What's the Last Letter in the Alphabet?

The New York Times today reviews my new favorite game on the Nintendo DS, Professor Layton and the Curious Village. Greg Zeschuk of BioWare hits the nail on the head:

“I was expecting something pretty thin, but now I find myself sneaking around my house with the DS in my pocket, thinking about puzzles,” Mr. Zeschuk said last week by telephone from Edmonton, Alberta, where BioWare is based. “I never conceived of having puzzles as the focus of a game, but they have done a great job of integrating the puzzles with the story and some pretty wacky characters. It’s this juxtaposition of really well thought-out puzzles, high-level artistry and the engaging story.”

Unlike other puzzle games like Tetris or my latest computer-based time-waster, Chuzzle, Professor Layton has a story tying the puzzles together. It’s not an epic War and Peace kind of story, but it does draw you on into the game. What’s more, the visuals are great. I’m a big fan of Hayao Miyazaki and as the Times mentions, Professor Layton would fit right in at Studio Ghibli. In particular, the combination of turn-of-the-last-century Europe with peculiar mechanical contraptions is straight out of Howl’s Moving Castle. Though I usually end up playing the DS with the sound off, it’s also worth noting that Professor Layton sounds great, too. Like Super Mario Galaxy, it’s clear they put some real attention into the sound of the game. The era of tinny electronic bleeps and bloops is long gone.

It’s interesting that a good third of the Times article is spent in essence defending video games:

In a game the protagonist is you, and if you don’t figure out whatever there is to discover, no one else will do it for you (unless you enlist a friend or look it up online). The very concept of the deus ex machina, the god or godlike solution that miraculously appears to save the day, a concept ingrained into millenniums of traditional media, is completely anathema to interactive storytelling. The whole point of a story’s being interactive, rather than a static narrative merely consumed by the audience, is that the player makes the choices that matter.

With a traditional medium like books or opera, consumers are in no way responsible for anything that happens; the narrative exists wholly outside them. But make bad choices in a game, any game, and the game ends badly.

I was reminded of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter. Among other things, Johnson points out that many games these days are not just more engaging than books, but more mentally demanding as well. Video games are not all about twitch response and eye-hand coordination any more (I’ve never been good at those kinds of games anyway). They can be deep and challenging, too.

Oh, and in Professor Layton, the answer to the question in the title is T.