What's up with Layton's Exploration Mechanic?
Professor Layton is a series of handheld puzzle games that have been killing it with their variety of interesting puzzles and quaint, but sincere artstyle and storytelling since 2007. The games, for the most part, star the titular Professor Hershel Layton: esteemed archeologist, unwavering gentleman, and renowned puzzle enthusiast. He has a companion in the form of Luke Triton: apprentice gentleman and generally bright-eyed young boy. The two of them travel to various mysterious locales, learning about and aiding in the solution of the novel problems and puzzles that the inhabitants face.
In this post, I’d like to examine one mechanic in particular: Layton’s method of exploring an environment. The game shows the player a drawn image of a location, sometimes with a few NPC sprites loitering around, and then the player is given the freedom to tap or click at any given point of interest on the image that they wish. From this search, the player can find puzzles, hint coins, small descriptions of the environment, or even nothing at all. I’d like to explore why the Professor Layton uses this method of exploration in particular and what it adds to the experience of the game.
In a basic sense, this mechanic provides the player with a modicum of agency and engagement. If every new location Layton visited just meant an immediate collection of three hint coins and a list of puzzles to complete, the game would not be capitalizing on its strengths and would be duller for it. Putting the search in the player’s hands makes them feel as if they are doing the investigation, in a way putting them in the polished brown shoes of the famous puzzle-solver himself. The games excel at exuding a certain feeling with the characters and story, and anything that makes the player engage with that more is a positive. At the same time, it gives the player some degree of choice. If they want to, it is entirely within the player’s power to only look for the critical path puzzles and ignore everything else in the game. However, there are side puzzles and other small attractions that are available should the player wish to find them. In these ways, it provides a base level of interaction between the player and the game that gives the player some freedom over the progression.
When considering every possible result of tapping the environment, aside from finding a required, plot-advancing puzzle, it becomes clear that they are meant to pull the player deeper into the experience. I’ll take a look at each possible result in turn.
First of all, there’s the very video-gamey collection of hint coins. Hidden around every location in the game are a few of these collectibles. They serve several purposes. Most obviously, they allow the player to purchase hints for particularly brain-busting puzzles. This is, of course, a helpful and appreciated feature. As with many game collectibles, however, it is also pleasurable simply to find them. I know that I can’t resist scanning the environment for these little buddies, even though I’m sitting on a stockpile of 120 and I doubt the game is going to get that challenging in the future. Therein lies another use for these happy little coins: they make the player pay more attention to what’s around them.
Another common occurrence when tapping the environment is getting a small blurb of Layton or Luke’s thoughts on their surroundings. If the player keeps tapping the same thing, they may even enact a small conversation between them. This engrosses the player in the characters, story, and art all in one fell swoop. And because the player has no way of knowing whether they will find a hint coin, puzzle, or one of these blurbs when tapping around, these small pieces of dialogue and exposition sneak their way into the player’s eyes often. As the player reads these, they grow more and more attached to the characters and story. This makes them want to spend more time in the world, so they search out the hidden and secondary puzzles by combing over the scenery and talking to ancillary NPC’s. As I’m sure you can see, this leads to a vicious cycle of completionism, perplexing puzzles, and charming writing.
These are the ways that the Professor Layton series utilizes the simple act of searching for the next puzzle to engage the player. They put the player in the shoes of Layton and his companions by making them do the searching to begin with. They let the player choose how to conduct their search, whether to be thorough or expedient. If the player elects to be thorough, the optional events they can find all serve to draw them in even more with pleasant character dialogue or the call of completionism. It is important to remember that every part of our game, down to its most basic elements, should serve the greater whole as best it can.