when games play you: professor layton & the curious village

when i decided to buy a nintendo dsi (see previous post for a re-cap of my logic) i knew i needed a killer app, to make me feel that the purchase was justified. thoroughly, conscientiously, i researched the available games, seeking a game that would help me to immediately dig into the potential of the system, and give me that elusive gamer’s high where hours dissolve into unbroken play.

ultimately, i decided on professor layton & the curious village. according to all the reviews i read, professor layton was an indispensable ds title, capably making use of the system’s stylus control system, and offering a fun, approachable game. rather that being a “port” of an older game/game designed for another system, professor layton was also consciously designed for the ds. and, most importantly, it was a “puzzle/adventure” game, like zoombinis according to reports, which immediately recalled my most cherished gaming experiences from my childhood.

so i got the game.

emulating european animation

let’s start by talking about the art. it’s one of the first things one notices about any game, and in playing professor layton, this observation is made all the more vivid by the game’s beautiful, highly-stylized animation. like the aesthetics from the triplets of belleville, professor layton employs a sort of european, edwardian-punk animation. characters have very pronounced features (in fact, the head sizes of the characters varies widely) which serve to differentiate them easily from one another visually. like a vintage movie, there is also the effect of a visible background/character division, because of a faded look to the settings and a thin white highlighting of game characters/icons. the setting re-infornces the emulated european feel of the game, by presenting narrow, cobblestone-lined streets, and helter skelter buildings that imagine the europe so beloved by the wider world. in a way, the game’s setting, “st. mystere,” could be read as the Japanese tourists wet dream, for it is in “st. mystere” that we find a conglomeration of the photo ops that europe presents to tourists – a mansion, cute streets, colorful markets, crooked houses, and a decaying amusement park.

Professor Layton's aesthetics are closely related to those French animation such as the "Triplets of Belleville"
Professor Layton's aesthetics are closely related to those French animation such as the "Triplets of Belleville"

the foreign & the domestic

another interesting way to read professor layton would be through its suggestion of a foreign/domestic division. the game begins with professor layton and his trusty sidekick journeying to the town, which they must then cross a drawbridge to gain access to. from that first interaction with the city’s drawbridge operator, the game-player is made aware the game’s pervasive foreign/domestic division. we (professor layton + game player +side kick) are always regarded as foreign, and in need of proving ourselves. to ingratiate ourselves, we complete the game’s puzzles. it is only by succeeding at the puzzles that the town slowly allows us to assimilate. we become more intimate and thus more domestic. in professor layton, the puzzles are the supreme act of intimacy- and they allow for our domestication. but this is not all. paralleling the slow domestication of layton into the fabric of st. mystere is the game player’s own ingratiation into the fiction of the game. so we find that the foreign/domestic division is both intra-gamic and extra-gamic. it is a structure repeated both inside and outside of the fiction, complimenting the game player’s need to become situated in how to play the game, with layton’s own slow integration to the community of the game world. it is a clever device.

chelmy & the explorer

but the foreign/domestic division does stop there. to the contrary, it is complicated and re-inforced by two further characters in the game. the first is inspector chelmy, who arrives after “the murder,” and is rather immediately given the domestic status within the game community that layton is so desparately seeking. but he betrays this trust, not only trashing his hotel room, but also gaining domestic trust on a false identity- he is not really inspector chelmy, but an evil man, layton’s sworn archrival. of course, it is layton himself who unmasks the inspector, and in the process of undoing this man’s false domesticity, he gains everyone’s trust, basically trading in own chelmy’s own status.

the other character who manifests the foreign/domestic division is the explorer, a strange gentleman who appears from time to time unexpectedly, and speaks in several languages. a sort of perennial outsider, the explorer is never accounted for. he seems to represent the ultimate foreign agent, an un-domesticated element in the story, but at the same time he is more akin to the townsfolk than to layton or his archrival. like the townsfolk, he poses puzzles and brainteasers to layton. yet unlike the townsfolk, he shows up in bizarre places- sewers, the amusement park, the tower. the critic inside wants to say that he is a key rupture in this game through which to really pull apart the fiction (looking at you cahiers du cinema). but at the same time, i can find anything to do with him. how do you resolve a single irregularity in a game that strives for such cohesion?

the foreign/domestic inversion [[ spoiler alert ]]

at the end of the game, the foreign/domestic division is completely inverted. when we discover that the townsfolk are all machines, and that only layton, luke, and the arch rival are human, we confront a reality that has been turned on itself. now it appears that luke and layton are in fact the town’s only “true” inhabitants. they have been domesticated by machines, trained as it were to become the desirable human inhabitants of a town without humans. we also discover fiona, the “golden apple” at this point, and realize that she has actually been hidden and intimidated by the town’s robotic folk. she is the town’s only real resident and yet she is the most afraid of the town, and the most content to leave. she has been a prisoner of the town’s fiction, and it is only in unraveling that fiction that she can be freed of it.

the game revealed and resisted

of course, the discovery of the town’s “robotic” secret also acts as a sort of tongue-in-check metaphor for video gaming itself. we were always playing machines, as that is what video games always make us do (alex galloway said as much in “gaming: four essays on algorithmic culture”). but in this game, the machine is revealed as a plot twist. we are allowed, for a moment, to think of the game as it is- a series of electronic codings, and logic gates- before we re-enter the fiction thru fiona. she is human, we are told, and we follow her back into the game’s fiction. as the game itself presents, for a moment we were shown inside the tower of truth, only to elect the bright town as a preferable alternative.

game play note

From Penny Arcade
From Penny Arcade

this was a fun game, a great way to start my dsi experience up. but if i have one complaint with it, it is that this game plays you, you do not play this game. as will wright once wrote about the sims, the sims is not a game, it is a toy. likewise, professor layton is not a game, it is a story with puzzles. games have choices, games give agency to their players. but this game takes you its conclusion no matter what you do, which is a rather frustrating style of play. and the only way you can beat this game is by defeating its puzzles- it is like a friend reads you a page of jane austen every time you complete a riddle or a jigsaw puzzle.

not that i didn’t enjoy it. to the contrary, this is the most fun i have had playing a game since castles: siege and conquest. it is just to say that there is room to improve.

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3 Responses to when games play you: professor layton & the curious village

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  2. The Fuboo says:

    I will have to say that Professor Layton was my first and best experience for the DS I have ever had (and ‘Delirium’ )
    I’ll admit I first took interest because of that Penny Arcade comic you have there, my brother and I had a good laugh when we saw the game at Wal-mart and the very next day we were in a gaming battle of who would beat the game first. I’m happy to say that I’ve won that challenge.
    since then I haven’t turned my head away from the series since, now watching his movie to keeping an eye on all up coming games (4 more I think)
    The most I like about it is that it’s educational and I can play it around my daughters (yeah, I’m a Mom.) So If anything I approve of Professor Layton, hands down! A puzzle game with a story and full animated cut scenes to watch.
    (Thanks to this, Phoenix Write will have a cross over with Latyon where Mr. Write will be animated and voiced for the first time! be sure to thank the Professor kids!)

    You say that there’s room that needs improvement, and indeed the Professor has done so in his last game “Unwound Future” being voted as the best game out of the Professor Layton series, but there’s more to come so we’ll have to wait and see what Layton comes up with next for his loyal fans and those who love Puzzles as much as he does.

    “If Knowledge is power, Professor Layton is the strongest of them all” ~Game Informer

  3. Andrew Minturn says:

    it is a great game expet the end its a gaint middle finger up to the player

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