how virtually any new medium can be treated as a literary device. He notes that even puzzles and riddles can be reviewed as works of interactive fiction, held to the same standards as conventional fiction. First in a series of games, Professor Layton and the Curious Village seems to have been tailor-made to fit some of Montfort’s assertions.

The Curious Village follows the enigmatic Professor Hershel Layton and his prize pupil, Luke, as they arrive at a small English township called St. Mystere. The professor is well-known for being a puzzle master and genius, and has been summoned to help settle the probate issues of the town’s patriarch. Layton and Luke must uncover a series of mysteries which plague the town in order to find the prize which will grant them the vast fortune and inheritance of the Baron Reinhold, and answer all the questions swirling around St. Mystere.

Integrating Riddle and Narrative

This game follows the aforementioned plot through the game conventions of dialogue, cut scenes, and side texts. The player guides the characters through the environment of St. Mystere and the locales therein, examining their surroundings using the touch screen of the Nintendo DS to probe for clues. This is similar to previously reviewed interactive novellas like Hotel Dusk: Room 215 and the famous Ace Attorney series. Progress is made through the completion of puzzles which are sprinkled throughout the game, more than 120 in all. The puzzles interrupt the investigative and narrative portions of the game, and are mandatory in completing it.

In his essay, Montfort says: “Many works of [interactive fiction] simply contain riddles which must be solved in order to progress, but it is more useful to consider not the explicit presence of riddles in IF but the riddle as a figure for how IF works.” Professor Layton uses the riddle as a challenge– similar to how a fighting game would use a boxing match as a benchmark to continue the supposed or forced narrative. Montfort continues, “The best examples of IF do what the best riddles do: they create a provocative system of thought that one is invited to enter, explore, and understand– demonstrating one’s understanding, at last, by explicitly offering a solution.” That is precisely what is done in this game, but on the episodic level of the puzzles, and on the larger scale of the story as a whole

The puzzles within the game are not obtusely placed challenges to the player. They are often integrated into the game itself, as the locking mechanism for a doorway, or when a character asks for assistance in solving a riddle they heard or for a solution to a problem they have. These added story elements invest the player further into the puzzles and into the game itself. The player isn’t just aiding an NPC, but also being engaged in a way to which he or she is not accustomed. These two elements work in concert to pull the player further into the game’s world. In the image at right, the first puzzle of the game is shown. The problem at hand is to help Layton and Luke reach St. Mystere, but this narrative event is deconstructed into the guise of a puzzle, in which the proper way through a maze must be deciphered.

This occurs on the outer level of the game through the numerous puzzles which take multiple instances to solve. Some of them include collecting items to flesh out a picture or other media which is related to the game. Several, however, are outright narrative mysteries which cannot be solved with the tap of the stylus. They must be intuited through foreshadowing, dialogue, clues, and deductive reasoning. These mysteries are solved whether the player figures them out or not, just as in conventional literature, when at the end of the novel, you learn who killed who whether you already had a hunch or stayed neutral.

The Hero as Thinker

Little has been said about Professor Layton himself in reviews. This is a remarkable character. His plain appearance is charmingly conceived in the game’s storybook fashion, but it does not belie his quick wit, charming demeanor, or courage. He is, as the cliche goes, “a gentleman and a scholar.” The game’s art design is inspired by European storybooks, anime, and appears to take place in the middle part of the 20th century, though technology swings widely from understated to exaggerated.

The game is interspersed with cut scenes, something surprising for a game on the small Nintendo DS. Unlike in other games where players frequently complain that cut scenes hamper the action, in this game they are welcome treats. The animation is slick and appealing, the voiceover work is enchanting, possibly because we see and hear so little of both throughout the game. The cut scenes add life to the characters, which otherwise would’ve been flat two dimensional foils.

There are at least two more titles to come for Professor Layton, as this series is being fleshed out in the same way Ace Attorney has been serialized by Capcom. This title goes to further demonstrate not just the narrative ability of the interactive novel, but the wide range of game play angles these titles can enjoy. This game not only establishes an enjoyable puzzle/narrative format, but presents us with characters which are a joy in themselves

* Note: Nick Montfort can be reached at his personal website here, and his essay can be found in this textbook.
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