Sunday, October 23, 2011

Professor Layton and a Gentleman's Patience

Professor Layton and the Last Specter
Platform: Nintendo DS
Developer: Level-5
N.A. Release: October 2011

A stereotypical gamer action that has always annoyed me is the way some will complain about any text and semblance of story building a game, demanding they get back to “the action” as soon as possible. I'm willing to hold some empathy if the game is nothing but bullets and explosions and suddenly wants to derail that for a small Shakespearean performance, but if a game is actually trying to establish a certain atmosphere or depth throughout its course, then its dialogue and recorded contributions are worth more than a spastic mash of the continue button.

Of all things, I thought puzzle games would be safe from this knee-jerk criticism. They're about as cerebral an exercise as you can get on a screen, and if a player is willing to take a hefty number of minutes considering the answer to a puzzle, surely an interesting plot would be worth the time as well.

Note the lack of stoners and dog.
Professor Layton and the Last Specter, as with the other games in the series, loosely frames its puzzles within an overarching mystery that reveals itself in pieces along the way. Kotaku's Stephen Totilo, in a recent “quick impressions” article, expressed his distaste with the way Last Specter establishes its plot:

The problem is that the game opens with long cutscenes, a mistake in handheld gaming that I thought was exclusive to to the PSP and, 17 minutes into my first session, I only found one puzzle. I'm not playing Layton for the story. I want more puzzles, and I wanted them right away.”

I have no ill will toward Mr. Totilo, and his impressions are valid if this is what he felt at the time. However, I would like to offer a gentlemanly counterpoint.

I can clearly see how someone would be frustrated by cutscenes in a portable game if they had, say, limited playtime on the bus. The surge of phone-based games such as Angry Birds cater to this desire for a pick-up-play-and-quickly-stuff experience, and there is certainly no shame in that.

But to say that long cutscenes are a “mistake” for portable games that wish to employ them seems too broad of a statement. There are a great many people who play their DS and PSP at home for long periods of time. Each system possesses both quick-play games and lengthy RPGs that sink time into story. Both kinds receive loyal audiences and there seems to be no reason to decry one over the other.

A cutscene about reading? The horror!
To take the story out of Professor Layton would leave you with little more than an interactive puzzle book. Some people would like this, of course, and there are games out there exactly like that. But I'm not sure many Layton fans would want to see this happen to their series.

There is a unique and extremely charming style—both aesthetically and through its stories and characters—that sets the Layton series apart and helps drive its play. Is it always perfect? It may have a couple dull points, sure, as many stories do. But I doubt the majority of people who enjoy the series would be willing to drop it all to get to the puzzles quicker. It's not like Level-5 is just hacking this stuff up for filler. When your developer is working with the world-renowned Studio Ghibli, perhaps they know what they're doing.

I'm not so conceited to say that the mysteries of Professor Layton would appeal to everyone. That is a matter of personal taste and such criticisms should be respected. But to complain about the mere presence of a story over the actual substance of it, that... well, it causes an ache inside that makes me want to hug a book. Our world becomes increasingly geared toward instant gratification, but sometimes we need an English gentleman to remind us how to savor our moments.

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