Sometime after 4 a.m. last night, when I finally forced myself to put down the latest Professor Layton game on Nintendo DS, I started to wonder how it had gripped my sleep-depraved mind so tightly. Why was I so enthralled by the brainy professor’s befuddling mysteries? Why did I get so much pleasure out of the thrill of cracking each riddle, the rush of discovering each tricky solution?
Just what is it about puzzles?
On one level, they are appealing because they make us feel smart. As critic John Teti writes in his review of Professor Layton and the Last Specter, our desire to feel above-average is satiated when we inhabit the resoundingly above-average professor’s mind. Every time we successfully solve a puzzle, we get a jolt of “I’m awesome.”
But mankind’s craving for puzzles goes far deeper than the ego. According to semiotics professor Marcel Danesi, brain-teasers are a pervasive, almost mystical phenomenon that has been a significant part of human culture since our caveman days.
“[Puzzle-solving] is, in a sense, clairvoyance, since it entails perceiving things that are not immediately evident,” Danesi wrote in his book The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life.
“Finding the solution to a difficult puzzle through a ‘flash of insight’ is perceived even today — as it certainly must have been in the ancient world — as mysteriously revelatory,” he wrote.
Puzzles can make an excellent counterbalance to the heavier, philosophical questions that we wrestle with on a daily basis, Danesi writes. Without the satisfaction of solving small mysteries, our minds might go insane from the pressure of the unsolved ones.
“Since there are no definitive answers to the large-scale questions, we are strangely reassured by the answers built into the small-scale ones,” he says.
To quote Professor Layton: “Few things satisfy like a puzzle solved.”
Finding the solution to a difficult puzzle feels something like clairvoyance.
Last Specter, which Nintendo released earlier this month, is the fourth entry in the wildly popular series. Starring the eponymous professor of archeology and his ebullient sidekick Luke, each game places you in a quirky little town filled with quirky little people, all of whom have plenty of puzzles in need of solutions.
There are very few significant changes in Professor Layton and the Last Specter, and most of them are superficial. But an original story isn’t so important, as long as the puzzles stay fresh. There’s a healthy mixture of logical, mathematical and lateral brain-teasers. Though the occasional set of vague directions can sometimes be stumping until you figure out just what the game wants you to do, Professor Layton and the Last Specter masterfully taps into our ravenous addiction for puzzles.
Puzzles aren’t just a hobby in Professor Layton; they are a way of life. They are language and currency, the fabric that holds the game’s world together. Most curiously, puzzles are treated both as rewards and obstacles. Some characters will present the professor with a puzzle as a gift for helping them out; others use puzzles as challenges to test Layton’s resolve. They are both demanding trials and entertaining diversions.
Perhaps this dichotomy is precisely what makes puzzles so appealing. In a world where we constantly look to draw lines between fun and challenge, between punishment and reward, it can be cathartic to experience something that’s all of the above.