I am the Phoenix–No Objections to Ace Attorney
Maybe you’ve noticed that a lot of older games are being ported to mobile devices lately, now that everyone carries a gaming console in their pocket. And while the quality of the port may sometimes be questionable (see: new, charmless graphics and/or awful touch-screen controls), there’s no denying that between this and the digital distribution platform Steam, we are closer than ever to the long dreamt-of “de-aging” of games, when they become available forever, no longer tied to their original platform.
Pretty sweet, eh? Legal access to old content on an unprecedented scale. And it turns out that some old games are still pretty good. This is why, on a weekend where others were enjoying the magnificent destruction of Titanfall–the just-released killer app for the “next-gen” Xbox One–I spent my time with a Game Boy Advance game from 2001 (but I played it on an iPad). This game is bizarre, unorthodox, flawed, beautiful, and decidedly not about combat. Now that I’ve finished it, I want to share some thoughts about why a 13-year old game is still desperately relevant.
The game is Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and as you can probably guess, it’s a courtroom drama. You play as a spiky-haired rookie defense attorney named Phoenix Wright, defending clients against murder charges in a series of increasingly hopeless cases. They are spectacularly hopeless–if the only problem is overwhelming evidence, that’s an easy case; more likely the defendant is refusing to cooperate, or even confessing to the crime outright. What defines Phoenix is his absolute, er, “conviction” that his clients are innocent and his determination to get to the truth. You wonder how he is possibly going to pull this off. Well, guess what–that’s your job!
Functionally Ace Attorney is like a classic point-and-click, graphical text-adventure game. There’s no free movement, and you navigate between static locations and conversation options using menu commands, while examining scenes with a cursor. The characters are minimally animated, and while the game does some clever things to make scenes and characters feel dynamic, you do see the same canned animations over and over again. The art direction is strong and conveys a lot with a little, but there’s no denying this is a text game, which makes sense given the narrative context’s focus on the importance of words.
Each case begins with an investigation, as you look for clues and talk to people across many different locations to gather information and evidence. These will be your arms and armor in court. Once in the trial, you cross-examine witness testimony and use your evidence to point out contradictions. I don’t know if that makes the experience sound engaging or not, but somehow it is. Indeed, I was wrong before to suggest this is not a game about combat–the battle of wits in court is in its own way as intense as anything in an action game. It’s hard to explain the adrenaline you feel when you immediately spot a hostile witness’s weakness and think “gotcha” as you present the evidence, except that it’s like getting the headshot. Just so, when you’re banging your head against a testimony that seems perfect, and then suddenly you figure out what you need to do, the satisfaction is immense.
It is all about the contradictions. By poking holes in the testimony, you can undermine the witness’ credibility or provoke revelations that, more often than not, lead to new hypotheses for what really happened, demanding further investigation and additional days in court. This is a mystery game as much as anything else; it’s a sure bet that whatever story kicks off the trial isn’t the truth, and while some developments are predictable, good luck guessing where the case will ultimately end up. There’s no shortage of plot twists and shocking moments. It’s never just about defending the client, but solving the mystery too, and this is part of what makes the experience so rich.
The other part is how ridiculous things get. This isn’t just drama, but melodrama, and not only that, but melodrama in the style of Japanese anime, which means three things: 1) impossible hair; 2) highly-exaggerated dramatic poses; and 3) singularly bizarre persons and situations–all things that Ace Attorney has in abundance. At one point this happens:
And then this:
Something with situations as silly as cross-examining a parrot wouldn’t necessarily work, especially across cultural lines, but Ace Attorney has two secret weapons. One is the writing. The writing is excellent–not only smart, but genuinely funny, which makes it a pleasure to read all that text. Kudos to the localization team at Capcom for translating something that must have been as deeply rooted in Japanese culture as the rest of the game and making it completely intelligible to an American audience.
The other secret weapon, which couldn’t work without the quality of the writing, is the game’s surprising gravitas. What I find especially impressive and fascinating about Ace Attorney is the way in which it balances tragedy and comedy so artfully. Even while bizarre, ridiculous things are happening in court (and provoking equally bizarre, ridiculous reactions), there is a constant undercurrent of seriousness. These are murder trials, after all. The actual crimes, which usually turn out to be more than just murder, are quite grim, a fact from which the game doesn’t shy away. One gets the feeling that, though the exaggerated characters might not be real, the situations–which are not exaggerated–could be. How did Capcom pull this off? This game manages to examine a dark topic in a light way without compromising either darkness or light. It feels simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Maybe that’s why there’s a pervasive melancholy to the whole experience, even in the face of joy when Phoenix–and you!–somehow do win, despite the odds.
I want to be clear about what I’m doing here. I do not assert that this game is perfect. This first Ace Attorney game has plenty of problems, which may or may not be fixed in the games that follow it. Here’s a quick breakdown: the text speed is slow and you can’t speed it up; you can’t skip text you’ve read before, yet it’s common to trigger the same response over and over again; the penalty system for messing up in trial has no teeth (you can save and reload at any time); typos abound and there are occasional more serious glitches with text misalignment.
More frustrating on a systemic level, you may on occasion figure out a contradiction before Phoenix does and try to present evidence, but it’s not “the right moment” according to the game and there’s no way to justify your action to the system, so you get penalized. Also, it’s not always logical when you should press a witness on a particular topic, and there’s rarely a penalty for pressing, so you just end up doing it all the time, but why have a special mechanic for it, then? These are moments when the conceit that you are Phoenix falls apart.
Neither am I asserting that the game is for everyone. It is long and repetitive and demands a tremendous amount of patience. The game mechanics are fairly limited and things do get predictable at times. And some of the puzzles are awfully obtuse. Proceeding can require a lot of head-banging, or tedious experimentation (“what if I try this evidence?”), or a visit to gameFAQs.com. If you don’t want to read a lot, or your tolerance for questionable puzzles is low, or you only enjoy twitch experiences, stay far, far away from Ace Attorney.
I do assert that you should know about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, and you should try it, because of what it represents. It represents a successful attempt to offer a genuinely different kind of video game experience. Consider that, while it operates within the adventure game context mechanically, it does not do so narratively. Many point-and-click adventure games are about the same things as any other game: moving through space and interacting with characters, good and bad. The narrative context does not necessitate the mechanical system–you could conceivably remake Zork in Unity as an action game. It wouldn’t be the same Zork, but you could do it.
How could you possibly play as an attorney in any system other than one that is entirely about words and literal pointing? Perhaps it could be done, but I think it would feel less authentic. That may seem an odd word choice given how weird Ace Attorney is, but despite its fantastic surface and my ability to reload if I mess up, I feel more like an attorney (or at least like I imagine an attorney feels) while playing as Phoenix than I ever feel like a hero while playing any given action or (ironically enough) role-playing game. The mechanics fit. Maybe this is what enables that amazing tragicomic pathos, since the game is based on a real profession and experience.
I suspect other people feel this way too, which is why the Ace Attorney series has been quite successful. Indeed, though the series was born on the GBA, it shines on touch screens, and the touch-screen technology has inspired many new types of games, especially on the DS with titles like Trauma Center (an early surgeon “simulator”) and Cooking Mama (it’s about cooking). These are all games that smartly use the interface to create streamlined experiences that weren’t possible before.
This what I want to see; this is what I want to play. Games like Titanfall and Towerfall and other things with “fall” in the name are great, and I don’t dismiss them, but they’re not expanding the types of experiences games can offer. Ace Attorney doesn’t do anything new mechanically, not a single thing–but the context in which it does old things is new, and the feeling it produces is new, at least for me. For that, I commend it; for that, you should experience it. Even if you hate it, know that it exists, and if you are a designer, learn from its design.
One last note: if you have an iOS device, you can try the game for free! The first three games are available as a package called “Ace Attorney: Phoenix Wright Trilogy,” and you can download it and play the first couple chapters at no charge. As Phoenix says: