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.