Professor Layton and the Unwound Future (PL:UF) is the perfect game to practice the CED story analysis system on. PL:UF features a variety of content including settings, characters, and themes. The gameplay is dynamic in that it has many optional branches and challenges to explore enriching and complicating our analysis of its execution (efficiency, coherence, and pacing). The story is communicated via text, voice acting, still images, and animated sequences, which forces us to understand the pros and cons of various storytelling mediums. And finally PLUF is the final entry in a trilogy giving us the opportunity to see how the series has held up. *Because the game has been out for so long, I will not avoid spoilers.*
Setting. The Professor Layton series have always set their stories in urban areas. Within a city the game has easy access to various people, specialized shops or buildings, parks, sewer systems, transportation systems, and other areas that provide convenient functions. In PL:UF the player travels back and forth between the London of the past and London 10 years in the future. You'll visit restaurants, a hotel, university, a toy shop, Scotland Yard, the Gilded 7 Casino, and the Towering Pagoda in the heart of Chinatown before your adventure is over.
Characters. PL:UF is packed with characters. Over 65, in fact! As you might expect, most are NPCs placed throughout the game to populate the environments, offer information, challenge the player with puzzles, or function as locks preventing progress until certain requirements are met. Layton, Luke, Clive, Claire, Dimitri Allen, and a few other characters are who I consider to be the main characters as their backstory and actions further the plot and develop the themes the most.
Plot. The Professor Layton games are mysteries. And true to the formula or style, the plot consists of an initial catalyst to jump start the investigation followed by a long exposition period where the characters gather clues slowly. In PL:UF , the explosion of the publicly demonstrated time machine along with the disappearance of Dr. Stahngun and Bill Hawks (the prime minister) and a mysterious letter from Future Luke sets off the adventure-mystery through time and space with a bang. From here one clue or hunch leads into another and another until the climax where the mystery is solved and the knowledge gained sets up the final scenes.
Complexity. Contrary to the professor's minimalist countenance, the Professor Layton stories are quite complex. With many locations and characters in PL:UF, there are a lot of details to keep track of. The setting, dialog, the characters, and their actions are all clues that work to build the mystery and the bigger picture. In PL:UF you have to keep the events of London, Future London, and the past London straight in a timeline that often gets updated.
Theme. Love, loss, growing up, moving on, and letting go. Or perhaps more elegantly put, the major theme PL:UF explores is the idea of whether or not time heals the wounds of the heart. In this investigation, the main characters represent different roles. Dimitri Allen cannot let go of his pride, which manifests in his ambition to fix his time machine and bring back a lost love. Clive seeks revenge as a victim of Bill Hawks' greed and the foolishness of ambitious scientists like Claire. Claire embraces her past folly that cost her her life and finds it in her heart to forgive Clive because she had a part in his mad revenge. And the dear Professor Layton has old wounds forced open (metaphorically of course) after he realized that Celeste, the women he has been working with to bring down Clive, was his long-lost love Claire. Letting go of Claire for the second time is perhaps the hardest thing Layton has done in the series. Ambition, dreams for the future, and the origin of character are also explored.
Medium/Style. Like many video games, the Professor Layton series uses a combination of different styles borrowing from other mediums. The core adventure game like navigation, exploration, and NPC interaction is very similar to a play. The backgrounds are static in terms of camera view almost as if the gamer is looking into a stage set. The characters, who are arranged very nearly "on the stage" or "within the frame," all stand with their body language open so that we can see them squarely. The dialog when voiced is delivered in a dramatic fashion and the text coupled with the animated expressions matches this style as well. Also like a play, most of the information is conveyed through dialog. The characters often ask questions out loud and offer explanations very clearly.
Though used sparingly, animated video sequences are used to show action. Where voice acting and dialog wouldn't be sufficient, these cut scenes show the chaos of the explosion as a demonstration goes terribly wrong, the get-away maneuvers of our heroes as they flee a casino, or the quaint moments of a couple on the verge of a happy future together.
And ultimately much of the plot is furthered by player action or gameplay. Navigate through the city and solve puzzles to overcome obstacles and piece together the mystery. Not every action adds up to the solution, but it all adds up to the grand adventure.
The style of genre of the story is a mystery, the general structure of which I've explained above. Traditionally, mystery stories must balance between giving their audience too little information and too much. We don't want the final reveal or twist to come out of nowhere, but we also don't want to deduce or guess the big twist a few minutes in. While non-interactive, linear story telling mediums struggle with this balance as writers aim around their target audience, video games have much more flexibility. Clues and other details can be hidden or locked away behind tasks that require various combinations of skills to overcome. In this way, depending on your curiosity and skill level, content can be revealed to you and not others. Also, if you feel that you're getting too many answers, you always have the option of skipping the optional content and pressing forward through the main plot.
Furthermore, PL:UF presents a very unique case for examining the narrative concepts of (aesthetic) distance and narrators. I'm talking about co-authorship. When you control a video game avatar character you share a mind and body with this character. Some things the character must do or can't do based on the way the developers (authors #1) programmed the game. Other things are left up to the players (authors #2) to emphasise, create, or act out. This potential makes things immensely interesting for a story critic. But in PL:UF's case, you don't control a avatar character directly. Rather your control changes dynamically and contextually. One minute you're solving a puzzle as Professor Layton. The next you're Luke deciding which train to ride. And so on. The result of this narrator repositioning puts the player in the control seat of a 3rd person, limited omniscient co-narrator. In other words, you go where the story goes. You embody the arms and eyes of different characters at different times, but you never fully know what anyone is thinking or feeling. This gameplay freedom coupled with the limited omniscience of the narrator creates a rich platform for a mystery.
The distance frequently shifts throughout the game. For example, late in the game Layton, who is normally under my control, decides to leave the group and do some investigating. At that moment, I was left to wonder what Layton noticed that I didn't. After all, wasn't I just the Professor himself? Later in the story, the professor reveals that he had sorted out a few lingering issues. At these moments I no longer associate myself with the professor because he acted out on his own independent of my observations and actions. This distance is more akin to traditional mystery novels or stories complete like The Murders In the Rue Morgue by Poe. Layton even has the "let me explain everything to you my dear Watson" type dialog scene.
On the other hand, I , the player-narrator-author, am like an invisible character. Through my player choices I solve optional puzzles, have optional conversations with NPCs, and explore optional areas. For the most part, all the clues to solve the mysteries of the game are right in front me of. And seeing how the different characters that I co-author react in various situations only makes me more curious to examine the details and focus on the facts. In the end, the interactivity of the video game medium allows for a flexible, emergent, and layered mystery story that still comes together nicely like a passive, linear story.
Coherence and pacing should be discussed together for PL:UF. First, there are a lot of characters and details to keep track of if you're going to stay on top of the mysteries. Fortunately, the game provides plenty of features to aid players in this area. Players can read the journal, character descriptions, and examine the details of each mystery as they are uncovered. Erring on the side of full disclosure, the details of the core mystery are always explained fully through flash backs animations, still images, and dialogs of questions and answers. And every time you boot up the game, a recap is presented to remind players what's happening in the story. These features went a long way in keeping the me informed across my 17 hour adventure. Without it the twist, reveals, and turns in the plot would have been much more abrupt and confusing. All the tools are provided in-game to help keep the narrative coherent.
Gameplay wise, there are a few gates that can only be passed once the player has solved enough puzzles. These gates set the lower limit of player progression and therefore pacing. Players desiring to speed through the game will race through the 15 chapters (including the prologue and epilogue). Without exploring the optional content some details of the sub-mysteries and parts of the main mystery may be unrevealed. On the other end, players who take their time to explore everything may stretch the dramatic immediacy of the conflict by delving into hours of optional puzzles instead of heading into the climax. So when discussing pacing, we have to consider the full range of variability and how the player is free to adjust it to their liking.
PL:UF stays largely within the gameplay and mystery story formula established in Professor Layton and the Curious Village, the first game in the series. Taking a creative turn for the trilogy, the events and struggles in PL:UF hit much closer to the heart of the main characters. It's not just the mystery that gets uncovered, but the histories, desires, and motivations of our characters (more on this below). Oddly enough, PL:UF takes many of the same creative turns as many movies do for their sequels. Like the Ninja Turtles movies, Rush Hour, The Three Ninjas, and The Fast and the Furious, the characters in PL:UF venture to China, or at least a Chinatown to break up the formula. Another popular tropes is by the 3rd entry in the series, enemies become allies.
As a trilogy, PL:UF maintains a lot of details that strengthens the coherence overall. Flora, the young girl rescued at the end of the first game, finds her way back with the group in the second game only to be captured and whisked away. She appears again in PL:UF and manages to attach herself to the group despite the professor wanting to keep her out of harms way. Like Flora, the relationships involving Chelmey, Barton, and Don Paolo change over time. Even the places the characters reference off hand in previous games are eventually visited down the line. For example, in PL:UF players visit Gressenheller University, the school where Layton teaches, and even meet one of his students. Luke's parent decide to move and take Luke with them, a decision that actually affects Luke's adventures with Layton and his emotions in PL:UF. With so many consistent details across the three games, the world feels real. The characters are more realistic, round, and relatable instead of static, fantasy caricatures.
I don't have the time or the space here to explain every example of harmony in PL:UF and across the trilogy. So, I'll present my favorite example involving the main character, Professor Layton. In the first two games, we learn all about Layton and his steadfast devotion to being a gentleman. It seemed at every turn or so in the plot, Layton corrects and guides Luke's behavior by reminding him of what a true gentleman does. At first, this characterization may seem a bit extreme, comical, and fitting for such an fanciful adventure. But it is only in PL:UF that we find out why Layton looks the way he does, acts like a gentleman, and how his actions harmonize with the theme of the game.
It turns out that Layton's signature hat was given to him by Claire, the love of Layton's life (see video here). In an animated scene (see video above), we learn that it was Claire that asked Layton to keep the hat on because it suits a gentleman like himself. Since Claire's death, we know that Layton's staunch support of gentlemanly conduct is his way of holding on to the past and the future that never was (the unwound future). This reveal harmonizes with Layton's characterization from previous games, but it works particularly well in PL:UF. When advised to remove his hat several times throughout the game, Layton refuses to change his look no matter how dangerous it was. Among all the other characters in PL:UF who's flaws involve dealing with past losses, Layton seemed to be the model of a healthy character. But once we realize that Layton's entire gentlemanly persona is his way of holding onto the past, we see Layton as more flawed and human than ever before. People come. People go. Time passes. Such is life. Losing Claire for the second time at the end of the game reminds Layton of this reality. And after saying goodbye to Luke, the last scene shows of Layton by himself with his hat removed (see video below). Layton is finally healed and moves on with his life. It's funny that it took a visit from Claire from the past to remind Layton of how time truly works.
I teared up. And that's all I need to say.