[Warning: Minor Professor Layton spoilers!]
After speeding through the Japanese versions of Professor Layton and The Unwound Future and The Specter’s Flute last winter, I realized I might have developed a slight addiction to the Professor Layton series. I hadn’t consumed any kind of media that voraciously since the Harry Potter books came out when I was in middle school.
But something about the puzzle-game series was naggingly familiar. I knew that I had felt this engaged in a story before. I had empathized with a bizarre roundup of unique and loveable characters. I had followed through a crazy story where the ending inevitably tugged at my heartstrings only to retie them with an uplifting life lesson.
I looked up at the TV during one of my hours-long Layton sessions with the Unwound Future and saw an ad for the movie Up.
Suddenly, like solving a puzzle for all the Picarats, it clicked. Level 5’s Layton games are just like Pixar’s movies. And, after playing through the Unwound Future, I find this comparison works even better.
1. Believably unbelievable story
Pixar movies and Layton games both have worlds that skim along non-fictional settings closely enough to be relatable to our world while having wildly implausible situations.
For Pixar movies, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Up, and Monsters, Inc. are clearly set in our worlds but have the imaginative fictional flairs of toys being able to feel and speak, fish coordinating a rescue mission, a house taking flight by balloons, and the unknown of what’s in the closet running a highly efficient organization.
For Professor Layton, all of the games clearly take place in an England, or at least in a place that closely matches what other forms of media have told me is England. But the best pieces of Professor Layton plotlines involve something ridiculously impossible. The final towering fortresses Luke and Layton scale don’t exist. The town of Folsense is ludicrously outside the realm of possibility. And I don’t care what materials you have; no one can build flying machines that actually work within five minutes. Also, Hint Coins have never worked for solving any of my life problems.
Cutscenes in the Layton series are bursting with Pixar-quality animation and absurdly adventurous moments. Describing them in text doesn’t do them justice, but if you play through the games, you’ll find they echo the engaging attributes of a Pixar scene.
The Curious Village had a dashing escape during the ending; the Diabolical Box had a fantastic fencing showdown. In the Unwound Future, Layton launches his car off a hill in a Dukes of Hazzard-like chase scene that completely surprised me.
I would’ve loved to have seen my own reaction during those five seconds of hang-time because I know I had a death-grip on my DS. The scenes after that were filled with the tension of wondering what’ll happen next. If that’s not immersion in a game story, I don’t know what is.
2. Charming characters
Pixar characters need no introduction as far as charm and cuteness goes. Admit it: Your heart melted when you first saw the trailer for Wall-E and you probably still smile every time you see Boo from Monsters, Inc.
The Unwound Future really reaffirmed to me how likeable nearly all Layton series characters are. Professor Layton is still a gentlemanly blend of James Bond and MacGyver, but we see his confidence shaken for the first time as the story pokes into his past. Luke is a ridiculously dedicated, sometimes overly upbeat assistant, but he isn’t aggravating (which is saying a lot for a gaming sidekick). The London townspeople are colorful, quirky, and utterly unique in their design. If I went into further description about other characters, I’d be giving away major spoilers.
3. Symbolism and tear-jerking, heart-warming moments
Pixar movies are peppered with heart-warming scenes but are often not without that spike of darkest-before-the-dawn sadness. At this point, it’s almost a culturally accepted norm that Pixar movies will make you tear up (most recenty, Up and Toy Story 3 were notable for this). If you didn’t (you cold-hearted person), then you at least choked up a bit.
In Pixar movies, most protagonists have a distinct trademark that is the foundation of their personality and driving force behind the movie’s saddest moment. Toy Story’s Woody has Andy’s name scribbled on the bottom of his boot. Nemo of Finding Nemo has his “lucky” but underdeveloped fin. Wall-E has his knick-knacks.
Professor Layton has his hat. The hat. The hat that miraculously never leaves his head, even when he’s on the run or fencing. In the Unwound Future, you learn where it comes from, why it's special, and what it means to him. The subplot about the history of Layton’s hat brings the game’s ending to a poignant, Pixar-like point. It’s a very touching ending that for some might pass the final litmus test for a Pixar film — bringing more than a few tears to your eyes.
It’s unfortunate the Layton series hasn’t been more successful finding its spot in the pop culture limelight because it's certainly deserving. Its characters, storylines, and heart-warming moments add up to share another quality Pixar films have: universal appeal.
Now I’m going to up the ante with this list and make a bolder claim than I probably should. Remember all the Tokyo Game Show 2010 hubbub, mostly prompted by Capcom’s Keiji Inafune, about Japanese gaming being dead?
I propose that games like Professor Layton, as well as the other titles Level 5 has worked on and collaborated with other companies (i.e., Dragon Quest 9: Sentinels of the Starry Skies), will be Japan’s future glimmer of hope for success overseas. They have that storytelling key, that broad universal appeal, that inventive Pixar quality — and that stuff sells.
I’m not saying Level 5 will single-handedly bring Japan back to its former 1980s game-developing glory or that they’ll make this happen overnight. But they're certainly on the right track with past projects and the upcoming Ni-no-Kuni, where Level 5 is brilliantly building off what outside countries already know and love about Japanese media: the magic of Hayao Miyazaki’s films.
I agree with Inafune when he says that Level 5 is “forward-looking.” With Akihiro Hino at the helm, Level 5 certainly will be a start in any sort of domestic or international Japanese games revival.
Do you agree with this Layton-Pixar theory? What do you think about Level 5 and the future of games? Is universal appeal in games really all that important?