Have you ever found yourself seething at a puzzle blocking your path to a boss, or a power-up, or the next scene in a game’s story?

All too often, puzzles are used as mandatory filler content in games, forcing players to take it slow to stop them from finishing a game too quickly, or supposedly adding difficulty to the game that does not really contribute to the game’s story in any meaningful way.

But puzzles don’t need to be relegated to the role of mere obstacles or gameplay exercises in video games. In fact, making a game about puzzle-solving in all aspects of the word highlights just how much better a game can be when it makes every task a player has to perform an essential part of its storytelling and world. So if you’re interested in cracking the riddle of puzzle-solving games with me, then read on.

The series of games I would like to discuss today is the Professor Layton series, produced by Level 5. The series generally revolves around the adventures of the titular Professor Layton, a gentlemanly detective who travels the world and solves extremely taxing cases that no one else can even begin to think about solving. The two Layton games I will be analyzing are Professor Layton and the Unwound Future, the third game in the series, and Professor Layton and the Miracle Mask, the fifth game.

Synopsis: Unwound Future and Miracle Mask

Before going any further, I’d like to give a pertinent summary of the events in the story of each game, not only in order to further my analysis of the puzzles involved in completing them, but also to give you an idea of what this series is all about as an adventure, point-and-click, visual-novel-type adventure.

*A gentlemanly warning: Spoilers to follow for the Professor Layton series*

Starting with Unwound Future, the story begins when Layton and his young apprentice, Luke Triton, witness a demonstration of an apparently fully-functioning time machine built by a certain Dr. Alain Stahngun, an expert in this new field. However, when the experiment goes awry, causing Stahngun to disappear along with the prime minister, and Layton and Luke receive a letter from Luke ten years in the future asking them for help, the two decide to embark on a time-travel adventure to unravel the cause of this mysterious disappearance and the apparent reality of a time machine being used in present-day London.

It turns out that, in the future, Layton has become the head of a mafia-like mob known as the Family and has taken control of London. Our present-day Layton immediately agrees to assist Future Luke in taking this villain down, and our journey through a futuristic steampunk London set ten years in the future begins. It is eventually revealed that this mysterious Future Layton is Dr. Stahngun himself, who worked with the prime minister to build a time machine ten years ago, an endeavor that ended in failure and cost the life of Layton’s girlfriend, Claire. As a result, Stahngun decided to keep working on a time machine so that he could go back and save Claire’s life, since he also had feelings for her.

And the story doesn’t end there. Upon further investigation throughout the game, it turns out that the group is not actually in future London, but rather in a giant pseudo-replica of the city built underground. The real mastermind, it turns out, is a boy called Clive, who posed as Future Luke to lure the group in as he sought revenge against Stahngun and the prime minister for creating the time machine that ultimately exploded and not only killed Claire, but also his parents. Clive reveals that he kidnapped the two scientists in order to help him construct a giant moving fortress that he will use to destroy London.

In a dramatic sequence of events, Layton and his friends infiltrate the fortress and manage to shut it down, freeing the prime minister from a gigantic bomb attached to the structure. After everyone is saved, it turns out that one of the girls helping Layton, who claimed to be Celeste, Claire’s younger sister, is actually Claire herself—or rather, a fading remnant of Claire’s consciousness that was actually transported into the future and is rapidly dying away.

At the end of the game, Layton finally bids farewell to Claire and comes to terms with his loss. Claire returns to the time of the time machine explosion ten years ago, and the story comes to a close. It is a highly emotional goodbye that really hits the player hard because they have empathized so heavily with Layton throughout the story (for puzzle-related reasons we will discuss shortly!).

Claire saying goodbye to Layton at the end of Unwound Future.

The second title I will be discussing, Miracle Mask, has an equally as complicated and moving story with multiple characters, moving parts, and plenty of drama. Eighteen years prior to the start of the story, a young Hershel Layton is introduced to the field of archaeology by his good friend Randall Ascot, who is a passionate and devoted young talent in the field. Randall had been investigating an ancient artifact called the Mask of Chaos, which he believes could be a remnant from an ancient civilization known as the Azrans. Intrigued, Layton heads off with Randall on an expedition to search for hidden treasure; however, along the way, a sudden trap causes Randall to fall to his death, and Layton is left alone.

Eighteen years later, now in the present day of the game’s story, Layton is contacted by his old friend Angela Ledore, who was Randall’s girlfriend before he died. Since Randall’s death, Angela has married Randall’s butler and surrogate brother, Henry, and had worked with him to turn an arid desert into a thriving city called Monte d’Or. The success of this town is attributed to the Mask of Chaos, which Henry found while searching for Randall in the ruins. Recently, however, the Mask was stolen by a mysterious figure called the Masked Gentleman, who runs around flaunting the Mask of Chaos.

Layton, Luke, and Emmy, their good friend and fellow detective, set off to Monte d’Or to solve this mystery. Upon arriving, they witness a series of miracles that the Masked Gentleman appears to be performing, such as turning a crowd of citizens into stone or making them all disappear.

It is eventually revealed, after much investigation and a series of false accusations, that Randall himself is actually the Masked Gentleman. After Randall fell into the chasm eighteen years ago, he survived by being caught in a river. Despite suffering extreme amnesia afterwards, he was cared for by a local village, which he also helped to thrive and prosper. Years after this incident, he received an anonymous letter stating that he had been betrayed by Henry, who had purportedly stolen his fortune and his girlfriend. Enraged by this news, Randall decided to steal the Mask of Chaos and wreak havoc in Monte d’Or, the city that Henry built using Randall’s money.

Randall and the Mask of Chaos.

Upon revealing himself, Randall starts to destroy the city by flooding it with sand. However, Layton and Angela manage to solve the riddle of the hidden Azran vault underneath the town, lifting it upwards to safety in the process. It turns out that Henry had not stolen Randall’s girlfriend and money: rather, he had organized a fake marriage with her so they could wait for Randall’s return. Moreover, Henry had used Randall’s money to send search parties for him. The city was created because of the success of one of its inns where prospective explorers could come to help find Randall.

And the story’s still not over! Angela’s true identity is revealed to be that of Jean Descole, Layton’s main rival, who had intended to let Layton find the Azran vault underneath Monte d’Or and then use the find for his own gain. Confronted by his enemies and out of options, Descole immediately flees, and Layton and company set off back home.

Authentic Gameplay: How Real Puzzles Create Immersion

Each of these two games entails an epic adventure with many mysteries to be solved and a wide range of diverse and interesting characters, each with their own distinct personality. Just experiencing these epic plots unfold is an emotional journey in and of itself; however, the real magic is the way in which the puzzle-solving mechanics of each game create an incredible sense of immersion in the games’ narratives and worlds, as well as a sense of empathy and identification with all of the main characters.

The way gameplay actually works in these games is very much akin to a point-and-click adventure game. The player navigates the game’s world through still images of locations, which they can click on to interact with characters, find hidden puzzles, and obtain collectibles.

In order to learn more about the world and progress through the game, the player must solve puzzles constantly, relying on their intelligence and wits to get them through tough situations. Certain parts of the story have puzzles tied to specific events, while others impose a lock on the plot until a certain quota of puzzles has been solved.

Solving puzzles forms the key interactive gameplay of this series, and they are what make these games truly shine. The puzzles themselves are brainteasers of many different varieties, including visual, math, and logic puzzles. In Miracle Mask, puzzles involving 3D graphics and the 3DS’ gyroscope feature were also added in order to expand the repertoire of available puzzle-solving techniques. A picture showing all of the types of puzzle is shown below:

Puzzles by type in the Professor Layton series.

As can be seen, there are a lot of different varieties, so the game definitely doesn’t just get by by reproducing the same content ad infinitum. Rather, it innovates on previous puzzle frameworks to create new and interesting problems each time you come to tackle a new brain-teaser. When the player actually starts solving a puzzle, they are taken to the following screen:

The standard puzzle-solving layout in a Professor Layton game. Note that both screens of the DS/3DS screen are used to give information about the puzzle and give the player room to experiment with it, jot down notes, etc.

Puzzle information is displayed on the top screen of the device and then the interactive puzzle, with a memo-pad included, is displayed on the bottom. The fact that the games can be played on DS/3DS is a perfect way to make the player feel immersed in the game: they feel as if they really were experiencing and acting in the narrative as the avatar.

They feel as if they are literally writing down notes in a detective’s notebook when solving riddles. Taking notes and moving around shapes makes them feel like they are physically making progress towards sorting out a difficult conundrum, and thus involves them much more in the experience than they would be if they were just passively staring at the screen. This is the first way that the Professor Layton games are great at bringing their world into your world: by giving you the tools that a real detective would use to solve puzzles in the form of your game console.

The player also always solves a puzzle in the role of a character. For example, Luke might be having a conversation with Layton, who might then challenge him (and, by extension, the player) to become a better detective by tackling a particularly taxing brainteaser; or, the main villain of the story might give Layton himself (and, by extension, the player a riddle in order to stall for time and make a getaway.

In each case, the player is made to feel like they are one of the protagonists, solving a puzzle with a specific purpose. If they play as Luke, they feel like they really are improving as a detective each time the satisfying “you got the puzzle correct” jingle starts to play; if they play as Layton, they feel like a true detective, with the quick wits and intelligence needed to surmount any challenge.

Not only does the player solve puzzles in coordination with the motives or challenges of a specific character, but one of the main characters also comes to congratulate them personally for solving the puzzle once they enter a correct answer—or, on the other hand, to express their disappointment if they got it wrong.

Layton congratulates the player on their success.

Someone isn’t going to be Layton’s next apprentice at this rate!

These reactions add a personal and emotional touch to the otherwise impersonal mechanic of evaluating the correctness of the player’s solutions. After getting over a hundred confirmations of my craftiness from Layton himself, I felt like a true detective upon finishing each game. In a broader sense, puzzles are the glue that holds together a detective story like the Layton games. Thus, being able to solve puzzles interactively, in a way that involves you more intimately with the game’s protagonists, really draws players into the emotional content of the story. It makes them feel as if their in-game actions really matter to the narrative, as opposed to games in which puzzles are just idle challenges to complete in between the game’s narrative elements.

How to Build a World Out of Puzzles

Speaking of puzzles forming a key part of the narrative, one might expect the majority of puzzles to be related to the plot, like they are in many other big-name titles. And sure, there are the occasional momentous puzzle-solving occasions, like when Layton must infiltrate Clive’s giant fortress patrolled by security bots in Unwound Future by solving an interactive puzzle (shown in Fig 6), or solve the riddle of the Azran legacy in Monte d’Or with some puzzles involving ancient Azran technology right at the very end of Miracle Mask. However, the majority of puzzles are merely random riddles that cover an enormous variety of topics.

Solving a tricky puzzle to reach the generator room in Clive’s fortress.

Unlike most mainstream video games, Professor Layton is all about random riddles rather than main story events. Although this may at first seem like a detractor to the player’s psychological and emotional involvement in the events of the story, I would actually argue the opposite: this mechanic brings to life even more successfully the worlds of “future” London and Monte d’Or.

The fact that the majority of the puzzles in these games are not part of the main plot makes them feel like a much more natural and cohesive part of a world that is run by puzzles. This is not some alternate universe where puzzles are a fun pastime for all; rather, it is a world in which pretty much every key decision can be made based on one’s ability to solve puzzles correctly. This is emphasized by the complete contrast between the epic scale of the plots of each game and the seemingly trivial nature of the puzzles: clearly for the game to put such a big focus on puzzles in the context of these epic plots, they must be pretty important to the fabric of the world and its society!

Whereas puzzles are typically a diversion or abstract mental exercise in the real world, they represent the ordinary business of life in Professor Layton’s world.

As a result of this, the player is made to feel like a part of the living, breathing fabric of this world by constantly solving puzzles within it in order to achieve their goals. Moreover, the simplicity of these puzzles makes players feel like they are much more manageable, rather than some ridiculous situation that only an overpowered video game protagonist could overcome. We can never truly identify with such an overpowered protagonist, but we can identify with a detective who solves puzzles that the rest of us can really solve; thus, we are much more likely to see ourselves as an authentic part of Layton’s team.

Moreover, the fact that puzzles are a natural part of the worlds of Unwound Future and Miracle Mask is very important in and of itself. Compared to most modern video games where one’s goals are accomplished through fighting, war, and strife, in these two games everything—and I mean everything—can be resolved peacefully through a battle of wits and intelligence. In effect, these two games are showing us a world in which rationality triumphs over all, and, as such, they demonstrate how successful such a world can be in engaging players.

Procedurally speaking, all the player does is solve random puzzles for 20+ hours, but within the context of the fiction, the player is solving the most pertinent crises of the world through a combination of intelligence and quick wit—and they feel great about it, too, since they are not just moving down innocent grunts with a sword or a gun at every turn, a paradigm that many gamers have gotten used to. The peacefulness with which Layton conducts his business throughout these stories further contributes to his character development as the archetypal gentleman: one who will never resort to violence or conflict if it is unnecessary. As the player comes to identify with Layton throughout their playthroughs of the two games, they too, in turn, start to feel like a true gentleman detective as well. And this is not in the gendered sense referring only to men: everyone who plays this game ends up feeling like an awesome Sherlock-Holmes-esque badass, albeit with an even better British accent.

Puzzles Can Tell Stories, Too!

These two Professor Layton games show us just how effectively puzzle-solving can be used to enhance a player’s psychological and emotional investment in a video-game story, in a most unconventional sense. The player truly inhabits a world where puzzles reign supreme, and thus, through the act of puzzle-solving, they become attached to the characters, their situations, and the fate of the society they are trying to save. The thoroughgoing narrative significance of these puzzles exposes just how little puzzle-solving contributes to the storytelling of many other games—and how much more compelling those other games would be if they better wedded their narrative to their puzzle gameplay.

Although these games might outwardly appear simple, that could not be further from the truth. You will experience moments of joy, frustration, confusion and more as you play this game, similar to what the protagonists experience as the plot progresses, and will ultimately feel ready to take on any challenges in your own life, just like Layton himself. As the Professor himself once said, “Whenever I see a puzzle, Luke, I can’t help but take action!” This is exactly how the player feels during their time with the game, and is how puzzle-solving should be executed in all games that seek to fully realize the potential of the puzzle.

Layton wants you to play the games and experience their majestic puzzle mechanics to the very fullest!

Kent Vainio

Kent Vainio - Video Game Analyst

Kent Vainio studies computer science and Japanese. He's especially interested in the intersection of video game storytelling and human psychology.  Learn more here.

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