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Professor Layton And The Curious Village & Yann Tiersen’s Le Phare

The gentleman detective gets the orchestration he deserves.

By Derrick Sanskrit • May 17, 2012

Video game music can be great, but sometimes it’s fun to pair your wine with some different cheese. In Alternate Soundtrack, Derrick Sanskrit matches a video game with an album that enhances the experience.

The game: Professor Layton And The Curious Village (Nintendo DS, 2008)
The alternate soundtrack: Yann Tiersen, Le Phare (1998)

Professor Herschel Layton—the sleuthing hero of the Professor Layton series on the Nintendo DS—is the archetype of the British Gentleman, an idealized icon of a time and place that exist largely in classic cinema and detective novels. He is always courteous and polite, even to people who stand in his way or threaten him. There is an air of superiority about his pixelated frame without the slightest hint of smugness. He is Indiana Jones without all the sweat and stubble, Batman without all the grimacing and brooding, Sherlock Holmes without all the drugs and—well, just without the drugs, pretty much. 

There’s no getting around it, Layton is a thoroughly Western hero. Compounding the matter, for a game from a Japanese developer about an English gentlemen set in and around London, there is something distinctly Parisian about the gestalt of the Professor Layton games. The village locals that live in the series’ lush, lively landscapes appear to have walked out of The Triplets Of Belleville. This world could be a Saturday morning cartoon designed by Toulouse-Lautrec, if Toulouse-Latrec were obsessed with sudoku and hedge mazes.

Despite their humble appearance and tightly contained settings, the Professor’s adventures on the Nintendo DS are rather grandiose. This is a series that, so far, has seen the gentlemen adventurer and his boy sidekick, Luke, cross paths with vampires, time travelers, witches, curses, artificial intelligence, and mystical spirits (many—though not necessarily all—of which have been disproved by Layton’s logic as hoaxes). The series is rooted in the romance of mankind versus the mystery of the unknown. Professor Layton deserves more than the tinny squeals of a synthesized accordion and 8-bit harpsichord. A proper gentleman ought to have proper orchestration.

Enter Yann Tiersen. The French musician, raised on Joy Division and The Stooges, rose to fame when he compiled the soundtrack to Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie in 2001. The score contrasted the stuffiness of a classical French orchestra against a spirit of whimsy and youthful experimentation. There were toy pianos and typewriter clicks! There were bicycle gears keeping rhythm! The graceful sense of wonder worked for the film, which itself blended the accepted standards of day-to-day social life in France with the quirk and intrigue of an outsider.

Of course, the Amélie soundtrack was not entirely original. Much of it was lifted from Tiersen’s previous solo recordings, most notably 1998’s Le Phare. Tiersen also rejected the label of “composer,” as he had no experience with classical music and approached his own compositions from a modified “punk” point of view (Yann frequently shifts between piano, violin, and electric guitar in live shows). Tiersen’s discography may not fit the conventional conception of “popular” music, but his audience embraces him for it. The man played Coachella two years ago, and there’s a good chance he’s on NPR’s ”All Songs Considered” right now, sandwiched between Esperanza Spalding and Arcade Fire.

In other words, Yann Tiersen is a rebel accepted as a gentleman. Herschel Layton is a gentleman accepted as a rebel. The two belong together. They both answer unconventional problems with brilliant solutions distilled from mundane modernity. And they both, despite ever-rising prominence, derive their personal aesthetic strictly from the nonspecific recent past.

Thus the pairing of Le Phare with Professor Layton And The Curious Village, the Professor’s first published adventure. A gruff rock guitar and the shrieks of a tightly stretched violin on the album’s “La Crise” underscore the unrest of St. Mystere, the titular village. And the charming playfulness of “Le Quartier” envelops the audience, settling them into a comfortable lull before the action picks up and the snare drums snap the universe back to attention.

In a perfect world where money and technical limitations didn’t matter, we’d have beautifully hand-animated Professor Layton games with full, original orchestral scores by Yann Tiersen. Until that day, I’ll keep my DS volume low and my stereo volume high.

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729 Responses to “Professor Layton And The Curious Village & Yann Tiersen’s Le Phare

  1. caspiancomic says:

    Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa, I certainly hope you’re not intending to imply that Professor Layton’s soundtracks are in need of improving. I simply won’t have it.

    Seriously though, this is a pretty great idea for a feature. I have a lot to say about the Professor Layton series, all of it good, but I’ll try not to bend everyone’s ear in my usual fashion. Except maybe to wonder aloud exactly when the Layton series is set. Everyone dresses like it’s the nineteenth century, travel by train is popular, aristocrats live in mansions, etc. But at the same time there are robots indistinguishable from humans with advanced artificial intelligence, functioning time machines, top hats remain fashionable, etc etc. Head-spinning stuff.

    Ah, one more thing: the article mentions that Layton rolls into town to reveal the plot-driving superstitions as hoaxes, which is of course absolutely true. But one of the things I love about the series is that the original paranormal or otherwise wildly unlikely hypothesis about just what’s going on in the plot department always gives way to an even more ludicrous explanation. Most stories that pit a rational hero against his superstitious contemporaries reveal that there’s a sensible explanation for the mysterious goings-on of the story, but whenever Layton’s in town the third act reveal is always of something more outrageous than the claim he set out to debunk.

    Looking forward to seeing more from this series. Off the top of my head, some games lend themselves exceptionally well to soundtrack updates: the “youth culture forever!!” attitude of Jet Set Radio would be nicely complemented by the bombastic musical stylings of The Go! Team, for example. I guess the trick to a good entry into this category would be to find games that are full to bursting with personality. I’m greatly anticipating seeing what’s next.

    • NFET says:

      “Whenever Layton’s in town the third act reveal is always of something more outrageous than the claim he set out to debunk.” I love this aspect of the Layton games too. And of course no one cares about the ridiculousness of it all.

      Have you seen the animated movie? It’s especially awesome in that regard.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Heeeeell yes I’ve seen the movie! I was hoping against hope for a theatrical release here, which seemed unlikely without being impossible. (The Rebuild of Evangelion films get limited releases! Why not Layton?) I was thrilled that it got an English voiceover with the official voice actors and everything for Europe, though. (although with England’s Luke, but whatevs) Man, I’m always panicked about how much Layton we’re going to continue to get in North America. They always take ages to translate, and they can’t be huge cash cows for Level 5. Although they’ve opened up an American branch now, so hopefully we’ll start to see the pace of releases picked up a bit. There are already, what, six in Japan?

        The new Layton game is probably what’s going to prompt me to take the plunge into 3DS ownership.

        •  The new Layton, the Layton vs. Phoenix Wright, or Virtue’s Last Reward. Whichever one of those hits first will break me. I keep hoping for a hardware redesign before that happens.

    • asbo_zappruder says:

      Hear hear!  The Layton games have terrific soundtracks. And if you’re that desperate for orchestrated music, look here:

      Also, count me in as someone who loves the insane endings. Or Layton’s moments of general awesomeness: throwing together a glider, slot machine gun or any sword fight.

      I did worry about his judgment in the animated movie. When you’re going against the bad guy, and you have a guy who can out-swim sharks and a woman who kicked a mind-controlled wolf in the face, why would you say, “I’m taking the 10-year-old kid”?

  2. NFET says:

    Oh my God the Professor Layton games. I love them so much. Thank God they’re keeping a steady stream of them, because I can’t rely on Ace Attorney anymore for my Adventure game fix. Speaking of, is there a US release date for the crossover yet?

    • Girard says:

       Layton games definitely feel more ‘puzzle gamey’ than ‘adventure gamey’ to me. They’re fun and all, but when I play them, I feel like I’m working through a book someone assembled by stitching together alternating pages of a brain-teaser book and a Victorian mystery novel.

      This is a stark contrast from the Phoenix Wright games, in which the puzzles are integral to the plot. I wouldn’t say one model is objectively better (I personally prefer the Wright games), but they’re very different types of game.

      • LimeadeYouth says:

        I definitely agree Layton falls squarely in the puzzle category and can seem like a Penny Press Variety pack with a plot and better graphics/music. I was actually mildly disappointed with the Unwound Future because some of the puzzling was comparatively simple. But such is being an adult playing video games sometimes.

      • caspiancomic says:

         Yeah, Layton games have a sprinkling of Adventure game tropes throughout, but they’re largely puzzles strung together by plot. If anything, I’d say they’re half puzzle, half visual novel.

        ALL GREAT.

  3. Citric says:

    I was kind of hoping for something that would appreciate game music itself. I say this as someone who has become a fan of Kota Hoshino’s Armored Core soundtracks recently, and has generally found much joy in game soundtracks. 

    In this context, I can’t hear REM’s Out of Time without thinking about Carmageddon. 

    • caspiancomic says:

       Yeah, this feature is super groovy and all, but hopefully somewhere in Gameological’s rich long future there’ll be a feature celebrating game music itself in some way. I mean, I think a feature just saying “this game makes the good tunez!” is a little beneath the site’s capabilities, but maybe something about games where the music is used creatively in some way (Rez?) or perfectly sets the tone of the game (my aforementioned Jet Set Radio) or maybe examples of games that use music in ways no other medium really could (this youtube video, while unofficial, is a good example of music being used in games in a way that a film couldn’t really emulate. Keep the annotations on.)

      But while we’re just in pure “I like this soundtrack!” mode, Austin Wintory’s Journey soundtrack has been my companion for a few weeks now, and I have the OST to Shining Force, a couple of Final Fantasies, and damn near every Sonic game on my iPod. Hahahahaha, oh man, sometimes I worry that I might be a loser.

      • Girard says:

         Obviously the solution is to combine both ideas, and replace the music of a game with celebrated music from ANOTHER game! Then the Internet collapses in on itself.

    • GhaleonQ says:

      Come to NeoGAF’s Soundtrack Of The Year nomination topic.  I’m a minor light in that scene, so we always have most of the soundtracks up.  Nert’s on The A.V. Club, too.

      • caspiancomic says:

         WHOA that is a substantial list of game music. And I fully condone your suggestion that Radiant Historia had one of 2011’s best soundtracks. (My favourite soundtrack of last year was Sonic Generations, largely because I am a drooling subhuman Sonic fanboy, but also because it had good music.)

        Just one more reason to be heartbroken that Ni No Kuni is being pushed to next year. If the trailers are any indication that game’s going to have some killer tracks. Joe Hisaishi can do no wrong.

  4. Staggering Stew Bum says:

    Speaking of video game music, the guy who sits at the desk next to me at work has a desk phone which sounds like some sort of atari2600 game soundtrack when it rings. The first time I heard it, I thought ‘wow, cool’. The second time I heard it, I thought ‘heh heh, there’s that phone again’. Now, every time it rings I want to climb over the table dividing our desks and beat the shit out of that fucking phone with the nearest heavy object I can find.

    I hate my job, is what I’m saying.

    • The_Misanthrope says:

      It drives me to distraction when people program the sound of a rotary phone ringing into their cell.  It’s such a familiar sound from my childhood that I automatically turn my head and look to see if anyone is going to pick up the receiver.

      • Staggering Stew Bum says:

        Agreed, and the old rotary phone ringtone forced through tinny phone speakers is about as pleasant as a dentist drill inside my brain.

        I have always had my phones exclusively on vibrate, fuck ringtones.

        And yes, I am a joy to work with…

    • ToddG says:

      I feel like there’s a joke here about the E.T. game, but I am too lazy to make it.

  5. The_Misanthrope says:

    Appropriately enough, the score to (Francis Ford Coppola’s) BRAM STOKER’s DRACULA works well with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and Harmony of Dissonance.

  6. ElDan says:

    Dudes, it’s cool, I’m not mad, but I totally came up with this idea in my college potsmoker days when I used to play Tony Hawk and listen to The Flaming Lips all night long.

    • LimeadeYouth says:

      I could be wrong, but I bet you could substitute just about anything for “play Tony Hawk” and that sentence would still be true.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

         I always used Le Tigre’s “Feminist Sweepstakes” with Tony Hawk.  It made my continuous failure to pass the downhill level in THPS1 much more bearable.

  7. Goon Diapers says:

    Four Seasons by Vivaldi was my soundtrack to Secret of Mana as a little kid.

  8. I love the Layton soundtrack so much that in the extra bit I used to even listen to it without even playing the game (although not a part of the score Iris from the credits of the second game was my fav~) but this alternate soundtrack is perfect! I 100% agree that even though Luke and Hershal are British characters the world they inhabit always felt more continetal than British. Also I think the heavy use of the accordion was a part of the reason! xD Anywho I cna’t believe I’d never heard of Yann Tierson before now, I’ll definitely look more of his stuff up.