Friday, November 6, 2009

The Mysterious Identity of Professor Layton

Logic puzzles and mathematical word problems have long assumed an irritating role in my life: In grade school, they were the odious bits of the classroom I had to take home with me. If I was unfortunate enough for my Mom to decide that I was "wasting" my summer in front of the TV playing video games, I was greeted by a notebook full of the blasted things.

More troublesome was the way puzzles were incorporated into standardized tests used to lump kids into intellectual groups. Sadly, this trend persisted through college and continues into graduate school. While not Professor Layton's fault, the gameplay is nevertheless made up of activities I most strongly associate with things that have historically prevented me from enjoying myself.

So why did I play through the games? After hearing so much about the clever puzzles and finely-crafted artwork, my curiosity simply got the best of me.

It should be noted that when I say I "played" through the games, what I really mean is that I took advantage of Hanah's superior aptitude and enjoyment. I would tackle a few puzzles, but after my inevitable rage-quit, I would contently look over her shoulder while voicing my only-occasionally-helpful suggestions.

This being said, it should not come as a surprise that I latched on to games' stories and characters as if they were some sort of animated, whimsical security blanket that could shield me from the MENSA-inspired barrage. I have grown particularly fascinated by Layton himself. For me, the character is far more of a mystery than any of the game's puzzles.

I quickly found Professor Layton to be a thoroughly authentic character. Paradoxically, this is largely due to the relatively small amount of back-story provided for him. We know that Layton somehow became a professor, a world-famous archaeologist, a masterful puzzle-solver, a strict adherent to some form of neo-chivalry, an accomplished swordsman, and the guardian of a young apprentice. What we do not know is how or why this all happened.

Instead of guiding the player through an origin story, the game introduces the Professor as a character whose existence predated their first play session. Layton already has an established worldview, set of characteristics, and even arch rival, all of which are illustrated through current events. Solving puzzles with Layton is akin to meeting someone on the job; the player gets to know him gradually, in the context of what he does best.

In one respect, Akihiro Hino and Level-5 have created a spiritual peer of Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and Nathan Drake. However, Layton's resemblance to these characters is juxtaposed by distinctly ambiguous characteristics that cast him as something more akin to a cultural chameleon.

Perhaps "golem" would be a more apt term for Layton? It was quite surprising to find a Japanese-created, English-themed character named Hershel. Yet, despite having a name strongly associated with a specific ethnoreligious group, the game never explains Layton's background. In comparison to many of the games' caricature-based inhabitants, Layton is a malleable lump of clay in the player's mind.

While his skin is light, is is not as pale as many of the WASPy folks who supply him with puzzles. Layton's physical features are exceedingly nondescript: aside from an unusually square jaw, his face has no stubble or recognizable quirks. A line for a mouth, a line for a nose, a line for each ear, and two dots for eyes thwart most attempts at establishing any definitive ethnicity.

Some studies have suggested that, in addition to eyes, eyebrows are crucial in helping us remember faces. Layton, with his extremely simple eyes and nearly non-existent eyebrows, is both an everyman and anonymous man. His appearance diverges from the many popular hyper-real, gratuitously sexual characters found in video games.

A visit to Nintendo's Professor Layton website demonstrates the careful balancing act Nintendo is performing with the game's marketing. The three live action commercials all focus on the female players and bill the title as "a puzzle solving action game." Professor Layton makes a brief appearance and his name is in the title, but the focus in these spots is set squarely on the player. The game is framed as one in which the hero is not only the player, but a non-stereotypical player. In order not to detract from her, Layton blends in to the background.

Thus, we are presented with a mystery: How can a lead character possess a complex backstory based on well-worn gender, cultural, and narrative tropes while still serving as an empty vessel for the player to fill with their own personality? Somehow, Layton is at once a character and an avatar.

When I was floating this idea to Hanah, I initially asked her about Layton's distinguishing characteristics. "He wears glasses, doesn't he?" she asked.

He doesn't, but she does. Very puzzling indeed.


  1. That response is indeed fascinating. I'm a fan of the good Professor (though I do take issue with some of the game design), but I've never even remotely thought of him as an avatar. Perhaps I'm too much of a gamer; I see the mini puzzles as enjoyable diversions in an interesting story told about the Professor and the characters around him.

  2. Hi Tesh,

    Like you, I think Layton is a pretty cool character. It's still weird that the marketing spots say almost nothing about the story.

    I can't wait until the next game, mostly due to my interest in the story. I'm itching to learn about the story behind how Luke came to be Layton's apprentice. Will they go all "Batman" and make Luke the Dick Grayson to Layton's Bruce Wayne?

    Probably not; they have an "E" rating to preserve. ;)

  3. To be fair, the American marketing campaign is very very different from the Japanese one.

    The Japanese ad spots, which were more numerous than the American campaign (but it's common in Japan that when a product is advertised, a lot more different ads are made compared to the US) focused on the the story, the cast ( the main characters being voiced by Japanese stars), puzzles.

    Ads on billboards and in mainstream newspapers simply presented a riddle to solve, and said to go on the official website to see the answer, conveying the basic idea of the game more effectively than the American ads I think.

    Several of the TV spots for the first 2 games did the same thing, with YĆ“ Oizumi (famous actor, and also the voice of Professor Layton in Japan) presenting riddles to solve to viewers in ads for Curious Village, while in those for Diabolical Box, he was asked to solve riddles, conveying the basic game mechanic.

    While the remainder of ads centered on cutscenes, voice acting, and gameplay, with the names of the voice acting cast. From the 3rd game, the ads are centered mostly on the voice acting cast, story, showing cutscenes and a few seconds of gameplay, Level probably figured everybody knows the Layton series is centered on riddle solving.

    The way they (Level5) reached non gamers in Japan is by hiring famous Japanese actors, comedians etc, and using them in the ad campaigns, using the same advertising techniques that are used for animated movies like Dreamworks (in Japan Ghibli has been doing the same thing since the 80's), have been doing, figuring that using famous people would interest people not interested in video games.

    And originally, the Professor Layton series really was conceived as a Brain Training type game, the idea to add a story and high quality cutscenes came to Level5 to differentiate the game, and add value compared to Brain Training, with a star-studded cast to generate interest in non gamers.

  4. That's really interesting about the Japanese ads; thanks for sharing! I'll have to check out YouTube to see if someone has posted them.

    I wish they had put some narrative-focused ads in the US as well, as I think some folks (including myself) would be more apt to play a "brain teaser" game if they knew it was more than a Brain Age rehash.