The Absurdity Of Layton

A look at the puzzle pieces of Professor Layton and The Diabolical Box.

By: Joseph Leray

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Humor


Professor Layton seems like a kindly man.

He dresses conservatively, his youthful afro converted over the years into a short haircut hidden by an understated tophat. He’s polite and refined and displays an almost infinite patience toward his apprentice, Luke, who’s been at his side for over five years — which seems like an inordinately long time for an internship. There’s something paternal and comforting when the Professor breaks the fourth wall, points directly at me, and triumphantly announces, “Correct!” after I solve one of the myriad puzzles in his game.

Level-5 — the Japanese studio behind the long-running Professor Layton series, now five games strong — trades in a few specific British stereotypes to portray Layton as a respectable, analytical, straight-laced gentleman. His quiet voice and constant reminders to Luke about “proper” gentlemanly behavior, coupled with the game’s vaguely Victorian environments and premises, evoke Winston Churchill’s wit and the stiff upper-lippedness of Keep Calm and Carry On propaganda.

The tea-making and hamster-training mini-games in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, the second in the series, only reinforce the notion that Professor Layton as a franchise is teleologically, inescapably British. The tea game centers around gathering ingredients and brewing the appropriate tea for the various denizens of Dropstone and Folsense, based on their tastes.

The game’s other activity mini-game is funnier: it’s about finding ways to make Luke’s pet hamster lose weight, presumably so it can attend the Rugby School for Hamsters along with Hamster Thomas Arnold.

In other words, stuffy propriety is of the utmost importance in Professor Layton’s world. So why is it that Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box is about lying to people?

In the game’s prologue Layton and Luke visit one Dr. Shrader, who has ostensibly opened the titular box and died. The Diabolical Box is missing, but Layton and Luke find a ticket to board the Molentary Express, en route to the village of Dropstone, later that day, and thus the game’s premise is revealed. The mystery will eventually lead them to a different town, called Folsense, which has the dubious honor of not appearing on any maps and having been totally forgotten by the world at large.

Back in London, the professor and his constant companion begin to gather clues but are interrupted by Inspector Chelmey, who makes an allusive accusation that Professor Layton may be a pedophile. Layton, in turn, tells Luke to pocket all the evidence they’ve gathered and to lie to the police about Shrader’s death.

This is edgy stuff for a kid-friendly game on the most popular platform of one of the game industry’s most conservative companies, but the scene sets the tone for the rest of the game, which isn’t so much about veiled sexual deviance, but is very much about subverting the audience’s expectations. Layton’s willingness to buck Scotland Yard’s authority is interesting insofar as it doesn’t match up with his presentation as a prim and proper British gentleman; the rest of the game does the same more generally.

Puzzle games and mystery stories are inherently about deception. The internal mechanics of each depend on it. The puzzles included in Professor Layton — which run the gamut from obtuse math problem to logic puzzle to spatial awareness tests — all depend on some wordplay or lateral thinking to maneuver around the obvious choice (or lack thereof). At every turn, Professor Layton tells us that all is not what it seems, that there are hidden clues and pathways only revealed when seen from certain angles.

Take the series’ hint system, for example. Hint coins are used to buy — you guessed it! — hints for the game’s various puzzles. These coins are found by thoroughly tapping on different parts of the environment with the DS stylus, itself a riff on item hunt-type puzzles. In Layton’s weird internal logic, window panes and books on shelves, and flower pots may all actually be hint coins once the right conditions are met.

This level of abstraction is needed to work with the game’s mechanics, but a similar sort of hiddenness permeates the rest of the game’s puzzles and narrative. Solving a puzzle in Professor Layton is like seeing the connection between a square and cube for the first time. The unifying theme that couples Professor Layton’s story to its puzzle elements is an overriding willingness to fuck with people, to teach them not to take anything at face value.

All of Layton’s puzzles do this to varying extents, I think, but the clearest example is found relatively late in Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box. Puzzle number 74 is called “PU!”: a greengrocer has put cloves of garlic inside an intricate pot, and they’re stinking up his store. The pot has three holes, each connected to long, twisted, interconnected tubes. The grocer, standing at the bottom of the screen, only has two corks. The puzzle is solved by tracing each pipe and plugging the correct holes to “deal with the smell.”

Except that it’s not — no matter which parts of the garlic-pot you plug, one of the holes is always left open and smell escapes. The puzzle is solved by jamming the two corks in the greengrocer’s nose.

It’s an obvious trick in hindsight, but when I first played the game, I eventually capitulated and consulted an online walkthrough. “PU!” presents itself one way — as a maze-type puzzle — but it actually hinges on the obliqueness of its language. The solution to the puzzle falls outside the boundaries of the puzzle’s presented context. It’s a tiny subversion, but it’s delightful.

It’s worth noting that “PU!” actually takes place in a grocery store in the town of Folsense, the locale for the last, climactic third of the game. It’s a small thing, but Diabolical Box makes a much more concerted effort to contextualize its puzzle elements and embed them somewhat organically in the game’s settings and plot. This is something the first game in the series, Professor Layton and the Curious Village, struggled with.

Diabolical Box still features its fair share of out-of-nowhere puzzles, presented by guileless townsfolk, but some of the best puzzles are matched to the game’s rising action: the first puzzle in the game tasks players with deciphering the map to Dr. Shrader’s office. When the Molentary Express breaks down on the way to Dropstone, players are presented with a block-moving puzzle to sort it out. When the Professor and his constant companion are surreptitiously gassed in their cabin, it’s the players who place each noxious flower throughout the train. Before Layton squares off against Folsense’s vampiric autocrat, players much choose an authentic sword from a line-up of fakes based on the given clues.

Video games generally — and Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box specifically — depend on convincing players that they are real. In BioShock and Dragon Age: Origins, players need to be convinced that they have agency and the power to effect change in the respective game worlds. Layton’s goals are less ambitious but similar: the game’s humor and charm exists in the space between the Professor’s stereotypical Britishness and the goofy fantasy worlds he inhabits.

Professor Layton is funny and endearing because the surreality of a 50-year-old vampire plutocrat in a lost city is viewed through the filter of Layton’s stuffiness: he takes in all in stride, perhaps because it’d be rude or improprietous to comment on how ridiculous it all is. It’s the perfect synthesis of Level-5’s typically Japanese absurdity — or, at least, what Western audiences perceive to be typically Japanese absurdity — through the lens of (again, perhaps stereotypical) British conservatism.

For this tension to be engaging, the game gives us puzzles tied to its narrative in an attempt to make the world feel real. We know it’s real because we can pick up and manipulate abstracted pieces of it to solve puzzles. Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box takes its puzzles seriously as diagetic parts of the gameworld, and its the game’s ability to remain po-faced in the face of absurdity — the antagonist in a story about a killer box is a murderous, vampiric robber baron with a gold mining company? Really? — that establish its tonal center and charm.

Should we be surprised, then, at the game’s big reveal?

Diabolical Box’ plot twist is that the entire second half of the game was an extended hallucination caused by poisonous gases leaking from the extensive system of mineshafts underneath the village of Folsense. The vampire over which Professor Layton triumped in a swordfight is really just an old man. The town of Folsense is in disrepair and long-abandoned, and most of the people the Professor spoke to, solved puzzles for, and drank tea with were all figments of his imagination.

Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box goes out of its way to suggest to its players that the world it portrays is real, or at least internally consistent, only to explicitly show us that it’s all fake in the end. Pricklier critics might argue that Diabolical Box’ plot twist undermines the work the player did to get to that point, but as an elaborate gag, Layton’s long-lasting hallucination seems in keeping with the larger theme of subverting player expectations. In any case, Layton (and the player) ultimately solve the mystery of the Diabolical Box, his extended fever dream notwithstanding.

So, we can add sexual impropriety, hindering a police investigation, and tripping balls to a list of unexpected things found in a children’s Nintendo game.

And in a final parting shot, the player learns that Dr. Shrader, whose death during the game’s prologue set the entire game in motion, was alive the whole time. Of course he was.

Filed Under: Adventure Editorial Humor

About the Author:
Joseph Leray is an associate editor at Destructoid. His work can also be found at Touch Arcade and MTV Multiplayer.

2 Responses to “The Absurdity Of Layton”

  1. Stephen Beirne

    This was a fun read.

    I look forward to the day (that will never arrive) where the world of puzzles Layton inhabits will itself be revealed as an elaborate coma dream. The final game would feature London slowly growing bleak, the puzzles less inspired, as Layton is then resuscitated to the real world, his son Luke long since taken by cot death, his forlorn wife Claire desperate for Layton’s return for reality. Puzzles then take the form of physiotherapy and Layton’s many attempts to return to his fantasy. The game ends with him taking his own life, and epilogue stills of Layton and Luke on their numerous adventures afterwards.

  2. Douglas Scheinberg

    I was actually kind of annoyed at the twist in Diabolical Box; it felt like a cop-out. The one in Unwound Future worked a lot better, if you ask me. It was true to Sherlock Holmes’s maxim: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

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