@TopHatProfessor Layton and the Curious Twitter Accounts
"Frankly ... I'm ashamed. I have made myself a Twitter page and officially joined the world of technology. Perhaps Luke may help me update."
With those words on June 29, 2009, what had been just a fictional character in a Nintendo DS game became a fixture on Twitter. Over the coming days and weeks, the TopHatProfessor account would post dozens of riddles and brainteasers of the type found in 2008's Professor Layton and the Curious Village and the upcoming Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box, soliciting answers from his slowly growing cadre of followers. Along the way, the professor happily answered questions about the upcoming title and shared little slices of life from his day, all without ever breaking character.
The Twitter account that took thousands of people on a (quite enjoyable) ride
Many followers, this reporter included, were bemused and intrigued by what they assumed was a clever new viral marketing campaign put on by Nintendo ahead of Diabolical Box's August release. In reality, though, the TopHatProfessor account was the work of a lone college student and amateur game journalist, trying to get attention for a game he felt was being sorely neglected by publisher Nintendo and the media at large. The network of followers and related Twitter accounts that TopHatProfessor eventually attracted highlight the evolving effect that social networks are having on game journalism, PR and even fandom itself.
The man in the hat
"I figured that if Nintendo wasn't going to make the U.S. release of the second game known, I was going to take matters into my own hands."
That was all the motivation needed for Roger DiLuigi, the man behind the TopHatProfessor account, to start up what he thought would be a "fun side project." A theater and English major at the University of Illinois, Chicago, DiLuigi definitely had some experience with playing roles. And as a Nintendo-focused journalist for GamingVice and Kombo, he said he was perplexed by Nintendo's relatively lax promotion for the upcoming Layton sequel.
"It all started when I found assets and an August release date for Professor Layton and the Diabolical Box in my E3 2009 press kit after just coming back from the Nintendo [press] conference," he said. "At the very least, I was shocked that Nintendo didn't even give a passing mention to the game at their media briefing, especially since Curious Village had a resurgence in sales early in the year."
What started as a solo effort began to grow into something more on July 1 with the introduction of Layton's apprentice Luke into the Twitterverse. The expansion was the idea of Infendo writer Will Thompson, a friend of DiLuigi's who joined in when he found he knew the person behind the TopHatProfessor account. Thompson said he created the account "on my own initiative as a fan of the game, and ... to solve some riddles in the process." Soon, Thompson and DiLuigi were responding to each others' tweets in character and gaining dozens of followers each day (the ApprenticeLuke account was eventually given over to DiLuigi to manage, Thompson said). "I didn't expect in a million years that it would grow into what it eventually became," DiLuigi said.
Just look at that mustache. A guy with a mustache like that HAS to be evil!
What it eventually became, among other things, was the basis for a rumor that got a lot of Nintendo fans unduly excited. In a series of tweets on July 1, DiLuigi, as Layton, hinted that the professor had been invited to a "Grand Smash Tournament" where he had been asked to fight "a blue robot boy, a possessed doll, and a tiny boxer." These tantalizing hints, coming from what many assumed to be an official Nintendo marketing campaign, were enough to lead to some breathless headlines about the characters' potential appearance in the Smash Bros. series from the likes of Cubed3 and IGN (the latter of which went so far as to ask, "Why would an official Nintendo promotion online make such implications?").
DiLuigi, for his part, was shocked that anyone could have mistaken his Twitter account for an official Nintendo promotion. "If there was any doubt, I thought the Smash Bros. tweets with Layton meeting Mega Man, Geno and Little Mac would've been evidence enough for people to say, 'Okay, this is definitely a fan. Nintendo would never do that.'" Whether or not the Smash Bros. hints let any of DiLuigi's followers in on the act, though, the publicity surrounding the Smash Bros. rumor helped take the saga in interesting new directions.
"Enjoying a nice slice of my wife's scrumptious pistachio cake with butter cream icing and a cup of tea. A delightful midday snack."
When Canadian math student Jordan Grant heard a new Smash Bros. game was being teased by a couple of Twitter accounts, he assumed the leaks were coming from an official Nintendo viral marketing campaign. So when he put together his own Twitter account, he figured he'd used it as a test of sorts for the supposed marketers at Nintendo. "My plan was to take another person from the Layton universe and start contributing tweets in character," Grant said of the SombreInspector account, quoted above, which portrays in-game Layton colleague Inspector Chelmey. "Not only would this be entertaining, it would help me figure out the nature of the Layton experience. If they were an official advertising campaign, I assumed I would receive some sort of notification to cease and desist. If not, then I'd get to join in on the fun."
When he didn't receive any such letter, Grant realized that playing along with the growing Twitter storyline was a great creative outlet. "For a little while now, I had been entertaining the notion of an engaging Twitter narrative. Unfortunately, I could not conceive of a method to properly create enduring characters and environments in 140 characters per tweet. ... However, the Layton experience uses already established characters, which removed that hurdle. Furthermore, the whole riddle dynamic provides a simple framework for the narrative, and allows the audience to actively engage with the story as it unfolds. It was perfect. In fact, I cannot imagine a more suitable story to unfold through Twitter."
Grant said he was impressed with the devotion of the other Layton role-players -- with whom he rarely interacted out of character, and relied on for improvisational cues to inform his role. "Everyone involved has stuck to the mannerisms and motivations of their characters really well," he said. "Our commitment to the characters has helped to ground them in reality. This has created a great atmosphere for audience participation where anyone can join in without feeling absurd. It reminds me of those quaint dinner-theater performances. The audience is vaguely aware that what they are watching is fiction, but they cannot fight the urge to indulge in the fantasy and join in on the fun."
It was another character, though, that would break the performance out of the Twitter theater and into the streets of the Internet.
"@TopHatProfessor I've found you, Layton, and I have a puzzle for YOU! See if you can figure out THIS little beauty I dreamed up if you dare!"
While the first three Layton-related Twitter accounts had recreated the game's puzzling riddles and charming atmosphere, they needed a conflict to really drive the narrative along. Enter Don Paolo (aka DonofScience), Layton's arch-nemesis who showed up on Twitter July 6 to challenge Layton with some of the hardest puzzles the story had yet seen.
The Don's Hideout message boards have a become a de facto home page for Layton fans.
The man behind the DonofScience Twitter account, who goes by LordHuffnPuff elsewhere online but requested to remain otherwise anonymous, also heard about the TopHatProfessor account through the Smash Bros. rumor reports. But unlike Grant, he was no stranger to Twitter-based role-playing. "I had previously tried a character Twitter with SomethingAwful's PokeTwitter and found it a bit boring," he said. "However, as a puzzle-lover I thought I would give the idea a second chance. I figured the worst that could happen would be that I got bored and moved on to something else, after all."
He decidedly did not get bored. In fact, LordHuffnPuff's efforts gave the evolving story one of its most interesting twists: a coordinated, staged kidnapping of Layton himself. After announcing that Layton had been captured on the DonofScience account, HuffnPuff directed his followers to a puzzle-filled message board appropriately named "Don's Hideout." The rules were simple: Posters had to agree on the solution to a series of incredibly tough riddles within 36 hours. If they did, Layton would be freed and back to regular tweeting. If not ... well, best not to think about it, I suppose.
Surprisingly, the entire kidnapping subplot was almost entirely made up on the spot. "A day or so after I started interacting publicly with [TopHatProfessor's] account, I got a single private message from him that said 'You've kidnapped me. Go with it,'" LordHuffnPuff recalled. "I had the idea to set up the Don's Hideout Web page, but the entire scenario was pretty much improvised minute-to-minute. I was stunned at the reaction of the fans. People dedicated some serious time and effort into solving the puzzles I proposed, not many of which were especially simple. There were a few that required some fairly advanced mathematics. ... I was just unaware that there were that many people who'd dedicate such a significant portion of their time, with which they could be doing many more important things, to what is essentially an interactive story or role-play via Twitter."
Indeed, in rapid succession Don's Hideout got hundreds of posts from dozens of individual posters (including yours truly), eager to participate in what they saw as an innovative and fun marketing campaign. "I've always rolled my eyes at most (mis)uses of Twitter by large companies, but in the case of this here Laytonfest, I've been genuinely impressed," said Don's Hideout user mrhaydel in a post. "More companies should do these kinds of things with their fictional characters," added poster Ink Asylum. "I think this is one of the most fun things I've ever had fun with on the Internet," quipped poster Darkstar Runner. "I'm actually at the point where I can't keep believing that it's fictional. It's so realistic."
LordHuffnPuff said that, until these posts started popping up, he had no idea how many people thought he was working for Nintendo. "I thought it was fairly clear [that we were not officially sanctioned]," he said. "If it were official, the forum would have been hosted on a Nintendo Web page, not a Zetaboards free forum. Likewise, the image of Layton I posted would have been on Nintendo's server, not my personal Photobucket."
If they hadn't figured out the real story up to that point, they would learn it soon enough...
"My name is Roger DiLuigi. I am a game journalist and I was proud to bring you all the character of Professor Layton. This was in no way affiliated with Nintendo and while we asked for their permission, we never received a response."
This bombshell admission, posted to the TopHatProfessor account in the late hours of July 9 (and later removed), likely came as a shock to most of the over 2,500 followers DiLuigi had amassed up to that point.
Inspector Chelmey continues to solve crimes (and enjoy delicious food) on Twitter.
The first and most obvious question: Why break the fourth wall? Why, after staying in character for weeks, shatter the illusion for thousands of fans? "I was getting a little nervous since I hadn't gotten a response from Nintendo on whether I was allowed to do this Twitter and, just in case, I wanted to be safe," DiLuigi said. "I decided I had to close the Layton Twitter, and ? I realized that I also had to let everyone know this was never official."
While the reaction on Twitter was mostly positive and appreciative of DiLuigi's efforts, the reaction on gaming message board NeoGAF, where DiLuigi was a devoted member, was more negative. When a user turned up the fact that DiLuigi had used NeoGAF to promote the TopHatProfessor account without disclosing his role in creating it, the moderators decided to ban DiLuigi from further posting. "Nothing says more professional than faking a twitter as being some sort of pseudo official thing for Nintendo," wrote NeoGAF user shuri. "You did something stupid and then added layers of stupid on top of it. It was like a stupid cake. And now you're eating it," added user ShockingAlberto. "Why is a 'game journalist' viral marketing for Nintendo for free?" asked user Tiktaalik.
On that last point, DiLuigi defended his actions by arguing there was no real conflict of interest. "While I am the main Nintendo writer for Gaming Vice, I will not be doing the review or any sort of preview for the upcoming Layton game," DiLuigi said. "Those will be given to someone else due to the fact that I admittedly have a bias towards the series." Despite his unorthodox methods, DiLuigi compared the Twitter account to the efforts of any other journalist trying to get more attention for an under-appreciated game in which he believes. "Professional game journalists (i.e. people who do this for a living) do this all the time, to a lesser extent than TopHatProfessor of course."
As for the response of the posters and moderators on his beloved NeoGAF? "Honestly, those reactions were perfectly justified," he said. "I just wanted people to take note of the game's existence and, as evidenced by the Twitter page, I did my job. ... I was banned from an Internet message board. Life goes on."
For the others taking part in the Twitter storyline, DiLuigi's public unveiling was disappointing but not devastating. "The only thing that bothered me about the reveal was my concern that we would lose the dinner-theater atmosphere," Grant said. "People are now more readily aware that they are reading four people playing five roles. Yet, our audience has continued to surprise me. Old readers have stayed faithful. New readers are joining every day. The level of commitment from the audience is staggering."
LordHuffnPuff agrees that the revelation hasn't destroyed their cause. "When people learned that we were not official (as I never made any effort to hide), I think they actually liked it more, from the responses I've read and posts on the Hideout's forums. I've noticed a fair jump in followers for DonofScience since then ... the account is over 700 followers now."
And since revealing his identity (and getting an unofficial thumbs-up from Nintendo as "fans who want to spread the word of Layton"), DiLuigi has decided to return to the role he originated at TopHatProfessor, continuing to post daily puzzles to over 2,600 followers, Don Paolo and Inspector Chelmey among them. As of this writing, DiLuigi is giving TopHatProfessor a short break from Twitter, but promises "a quick resurgence in the Twittersphere come launch day of Diabolical Box."
Wherever the story goes from here, the puzzles in Layton's next Nintendo DS adventure will be hard-pressed to top the drama and intrigue caused by a single fan and a "fun side-project."
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