Why Hello There, I Was Just Puzzle Puzzle Puzzle

Rilla and I have been playing Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the Ninetendo DS for the last couple of days. We like puzzles a lot, so it seemed like it’d be a fun game to pick up and play together. Also, I’d heard enough people mentioning it in the same breath as the Phoenix Wright games that it seemed like a must play.

Now, ol’ Prof. Layton is alright, you people who kept talking about it within ear- or reading-shot of me, but comparing him with Phoenix Wright borders on the mortally offensive. The games are doing radically different things with one difference front and centre: the Phoenix Wright games are very, very good, and this Professor Layton game here is just… fine.

See, there’s a problem with it, a very fundamental one. The relationship within the game between its two core elements, the narrative and the puzzles, is deeply flawed. The path the game takes is basically that puzzles are the all important thing and the narrative is a vehicle for the puzzles. Now, to a certain extent, you could argue that many adventure-like games can be that way, but Professor Layton takes it to a whole new level. And then it takes it to a level beyond that, too.

In Professor Layton and the Curious Village there are more or less literally puzzles falling out of people’s hair. You happen to look at a clock: a puzzle falls before your eyes. You ask someone to ferry you across a river: they would like you to solve a puzzle first. You are going to work someone: they require you solve a puzzle to prove you’re good at solving puzzles. Where in traditional narratives the puzzles serve, at worst, as gatekeepers for another chunk of narrative, in Professor Layton the paper-thin narrative and representational layer serve as the gatekeeper for puzzles. And the puzzles serve as gatekeepers for other puzzles.

And then you do a puzzle.

Most of all, this game has made me reach a deeper appreciation for the Phoenix Wright games. The level of integration between the puzzles you solve and the narrative and characters is truly remarkable. The activities you’re engaged in matter, the problems you solve are the story in a very real sense. Where in Layton’s world you’re working out how to ferry wolves and chicks across a river because someone just randomly was thinking about that, in Phoenix Wrightville you’re trying to work out the trick behind someone’s testimony to prove your client (who you frequently actually care about, too) is not guilty of murder. See the difference there?

When I played (and replayed, and re-replayed) Phoenix Wright games I would generally be held in thrall by the progress of the narrative and my part in making it come out alright. When the games finished and I watched my favourite characters signing off, I could feel the tug of early nostalgia. When I play this Layton game I can’t help but wish, at times, that it was just a menu system with a list of the 130 puzzles in the game so we could just bloody solve them all already, and damn the Reinhold Fortune and the stupid Golden Egg.

Speaking of the Golden Egg, there’s puzzle puzzle puzzle puzzle puzzle.

4 February 2011
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