Wednesday, December 28, 2016

"Ace Attorney" and the Magic of Lack of Choice

Living with my grandfather means that he's seeing me in my natural habitat regularly for the first time since I was, like, 21. Lately, this tends to mean he's catching me during work breaks, lounging on the sofa playing the latest Ace Attorney while he's watching old Westerns. The other day, he took some time to ask me about it, partly because he's never actually seen a 3DS before.

Explaining Ace Attorney to an engineer is not easy, so I opted to let him watch me play the first case. He's now utterly infatuated with the idea of puzzle games and visual novels (which is handy because I edit visual novels for a living so I can answer most of his behind-the-scenes questions). The flashy graphics caught his eye first -- we've come a long way since the GBA, after all.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (2001, L) and Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney - Spirit of Justice (2016, R)

As he was watching a witness jam out on an electric mandolin, he asked me what effect those actions had on the game. 'None,' I told him. 'They're for sheer entertainment value.' 'You mean everything on the screen is distraction and it's all in the words?' Well, I could have gone into Apollo's bracelet, but for the purposes of his question? Yes.

And while gameplay elements have changed (our various lawyerly add-ons now include breaking through secrets with a magic pendant, perceiving microexpressions, reading moods, and fact-checking seances), the overall gameplay has not changed: receive a statement, compare what you hear against the evidence you've collected, repeat until one of the witnesses has a fanatical blowout and confesses to everything. Everything else is pure eye candy.

That's the thing about Ace Attorney: the plots are complex, the puzzles are maddening, but the actual AI involved is... pretty damn simple. Minus a couple of 'bad ends' you can get via some fairly obvious either/or choices, your actions are limited to getting it right or not progressing.

The 'miracle' never happen.
My grandfather and I have spent more than a few dinner conversations talking about how the modern trend in gameplay is toward replay value and personalized experiences -- the idea of 'affecting the world' of the game. The idea that, rather than being ushered down one very specific path, you're free to roam, to interact, to make the game bend to you rather than vice-versa.

So, then, shouldn't Ace Attorney be the exact opposite of what's popular? Unless you get everything absolutely right -- absolutely, frustratingly right, even though you know you're supposed to present a certain piece of evidence but you have to do it in a certain spot -- you're stuck.

That's where I take off my science hat and put on my writer hat. Because it's not lack of choice that makes a game unentertaining... it's how the choice or lack thereof is couched.


For those unfamiliar with the games, you play (usually) as Phoenix Wright, an art student turned lawyer who somehow passed the bar even though he seems to know about as much about the legal system as your average stoat. His mentor, spirit-sensitive and dear departed Mia Fey, taught him to 'think outside the box'... and the game series is an extended exercise in lateral thinking as you're handed case after case where pretty much anyone in their right mind would just hand down a guilty verdict in a heartbeat.

(Aside: For a full understanding of what Ace Attorney is, it helps to understand that creator Shu Takumi was taking a hard shot at the flaws in Japan's legal system. Escapist Magazine has a great piece on it, which I encourage anyone curious about the game to read. It's not essential to what I'm saying here, but it's very good to know for context when playing.)

One thing that first jumped out at me when I played the original three games -- what I call the 'Fey Dirty Laundry Trilogy' -- is that Phoenix is extremely heavily characterized for a player character. Now, this can happen in visual novels depending on what you're playing (less likely in a dating sim than, say, WORLD END ECONOMiCA). But I thought back to Link in the Zelda series, and how he's deliberately left as vague as possible from game to game so he can serve as a literal link between player and game.

But then we have Phoenix. And he's not exactly a blank slate, even in his first game. He has childhood friends, memories he keeps flashing back to... hell, by the time we hit the third game, we even know the deep, dark corners of his romantic life. We act as Phoenix (and later Apollo Justice and Athena Cykes) for the majority of these games, but our viewpoint character is as deep and well-developed as the world they live in.

Art school Phoenix during a very difficult time in his life.
What I realised eventually is that it's that level of development, and that degree of insight, that serves as the first step in making our lack of choice 'okay.' Because we're not just playing as a lawyer who'd think like us even though he has his own name. We know his mindset. We know why he's a lawyer. We know just how strong his belief in his clients is. And we know just how straight-up good he is when it comes to wanting to clear innocent people's names.

In the game, we're constantly confronted with characters who are in it to win it. Their motivation isn't to see justice done -- it's to be right. (With the possible exception of Nahyuta Sahdmadhi in the current game, who does seem to want to see things put right case by case -- rare for a prosecutor in the Ace Attorney world.) For quite a while, Phoenix is the odd one out: the only one willing to stake his energy, his reputation, and occasionally even his life on his clients.

And that is the conceit that takes us beyond simple logic puzzles into feeling caught up in the storyline, and feeling like we have a hand in it even when it's all scripted out before us: we want Phoenix to succeed, and we feel responsible for making sure he does.

Double the headache, double the fun.

The Professor Layton series -- which is sort of Ace Attorney's unofficial sister franchise at this point -- propels itself forward by turning puzzles into the currency of the game's world and having the plot mostly detached from the primary game mechanic until the finale. Which is another clever way of going about it (though for my part, if we did all our dealings in logic puzzles at Layton's level, I might never eat again). And in this new wave of video games like Undertale where you can do Pacifist or Genocide runs, or like Papers, Please where free will is a game mechanic, stories with one set route are almost obligated to find that magic twist that makes players not only not mind a single-route experience, but perhaps even crave it.

That's why Ace Attorney, ultimately an extremely straightforward logic puzzle game with some funny character designs and flashy animations, has always been ahead of the curve. It was special in 2001 for managing to bring intensity and action to puzzle games, and it's special at the end of 2016 for maintaining its strength as a single-route game with minimal mechanic changes.

Spirit of Justice has a bold story, gorgeous character designs, and a healthy dose of Fey-era nostalgia for long-time fans. But under the animation and mo-cap and Matt Mercer screaming at me in Sanskrit or whatever, it is still the same game it was on the GBA. And it's a format that can survive even the fluctuations of video game trends by maintaining its classic gameplay while wrapping itself in increasingly prettier graphics. That ain't bad.