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.
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.