Touch-a touch-a touch-a touch me, I want to be Ghibli

Any game company would envy the amount of buzz around Professor Layton and the Curious Village for the Nintendo DS. For months, it’s been getting breathless previews from writers who wanted it RIGHT NOW!!!, and since its release it’s gotten extremely positive reviews.

It’s not hard to see why; it’s got stellar production values. You can see from the trailer:

A DS game with painted backgrounds, animated sequences, voice acting; it’d seem like one of those epic old-school adventure games, with a Nintendo-level budget and a Studio Ghibli-inspired art direction applied to it.

But it’s actually even less a standard adventure game than the Phoenix Wright games are. Professor Layton is a collection of riddles and Brain Age-style puzzles loosely connected by painted backgrounds and fully- or partially-animated cutscenes. The 1up review linked above claims that this separation is a refreshing change from standard adventure game puzzles, because it removes all the ambiguity and artifice from the puzzle-solving. But or me, the effect is like watching Castle in the Sky while taking an SAT prep test.

You go through the village, tapping on different things in the background, and Professor Layton will pop up with something like, “That bookshelf reminds me of this old riddle that’s tangentially related to letters,” or “That’s a boat, much like the one in that old puzzle about getting a group of predator and prey animals safely across a river.”

I can’t fault the presentation at all; it’s slick, well-polished, and more clever than you might think at first. When I was presented with the “predator and prey on a raft” puzzle, my first reaction was “Oh great, this one again.” But the interface for the puzzle itself is seamless, even somewhat entertaining. And after the puzzle was finished, a text screen came up acknowledging the “fun fact” that this is an ancient puzzle, and variants on it have been around for thousands of years.

You can see the lack of artifice throughout: yes, they’re puzzles. Get over it. I can definitely see how it’s a shrewd marketing move, considering how hugely popular puzzle games on the DS have been, and how relatively easy it is to drop new puzzles in for sequels and downloadable content. And I can even see how it’s somewhat appealing to have a puzzle presented to you with its own rules screen and interface and a clear indicator if you’re right or wrong. Complete with short segments of the Professor or his apprentice thinking about the puzzle, this game’s equivalent to Phoenix Wright’s “Objection!” screens.

But still, the whole concept behind this game somehow offends me to my core. It just feels like the developers have thrown up their hands at the notion of integrating story and gameplay, and instead offered up the two duct-taped together. It’s a bunch of disparate elements that as well-produced as they are, still don’t work together.

I’d started to get uncomfortable even during the opening sequence: it’s your standard videogame cutscene opening, giving you tons of expository dialog. And like most console games, it requires “interactivity” in that you tap the screen at the end of each line. I always assumed that console games did that to give everyone in the audience a chance to finish reading the line, but here the lines are voiced. So is it some left over interface convention from console games past, or is it a token nod towards interactivity? I’ll admit that it’s fun during the opening cutscenes to wait a long time before tapping for the next line — to make it seem like the Professor has said something inappropriate, and an uncomfortable silence has filled the car. But it’s not “interactivity.”

There are also plenty of sections where there’s only one valid thing to do, but the game still pretends that you’ve got options — every time you try to just explore something, your apprentice pipes up with “Shouldn’t we be headed to the old manor that we just talked about in that long cutscene?” This plagues tons of games, including several that I’ve worked on, so it’d be unfair to point it out as a criticism unique to Professor Layton. The difference here is that that’s not a problem in puzzle games, so it feels like here they’ve just dragged the worst aspects of storytelling games into the mix.

And the puzzles themselves have so far (I’m only about 15 in) bounced around between “really really old” or “impossibly vague”. Some of them are just plain riddles, not requiring that much cleverness. Others are weirdly esoteric, like choosing the “right type of chair” for a multi-purpose stadium (that one’s triggered by clicking on a chair in a store, for some reason). I don’t know if integrating these in the story would make them any more palatable.

But I do know that Professor Layton’s approach hasn’t magically solved the most common complaints about adventure games. Because I’ve just barely started with the game, and I’ve already encountered all of them: the feeling that everything has stopped because I’m stuck on some esoteric aspect of a puzzle, and the sense that I’m battling against the designers who are vaguely and confusingly pointing me in the “right” direction.

What Professor Layton‘s approach does successfully is make it clear that everything you need to solve the puzzle is right in front of you, so there’s no pointless wandering. What it misses out on, though, is the potential for a game’s story to play into the puzzle-solving. While you’re exploring for parts to solve a puzzle, you pick up on the story and characterization. And then that story and characterization can feed into the solution of a well-designed adventure game puzzle: I can understand the answer, because my character thinks about things this way and his obstacle does things that way.

Professor Layton is a solid game, and there’s not much wrong with it, for what it is. It just feels to me like they’ve taken an evolutionary dead-end in game design and applied the highest production values to it. It’s like the world’s most charming and highly-polished passenger pigeon.