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Moving Beyond Artificial Construction as Explored in the Professor Layton Series

1st August 2012; By KnucklesSonic8

Blue, sunny skies are perfect weather conditions for puzzle-solving, so contends Hershel Layton, main protagonist of the Professor Layton series of games. Citing the need for a clear mind and a level head, such advice leads me to question why we often categorize the solving of puzzles as a rainy day activity. Nevertheless, it is that very sort of ahead-of-the-game thinking that quickly bore within me a desire to connect with this well-mannered character type from his first adventure in Curious Village. Now four games in, my taking a liking to the character has since progressed to a love of the entire setup this franchise relies on as a novel merge of puzzle-adventure concepts. Indeed, the combined use of narrative-driven storylines and user-friendly puzzles has yet to disappoint. Left up to chance, outcomes could have been too contrived for any sort of meaningful interest and captivation. And yet, LEVEL-5 has evidently struck a chord with these and other variables, spraying their charmed perfume even in the faces of those who would normally have an allergic reaction at the thought of getting close to a puzzle.

In reflecting on my recent completion of Last Specter, I've observed with greater clarity the ties that bind each adventure into a well-conceived, cohesive whole. Coming to this conclusion had nothing to do with Luke's not yet having taken to Layton's side, the new inserting of Emmy and her relatively unexplored background, nor the presence of London Life (which is on my list of things to tackle). And, too, with others likely having arrived at their own analysis of how and why each title works so well, this mild revelation of sorts won't seem all that outstanding. But it is one that returns full circle to the point of understanding spoken about earlier.

An artifact that can cause death to any who open it; a future world run by an evil, dictatorial genius; and a ghastly monster that unrepentantly lays siege to a town of fairly modest means and size. Often what appears inexplicable or far-fetched is a charade to cleverly conceal what can be explained in logical terms, even in face of the fact that each game is a work of fiction and can thus excuse the invention of fabricated storylines that still have that level of concealment but without relatable circumstances or measurable reason. Be assured that my not referencing Curious Village just now is not for reasons of taste; purely that it has a less significant role in the point I am illustrating. That point -- more precisely, that question -- is this: Can it be said that the systematic process of completing puzzles both welcomed and not is, at its root, a shallow exploitation? Are players essentially baited into a contrived performance where puzzles function as hollow stepping stones to the arrival of a scripted arrangement of sequences whereby these puzzles can then be weighted? What is discovered in the final interpretations for each of the referenced titles reveals the answer in both cases to be "no."

Not watered down in the slightest, as the final interpretations are very much reliant on the foregoing leadings, a subdued depth is explored in the way these elements are strung together to create a sort of harmony where the sharpness of the emerging core lesson becomes a point of fundamental solidarity to invigorate the puzzle-solving component as a justifiable means towards deduction. It is a key reason why my initial worries about where the storyline of Diabolical Box was headed were replaced by faith; why that same title later became one of my favourite story explorations in the entire run of the franchise; and why all four games -- Curious Village included -- work as well as they do in the matter of construction.

As a case in point, Last Specter's touching upon the relationship two characters shared over common circumstances and the possibility of recovery from what seemed like a hopeless situation moved me. And it wasn't even that the situation was all that striking in its delivery, or even that, when looking at how the clues were all spread out, what was shrouded in mystery was really a part of something grandiose. Get right down to it, it was the ease with which I was able to connect with this fictional situation and how certain aspects related to my own personal life that led to me having an emotional reaction. Games of past generations have at times used methods that would now be seen as low-key, thin, or cheesy to project good moral lessons to suspecting players. Here we see a slight resurgence of that trend, except that the messages conveyed are done through a deeper progression that takes on the entire quest, molding player thinking in directions to examine possibilities as part of the sleuthing element brought on by the plethora of puzzles, and then bringing about a resolution in a way that even the most observant of players may not even see coming.

Much more than a forming idea in the back of the mind or having clues sprinkled at one or two markers in the road, each storyline is fashioned with a host of smaller question marks connecting to a larger one that looms over the rest. Plot devices implemented over the course of every single game have never veered towards hinging on a sole foundation, one that would crumble when exposed for the reason that these elements would be all that hold the case together. Rather, they are such that spiral not unlike an intriguing staircase, where the secondary focus is what lies at the very top and the primary point of emphasis is the journey along the way and all the interconnected landmarks. Continuing with that mental picture, by the time you've reached the top, looking down you can see that the stairs you were climbing had small bits of material that collectively make up a mosaic. Call it a slight inability to see what's in front of you; all the answers you seek are in fact there, just they are not clearly understood until you get a better vantage point. When you are then able to see the situation with an overall comprehension, it produces feelings of refreshment and simultaneously gets you to reflect on the entirety of your proceedings. And with that self-examination comes the consideration of how a stronger mental alertness could have been formed had the individual elements along the trail not been viewed as what they are, in fact, not -- a distraction technique.

It took four games for it to really click on another level, but I now have an even deeper appreciation for the fundamentals of LEVEL-5's handling of this franchise. Truly the way in which they've adorned puzzles with a sense of dignity in relation to how it all fits within the overall spectrum of the mysteries told is one that gives valid cause for these stories being as captivating as they are. It is my sincerest hope that these qualities and meaningful approaches seen in these moving tales retain their thought-provoking power as this franchise grows.

Feature by KnucklesSonic8