Lessons from the Great Attorney, Wroenix Phight (August 2021)

Summer is coming to a close! I’m bidding adieu to my beloved long days of sunlight. In my imagination, summer is the chance to be the most productive. Yet this month I only really played a single game: The Great Ace Attorney Chronicles (Switch). It just released worldwide last month after being region-locked for six years. My expectations were fairly low since I had assumed it was a gimmicky spin-off, but now that I have played it I am ready to say that it is more than a worthy successor — as its name declares, The Great Ace Attorney takes a good game series and transforms it into the greatest version of itself. I’m having a tremendous time with it, but to discuss why I think it is so great I’m going to have to step out of my usual wheelhouse of game design, and talk about some narrative minutiae.

Ace Attorney games are adventure games, meaning that the game interactions are driven by menu selections to connect inventory items with scenarios to solve puzzles. In adventure games story is king, since narrative context is what defines the puzzles and what acts as the reward for solving them. In this genre, the player’s effort to payoff ratio is in the extremes. Put in a little bit, get a ton. Since the game systems are so minimal the quality of the puzzles is totally dependent on the quality of the characters and story. If the player does not understand the rules of the world, a puzzle can come to a sudden halt — possibly killing the entire game. And if the characters are flat, then there is no depth to uncover or satisfying twists to experience as a reward. The game design and the narrative design are then wholly linked.

✧༺THE SETTING༻✧

The Great Ace Attorney throws the series back in time to the 1800’s, during a period when Japan’s borders were forcibly flung open and sudden cultural exchange began quickly transforming the country. Our protagonist is Ryunosuke Naruhodo, a student studying law while the adoption of Western-style courts is almost as young as he is. It is a striking premise, rife with possibilities for drama and political intrigue. The historical setting adds stakes to Ace Attorney’s story that never really existed before. The world was previously hyper-local to the characters, but The Great Ace Attorney is globe-trotting, and the consequences of the trials have believable ramifications on the relationship between empires. By picking such a dramatic setting, the world becomes vast and the actions take on greater consequence — making the gameplay triumphs feel more meaningful.

However, the fictional victories would be hollow if there wasn’t also greater adversity to match it. The Great Ace Attorney uses the setting to render a world that is more hostile than any game in the series before. Naruhodo is younger than Ace Attorney’s usual hero, Phoenix Wright, and is a foreigner to the lands he travels. At every opportunity he is belittled by adversaries for his inexperience, and has to overcome racist first impressions. In one trial, Naruhodo must defend real-life famous author Natsume Soseki, who has been accused of murder because everyone in the London neighborhood thinks he is shifty. The of Ace Attorney world is extremely cartoony and goofy, and The Great Ace Attorney manages to never betray that tone, but it also doesn’t shy away from recognizable troubles. The police are racist, the rich toy with the poor like they were food, and the West’s “more civilized” system of law does not always deliver justice. By leaving the present, The Great Ace Attorney manages to look more like today.

The setting is used to create more dramatic stakes, but it also takes the opportunity to quietly reboot the world to be more grounded. It’s kinda astonishing how far you can get into any discussion of Ace Attorney without mentioning the spirit mediums. When people talk about Ace Attorney, they usually don’t talk about how the original premise for the game is “what if a defense lawyer could sometimes talk to ghosts,” but that’s what it is. It’s an idea with lots of possibilities for dramatic reveals, but it also requires a lot of convolution. A ton of time is spent in the game explaining when the character Maya Fey can and cannot summon the dead, but when it happens it always feels like a deus ex machina. The Great Ace Attorney does away with the supernatural. 

In the place of ghosts is a new groan worthy trope: impossible steampunk technology! Anachronistic technology abounds — particularly in a comedic amount of crime scene photographs. These are the new narrative conveniences, but they allow us to treat court evidence in a way we are familiar with. We can look at photographs purporting to show proof, and then use logical reasoning to reveal contradictions that suggest new interpretations. Is it absurd that there are color photographs everywhere? Yes. But I much prefer this narrative cheat over the issue faced by the games set in the present. The present games don’t have any question of why a technology is present, but instead an issue of why a technology is absent. In The Great Ace Attorney we can question the world and go, “Wow, it is weird that there is a picture of this,” but in the other games the questions we ask are of the characters’ competence, like, “Hey, how come there isn’t a better picture of this?” and, “Shouldn’t there be fingerprint records of that?” and, “Don’t all these people have cell phones?” The steampunk designs in The Great Ace Attorney feel rote, but their inclusion let the gripes be about the world instead of the ineptitude of the characters. It also takes way less time to hand wave why something is there, rather than justify why something is not there. I think the steampunk stuff is a world-building low point, but in terms of function it is an improvement.

✧༺THE CHARACTERS༻✧

The change in setting is a realized opportunity to add stakes and tighten the logical consistency of the game, but it also offers the rare chance to softly reboot the character archetypes and plot beats of the original games with the deft hindsight of a second draft. The Great Ace Attorney seems to recognize the strengths and the faults of the original game. It is deeply compelling and entertaining to play as the ultimate legal underdog, scrambling desperately without qualification to overcome impossible scenarios. This new game does not lose that set-up, it amplifies it by reimagining who the player character is to better suit those goals. Naruhodo is, in many ways, just Phoenix Wright again. They are both earnest and disorganized, and share many of the same key iconic poses. But they do not start from the same place. Phoenix Wright is a rookie in his first appearance, while Naruhodo is a student. Both games must teach the player the rules of the court, and with Naruhodo we can believably feel like we are learning along with him. Phoenix, on the other hand, shows up to court on the first day and forgets the victim’s name. We laugh at Phoenix Wright, while we laugh with Ryunoske Naruhodo. The greater harmony makes Naruhodo’s journey more affecting.

We can see their differences acutely in the character design. Phoenix Wright is instantly recognizable from his delicately styled bird wing hair, but Naruhodo’s design emulates a similar shape using a popped cowlick. We must imagine Wright fashioning his hair every morning, taking so long that we can understand why he has not prepared a defense for the day’s hearing. Naruhodo, meanwhile, has done his best to clean up, but this natural and uncontrollable tuft of hair pops out and gives him his character. In their outfits, Phoenix Wright has an imposing frame, perfectly fitted with a stylish suit, while Naruhodo keeps his student uniform. Naruhodo looks more frail, and though his uniform is sleek, it is unpretentious. He continues to wear it long after he has the opportunity to change it, and it doesn’t just remind the audience that he is young. While Naruhodo is in Japan, the uniform is representative of the cultural shift towards Westernization. It is in contrast to the prosecutor, who is dressed in a more traditional garb. When Naruhodo moves to London, the uniform changes significance. His outfit is the thing other characters remark on to distinguish him as Japanese. It is a bridge between the two cultures, but it also alienates him from both. Naruhodo’s character design is very thoughtful, and communicates a lot about him. Phoenix Wright, by comparison, is dissonant. He appears very put together, but he isn’t. When one of my friends started playing the original Ace Attorney, he was shocked to discover that Phoenix Wright’s personality was completely opposite what he had believed it to be for years. This is, ultimately, a small issue. Phoenix Wright is iconic and beloved, and Naruhodo is unlikely to ever dethrone him. But I love him.

There is much more I could say about the characters in The Great Ace Attorney, like how the mentor figure is a real peer this time, or how the assistant’s adjusted personality makes for a stronger relationship, or how Herlock Sholmes is the perfect X factor to liven up the cast. I especially wish I could talk about the rival prosecutor, whose animations made me scream out loud. But if I started on any of those, we would be here all day. Believe me when I say I had to edit this down from 15 pages. Let Naruhodo be the example that the characters are their old selves, but given extra care in the thoughtfulness of their design. Now, with the story and characters discussed, I can finally get into the game design. 

✧༺THE GAME DESIGN༻✧

As an adventure game, Ace Attorney is about a linearly unfolding story that needs the player to slot in keys to unlock more of it. The fun is from putting in a little effort and getting a TON of payoff. The payoff is the art and writing, and as I have explained I think that stuff is good. So the question of game design is whether or not those “keys” are fun to acquire and use. 

Ace Attorney games follow the classic adventure game format for acquiring key evidence. You click around a space until an item is added to your inventory. Sometimes there is a unique minigame that has to be completed before it can be acquired. The Great Ace Attorney does not stray from this formula, however there is less hard evidence to tangibly gather during the investigation phases, and the only minigame (if it can be called that) is rotating 3D models around to reveal something hidden on the opposite side. This is less mechanical variety than I have seen, even compared to other Ace Attorneys. I don’t think novelty for the sake of novelty is worth much though. To say whether it is effective or not, perhaps we have to ask whether it succeeds at making you feel clever.

I don’t think rotating objects is an effective way to make a player feel like they have discovered something. It allows for a very natural reveal, but it is so minimal an action that it never made me feel smart, it made me feel like I was surrounded by idiots. To the game’s credit, this is used for deliberate humor. After so many games in the series, I wonder if they have recognized the futility in making the player feel clever without making them lost. The lack of variety and quick, no effort direction to acquiring key evidence suggests to me that they were not interested in making it interesting, and instead they wanted to make it happen as quickly as possible. There is probably wisdom in this decision. Whenever there is a mystery game, the collection of evidence is always the most tedious part, going back to Clue. The meat is in how that evidence is used in deduction.

To unlock progression in the story, the player has to determine what evidence is applicable to a scenario. This is easier to do when there are only a few options, but as the inventory grows and the possible permutations multiply then the player has to be certain that their selection makes narrative sense. In Ace Attorney, the goal is usually to select a piece of evidence that suggests a contradiction in some character’s statement. This challenges reading comprehension, memory, and logical deduction. To give weight to selecting a piece of evidence, the game only offers five incorrect choices across an entire case. Guessing incorrectly can result in having to redo lengthy content. In this fashion, it is like an old-school health system. This is the only metric in the entire game system, but even then it is mostly for appearances. The Great Ace Attorney frequently autosaves to a dedicated slot, which can be loaded from, and additional saves can be made at any time. You will never really have to waste time waiting for characters to repeat conversations you have already read, it is an idle threat. I believe that is perfectly okay, though. A wounded pride is punishment enough for a game about being clever, and an interrupted narrative is punishment enough for a game driven by its story. When I play, I don’t want to make the wrong choice because there is a tedious pause before I can make another one, and I would be embarrassed for myself if I made enough mistakes to lose all my lives.

As mentioned, the challenge escalates by adding in more possible permutations for choices. This can be done by increasing the number of pieces of evidence, but that requires the player to spend more time collecting it, and as we’ve seen this game would rather expedite that part as much as possible. The other option is to increase the number of holes the keys could fit into. Early Ace Attorney games were very limited in this regard — usually there would be one subject to present evidence to at a time. The Great Ace Attorney shakes this up by adding in multiple witnesses to the stand at once and introducing a half-dozen jury members. These additional characters each have their own motivations and quirks, and it is not only narratively satisfying to uncover them but they also open up more character interactions, which has a direct effect on gameplay. The player has to choose not only the correct piece of evidence, but at times they must also choose the right person to present it to. Deduction is all about drawing lines between pins, and these additional characters are an excellent way to add more pins and expand the possibility space for the player.

So in the game design, as in the world building and characters, the bad has been streamlined and the good has been made better. I looked at the narrative side with the same systems approach as I take with game design, but there are many other facets of the game which I think are phenomenal. The art is the best the series has ever looked before, and the music is fantastic. As a spin-off I expected The Great Ace Attorney to be a diversion, but instead it arrived a complete whole. The best version of itself yet, I will be sad if this trip to the past isn’t a vision of the series’ future.
 

✧༺♥༻✧


 Want further reading?
There’s a couple great Ace Attorney videos, one by Dan Floyd breaking down the animations used in the series, and another looking at how Great Ace Attorney’s mechanics are born out of the collaboration with the Professor Layton series.

Other games I played this month:

  • Nothing!
  • Okay actually I got a Funkey-S micro-console the size of a couple quarters and loaded it with a Pico-8 emulator. Since Pico-8 games are beyond arcade-y in their “pick up and drop”-ability, they are a perfect fit. My favorites are
    • Porklike – a simple turn based roguelike in the Cave Noire style
    • XWing Vs. Tie Fighter – a demake of a wireframe flight sim, made in Lua, that somehow fits all the game data on a PNG?? and it’s so fun?? No one sue them pls
    • The Lair – a side scrolling beat-em up with great environment art and slick framerate
    • Delunky – it’s spelunky but i have it on a keychain sized console that i can bust out when im waiting for food to be delivered. my life will never be the same
    • High Stakes – a gambling card game that is smart, stylish, all around excellent. I believe they made a steam version too?

Special thinks to Kevin Wong for helping me edit this down from, like, 10+ pages of notes lol

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