This week, To The Bitter End made its A.V. Club debut with an essay from Patrick Lee about the wacky endings of the Professor Layton games, especially The Curious Village. (You can still find all our old To The Bitter End articles on Gameological 1.0.) LittleMac—during a rare break from chasing bicycles in Battery Park, I’m sure—praised the narrative formula of the Layton games:
First, there’s the mystery structure observed in Patrick’s article: You start out with something bizarre happening and some potential fantastical explanation. Then Layton proves that the fantastical explanation is wrong by revealing that there’s an even more absurd explanation for what’s going on. (“Don’t be silly, there’s no such thing as vampires! We’re just all having a collective hallucination caused by a toxic gas being released from the mines below this abandoned town!”)
The emotional part of the formula is the most notable part to me, though. After a lengthy, whimsical, thoroughly English detective story, every Layton narrative makes a sharp turn at the end to become an emotionally devastating tale about the importance of learning to deal with loss. Even the more action-filled Layton animated movie wraps up with the tear-jerking reveal that one of the villain’s accomplices was motivated by his inability to recover from the death of his young daughter. So you have crazy ancient ruins and mechanical monsters running around—but against the backdrop of a father’s anguished cry that he doesn’t want to learn how to go on with his life because that means letting go of his lost loved one.
For Unexpected Dave, the Layton games succeed despite breaking from the formula for a “good” story-based puzzle game:
I always appreciated that the Layton games save their nastiest puzzles for the bonus section. Nothing ruins a story-based game more than having progress halted by a particularly hard puzzle or challenge. I’ve said before that in narrative-based adventure and puzzle games, the act of solving puzzles should drive the story forward rather than grinding it to a halt. The Layton games mostly fit that latter case. The puzzles don’t tell the story; the puzzles delay the story. The story is mostly told through non-interactive cutscenes. The player’s role is to go through the motions of guiding Layton from place to place and solving the arbitrary puzzles in his way. Curious Village offered an explanation as to why everyone around the professor was so obsessed with puzzles (they’re robots), but the human characters in its sequels behave the same way without pretense.
But the game succeeds in spite of all that. The puzzles may be arbitrary, but they’re still fun. The generous hint system ensures the player won’t get stuck for very long. They don’t so much grind the story to a halt as they help break up the pace. And as Patrick noted, the story is always delightfully insane enough to justify its existence. It’s not just a framing device for puzzle-delivery. The story and puzzles are two mostly discrete elements, but they still work well together.
And DL related a love of Professor Layton And The Diabolical Box to a real-life love of train travel:
Trains always excite a sense of romance in me, and I have dragged my wife on a number of trains, simply for the experience. There’s almost always something interesting passing by, calling me, and the inability to stop and investigate only adds to the mystery. It’s what I liked about Professor Layton; you’re always “passing by” these little games/puzzles, never to be seen again (puzzle styles repeat but not the individual challenges), and the people you meet only have so much to provide. Even though they are often interesting enough characters to want to know more about them, you must move on. They quickly pass across your view like a steeple popping above the trees.
Jake Muncy shared his thoughts on Ivy Games’ astrological afterlife adventure Gravity Ghost this week. In the comments, Fluka gave another reading of some of the game’s finer points, particularly its hands-off approach to controls and surprisingly grim story:
I’ve been playing this in my spare time, and I’m enjoying it quite a bit. The colorful art and music are lovely, especially the Ben Prunty music. The level goals are all simple but borderline poetic: collect flowers and stars, grow your hair, terraform planets, reunite the souls of animals with their skeletons. That last one is particularly sweet, as the animal spirit then flies off into the space in a spray of flowers.
I think it’s best appreciated as an ambient poem rather than a story-driven puzzle-platformer. There’s an element of “just winging it” to a lot of the levels. I mean, sure, you could sit down and plan out the Newtonian dynamics, but it works equally well just to go flying wildly through the air, playing with gravity, crashing through glass planets, etc. Terraforming isn’t a particularly deep puzzle mechanic, but I’ve sometimes terraformed planets as water simply because the “aquarium” planets are so beautiful.
The only part that has really jarred me is the narrative interludes, where the voice acting and sense of humor feel strangely glib. However, I also realized that if I were a 10-year-old kid, I would absolutely love the tone. So basically, this is a lovely, relaxing game for an adult, but it might be best appreciated by sharing it with one’s (theoretical) children.
Our contribution to The A.V. Club’s Love Week looked to the cheesy, strange romantic outings of Final Fantasy for potential Valentine’s date ideas. As expected, the commenters had plenty more suggestions. Any attempt to explain a Final Fantasy plot point using plain English is hilarious, so the lengthy discussion on this Inventory is dang funny throughout. We picked out a few highlights, starting with Doctor Acula:
The most romantic part of Final Fantasy VII is obviously when you challenge some manly men to a squat contest in order to get a wig so you can cross-dress and seduce a mafia don.
Asbo Zappruder had an FF8 suggestion for school-age lovebirds:
Fight a t-rex so you can get to your school’s make-out spot.
Close-watcher reminded us that the pick from FF6 could have been even more tragic:
You made a good pick from FF6 because I thought the suggestion was going to be “Throw yourself from a cliff in hope of joining your true love in the afterlife.”
And Supernaut—well, Supernaut went in a different direction:
Dear Savage Love,
My girlfriend will only have sex if we include her anthropomorphized cactus. How do I tell her I’d like to just keep it vanilla once in a while?
Won’t Actually Keep Kimahri Alive
And that does it. As always, thanks for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!