Professor Layton Cracks the Case of Video Game Anime

Solve the mystery of turning a puzzle into an engaging story

Anime based on video games are tough to get right. Putting aside visual novels, these adaptations have by-and-large paled in comparison to their source material. Why is this, and what can creators do to better translate games into animation? With the advent of Layton Mystery Tanteisha: Katri no Nazotoki File, a good point of reference is its predecessor that set a gold-standard for video game anime: Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva.



Before delving into how the film faithfully integrates puzzles into its narrative, we must first explore where adaptations of games have commonly faltered. The main problem point for these anime is that they try to directly translate a game’s story directly to the screen. Given their length, games tend to either have very simple stories that serve as a backdrop for gameplay or hyper-intricate ones that are given room to breathe across dozens or even hundreds of hours. Further, interactive storytelling doesn’t always translate well into a medium that you consume passively. Player agency and choice are inseparable from how games tell their stories yet--again given the passive nature of the medium-- are impossible to replicate in anime.


Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva avoids these mistakes by always putting being a film first. Instead of directly adapting one of the games, the film opts for an entirely new story. It’s less grand in scale than Layton and Luke’s game-length adventures but maintains all the quirk and fantastical mystery that made them pop. The film’s set-up is straightforward: the duo gets roped into a death game wherein they and other guests aboard a ship must correctly solve environmental puzzles or “lose their lives.” Each discovery leads directly into the next in linear fashion as opposed to the winding nature of the games; there’s no backtracking to be found here, only forward momentum that makes the most of the film’s run time and keeps the viewer locked into its pace.



Of course, at the same time you can’t have Professor Layton without puzzles. Not only are they the franchise’s backbone but being a brilliant puzzle-solver is one of the professor’s key character traits. The issue is that a passive medium where the characters need to find the solutions themselves goes against the nature of puzzles. Puzzles are traditionally things that you sit down and contemplate as you rack your brain for answers, and in anime if you halt the pace for this then you risk losing the viewer’s attention. Yet having the characters solve puzzles without giving viewers the opportunity to do the same undermines their inclusion and can be a turn-off in its own right. But again, you can’t have Professor Layton without puzzles so finding a way to cleverly integrate them was a must if this film was to be successful at its goals.


Let me walk you through one of the film’s puzzles that shows how it overcomes this hurdle. The scenario: our characters are tasked with finding the largest crown on an opera-house-turned-ship (just roll with it). The halls are lined with royal crowns on display, though by this point the viewer is conditioned to recognize these as red herrings. One solution to the puzzle given by a supporting character is the large crown-shaped sign hanging over the opera house entrance. The main characters seemingly begin to head in its direction until it’s revealed that Layton is leading his crew elsewhere. They end up on the boat’s deck where the squad board lifeboats and view the ship from afar, revealing its royal shape. With each step the film guides the viewer’s logic, never spelling the solution out for them until the final reveal.



Now you may be asking how the viewer is supposed to know that the ship looks like a crown before it’s shown. The answer is actually telegraphed to the viewer in multiple subtle ways well before the puzzle begins. When the opera house transforms into a ship, the bands of a crown arch over it from an angle obscured to the viewer. Further, if that proves too obtuse, viewers that remember the name of the ship—The Crown Petone—will also be able connect the dots. During the midst of the characters solving the puzzle these things are never mentioned so that people watching who want to be involved in the solving process aren’t spoiled. Meanwhile, those who can’t figure it out or simply don’t want to are kept engaged because the film continues to be a film during this stretch, which is to say that the characters are constantly in movement, espousing their logic as it comes to them and constantly pushing the plot along. Even the solution acts as forward plot momentum with the characters using the boats to set off to their next destination.


Puzzles also serve to emphasize character development. Earlier I mentioned a character that proclaimed the puzzle solution to be the sign at the theater entrance. Well, in actuality it turns out that he figured out to board the lifeboats himself and was underhandedly misleading less-savvy guests to the wrong location. His self-serving personality is thus revealed through the way he interacted with the puzzle. Giving the integration of the source material’s gameplay elements multiple narrative purposes is the most crucial way the film manages to make puzzles fit naturally into its cinematic framework.



Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva is a successful video game anime because it tells a story fitting of a film while remaining faithful to the source material’s bread-and-butter gameplay. It understands the core principles of what makes games and films work, cleverly meshing these two concepts together. If Layton Mystery Tanteisha: Katri no Nazotoki File can apply these lessons to the adventures of Layton’s daughter then you can be sure it’ll be a puzzle worth solving!


You can find Tim Rattray on Twitter @thoughtmotion and his blog is Thoughts That Move.

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