I think back on Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney with a lot of nostalgia. I was eighteen years old when it was released in North America. One of my friends at college was a huge fan of Capcom games, and I was convinced to give it a try, thanks in part to his gleeful enthusiasm for the game’s dramatic, finger-pointing OBJECTION!s.
I can’t say I really remember the details of my experience playing it for the first time, but I know I liked it. I liked it so much that I investigated further and found a fan-made, partially translated ROM of the third game, which would be later released as Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations. Only the first case was translated, giving me a very early preview of Dahlia Hawthorne and her passive-aggressive butterflies. My hunger for Ace Attorney was insatiable, but there was nothing left for me to eat after that. I didn’t end up returning to it until years later, but even then it was cut short when I lost my Nintendo DS. It wasn’t until a couple months ago that I came back to finish the trilogy.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is a classic game. We remember it for the simple fact that it introduced the series’ main cast of beloved characters, who would continue to charm us in future games. But it’s also excellent standing on its own, serving to jumpstart a new IP that would eventually become Capcom’s ninth best-selling franchise - which is pretty damn impressive once you realize what other IPs it shares space with on that list.
Playing it again, ten years later, I was surprised by how much I still remembered about each case. Not only how each case ended, but locations, characters, twists, and even specific lines of dialogue. It was like opening a high school yearbook and remembering all your old friends and acquaintances. And at the same time, this is maybe one of the most bizarre games I’ve ever played.
Note: this is the second article in a series. The introduction can be found here.
Also note: Kinja could really use a spoiler code. (i.e., blacked out text that shows up when you mouse over it, or something like that.)
A Visual Novel That’s Actually Good
So, I usually hear the Ace Attorney series being described as as a “point and click adventure” game. I don’t think that’s accurate. When I hear “point and click,” I think of Myst, Grim Fandango and Manic Mansion. Anyone who’s played these games - or maybe even if you’re just vaguely familiar with them - will recognize how differently the Ace Attorney series works. It’s true that, in order to progress in Ace Attorney, you have to examine your surroundings for clues, talk to people, and use the right items at the right times. In theory, that sounds like the stuff of LucasArts.
However, in practice, Ace Attorney has more in common with Hatoful Boyfriend than with Secret of Monkey Island. The reason I say this is because most of the time spent playing PWAA is reading dialogue boxes with a character’s animated sprite imposed behind it, in front of a static, hand-drawn background. There are no verb commands. There is no walking. The gameplay is limited to story-related deductions, not on unlocking doors, solving puzzles, delivering items or other typical adventure game fare. While you have to search crime scenes and related locations for clues and evidence, this is accomplished by simply touching a part of the hand-drawn background to initiate the next long series of text boxes. Spots that need to be examined to progress through the game are usually glaringly obvious and don’t require a lot of thought: a bloodstain, an unusual object in the immediate foreground, a gigantic painting that leaves a huge lighter-colored spot on the wall when it’s removed.
Instead, the gameplay in PWAA is focused on all those dialogue boxes. When the game prompts you to make a decision and you choose the right option, you’re rewarded with the next part of the story. This boils down to selecting the right dialogue option, presenting someone with the right piece of evidence, or wandering around until you happen upon the next part of the story.
In adventure games, 95% of your time is spent trying to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to do next. In PWAA, 95% of your time is spent reading. That’s the stuff of visual novels, not adventure games. Back in 2005 when this game got released in North America, I think most people had no idea what a visual novel was, so that’s probably why it got labelled as a “point and click.”
The above screenshot is pretty much what you’ll be staring at the entire game, with only the speaking character and background being switched around. (Also, credit for this handy comparison between the original DS version and the new HD 3DS version goes to Gamespot.)
When you’re talking about visual novels, story is everything. The game is the story. Plenty of other games are revered for their stories, but people won’t always pick up those games because of the story. When I criticize Final Fantasy X’s story, someone who agrees with me might nevertheless immediately remind me how much fun the battle system is - “so, come on, the game’s not that bad.” You can’t do that with visual novels. If a VN’s story is bad, there’s nothing left. (...unless you’re playing a hentai VN, I guess.) That’s why they call it a visual novel.
I’m not insulting the game by comparing it to a visual novel. The aforementioned bird dating sim is one of my all-time favorite games. But perhaps the most common complaint about the Ace Attorney series is the supposed lack of gameplay, and this is where the visual novel/adventure game distinction is important. Once we recognize PWAA as a visual novel, complaining about the supposed lack of gameplay becomes pointless. Visual novels don’t have a lot of gameplay by definition. And for a visual novel, PWAA actually has way more gameplay than usual. Every decision requires you to think - and to have paid attention to voluminous dialogue that came before it.
Story is where Ace Attorney excels, and that’s why the series has been so successful. The characters, cases, twists and turns are what jettisoned the first game into North American success - at a time when “point and click adventure” fans had nothing new to look forward to. In that sense, it succeeds where many other visual novels (and other purported story-focused games) fail.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Suspension of Disbelief
You play as Phoenix Wright, a freshly-minted young lawyer. Recently hired by your mentor Mia Fey, you’re tasked in your first trial with proving the innocence of a bumbling childhood friend accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend. But just as your career is off to a good start, disaster strikes: Mia is murdered, and her teenage sister Maya Fey is arrested as a primary suspect. It turns out that Mia was actually from a famous family of spirit mediums, and her sister has the ability to channel the spirits of the dead into her body. Phoenix teams up with Maya and the deceased Mia to battle in the courtroom against Miles Edgeworth, a prodigal prosecutor with a perfect win record.
People ask me whether PWAA is “like being a real lawyer.” The short answer is no. From the very outset, it’s clear that the way things work in this game is not something that could possibly resemble reality. The most glaringly obvious part is the inclusion of legitimate spirit channeling; we’re basically required from the outset of the game to suspend all disbelief and accept Maya’s ability to let dead people possess her body. When other characters learn about it, they might ponder for a second but then swiftly accept it so we can move on to more important things. And then there’s all the other completely insane scenarios and characters spread out through the first game alone, like a blinged-out blackmailing gangster with a lavender business suit and Elvis hair, a TV studio that trusts all of its security to a single old woman who can’t even keep the premises free of fanboy children, and an infamous scene at the end of the game involving a parrot. (I won’t give it away.)
Of course, that’s not what people are asking about by saying “like being a real lawyer.” Everyone recognizes that the campy elements and spirit channeling in AA are pure fantasy. What people really mean is the courtroom stuff, right? The answer is still no, it’s not like being a real lawyer, which probably won’t surprise anyone. The trials in Ace Attorney bear no resemblance to real trials except in the most superficial ways - a judge, two lawyers, witnesses, evidence. But, there’s more to say about it than simply confirming that it’s inaccurate. When I first started replaying PWAA, it was funny how inaccurate it was.
The entire premise of the game depends on a single, utterly baffling rule of procedure: when a person is arrested, they must be put on trial immediately and a verdict must be found by the end of the third day of the trial. Because an arrest is made so haphazardly based on whatever evidence could most quickly resolve the case, trials become exercises of proving a person’s innocence, instead of proving their guilt.
Three days. Trial complete within three days of arrest.
Other lawyers reading this article, who might not be familiar with this series, are currently chuckling to themselves. Criminal defense attorneys might be having convulsions. Okay... probably not, but still: for a lawyer, Ace Attorney’s three-day rule is something that requires the suspension of disbelief to the same degree as your dead mentor helping you through trials because her sister is a spirit medium. Maybe even moreso.
Requiring a trial verdict within three days of arrest is absolutely ridiculous. I feel like this is a violation of the kind of stuff we figured out a thousand years ago with the Magna Carta. Even the most ardent, hardened, fear-pandering “tough on crime” politician would never attempt to impose this kind of rule, no matter how overburdened the courts are. Actually, the “tough on crime” crowd would probably hate this rule too. How can you prepare a case overnight for trial the next day? Wouldn’t you want to give the prosecutor a little bit more time to ensure he has what he needs to secure a conviction? I get that the objective behind the rule is to maximize courtroom efficiency, but in no universe would efficiency be so prioritized over the basic mechanisms in place to help make sure you have the right culprit.
Almost every other inaccuracy with real courtroom procedures flows from the three-day rule. Defendants apparently have no right to bail, probably because they’ll know their fate within three short days anyway. The rules of evidence are nearly non-existent, with hearsay restrictions and chain of custody requirements nowhere to be seen. There are no pre-trial motions, like a motion to suppress evidence or a motion to dismiss. There is no formal discovery - the standard process by which attorneys get information about a case in preparation for trial. Instead, Ace Attorney’s bumbling law enforcement gathers evidence haphazardly, attorneys are forced to visit crime scenes themselves to build their cases, witnesses are explicitly told not to talk to the defense, and basic forensic testing like autopsies and DNA analysis is frequently unfinished at the time of trial. Most of this stuff could actually get a prosecutor fired in the real world, but in Ace Attorney, no one bats an eye.
The unrealistic time limitation also seems to cause a fairly realistic effect in-game as well: the falsification of evidence. If the prosecutor doesn’t have enough time to do his job, but the pressure to get convictions is still high, you can imagine prosecutors with fewer scruples doing a lot more shady, illegal stuff. The game doesn’t come out and say falsification is widespread among prosecutors, but it’s gently hinted at throughout the series, and it’s a major element in the first game.
I hate to say it, but some of the pathos and gravitas might have been lost to me during my revisit playthrough. Sometimes in a sticky situation during a case, I shook my head and said to myself, “None of this crap would have happened if you all simply did Basic Standard Logical Legal Thing XYZ.” This is particularly so with the fifth and final case in the first game, “Rise from the Ashes”... but that’s an especially interesting case and I plan on writing a whole separate article for it, so I won’t get into it here.
I know what you’re thinking: “It’s a game! That’s just a part of the game’s world!” And yes, that’s true. All the stuff I listed above wouldn’t make it into a lawyer game, because that stuff is boring. Legal fiction is dominated by the investigation phase because that’s what is interesting, not a bunch of jargon-filled legal technicalities that only lawyers understand. A game where you sit through a three-hour deposition or spend an entire day doing legal research would be accurate, but it wouldn’t be fun. Falsification of evidence, new and unforeseen details suddenly changing an entire case in the middle of trial, a witness confessing as the real murderer on the stand... that’s the fun stuff. It’s juicy and scandalous and makes for great stories. That’s what people want out of a game like this.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that I’m a lawyer playing a game ostensibly about lawyers, frequently being asked about whether these games are “realistic.” So, there’s your answer! The three-day rule is too glaringly asinine for me to overlook it that easily. If you’re not a lawyer, you probably didn’t give it much thought... but if you are a lawyer, the more dramatic moments of PWAA might be a little bit harder to take seriously and enjoy.
“You need to stop judging things based on narrow-minded cultural assumptions, Nick!”
Now, I can’t continue without acknowledging a wrench that could get thrown into the above discussion: this is a Japanese game, and it was originally set in Japan and based on the Japanese criminal justice system. Isn’t it possible that all the inaccuracies I just talked about are the result of localization?
The short answer is......... um, yes. The Japanese criminal justice system is actually pretty different from ours. Japan uses the “inquisitorial” system of criminal justice, which is an entirely different legal tradition from the adversarial system in the United States. Wikipedia’s article on the topic is a thorough, interesting read, assuming you’re a nerd like I am and care about that kind of stuff. So actually, the cultural difference could be a really good explanation. I don’t know one way or another. I’m not qualified to tell you how accurate Ace Attorney is to the practice of law in Japan because I don’t practice law in Japan. But from the quick research I did for the purpose of this article, I can tell you that a couple of really glaring inaccuracies I haven’t talked about yet are definitely related to the hidden cultural differences.
Above: courtroom in Ace Attorney vs. Japanese courtroom.
For example, did you notice that there are no juries in any case throughout the whole trilogy? The jury system is the backbone of a “fair trial” in many countries with common law legal systems (i.e., America, the UK, Canada). The right to a trial by jury stretches back hundreds and hundreds of years, so the omission of juries is a pretty glaring problem on first glance. But there are no juries in Ace Attorney because the Japanese criminal justice system has no juries. The closest thing they have is trial by a panel of “lay judges,” and that option was only created in 2009, almost a decade after PWAA first came out on the Game Boy Advance. Rather, in Japan, guilt is determined exactly as you see it in Ace Attorney: by a single judge, who can be severely biased by politics, career motivations or personal prejudices - or who may just be incompetent, as the judge in Ace Attorney sometimes is.
Did you also notice that there’s no plea bargains? Plea bargaining is a ubiquitous and essential part of how the American criminal justice system works, for better or for worse. Many academic papers have been written about the serious problems that can come with pervasive plea bargaining, but it’s basically the mechanism that we’ve chosen to relieve the huge caseload burden on our courts. If caseload and efficiency are concerns in the Ace Attorney world, you’d think the prosecutors would be offering plea deals at the speed of light. But no, this is another supposed inaccuracy that’s actually attributable to cultural differences. While an American prosecutor might offer a favorable plea deal to a defendant who she may not be able to convict at trial or a defendant whose trial would take too much precious time and money, a Japanese prosecutor won’t file an indictment in the first place if she isn’t certain of an easy win. Over 70% of crimes in Japan are never prosecuted for this reason - thus cutting down on caseloads and leaving cases that can be easily proven without having to negotiate some other outcome.
Finally, there’s one more thing that I was originally going to complain about in my discussion of inaccuracies, only to discover that it was completely attributable to the Japanese origin of the game. Each section of PWAA is devoted to a single case, and those sections are broken up into chapters. The typical progression of these chapters goes like this:
- Chapter 1: Crime occurs and Phoenix is hired. He investigates the scene and talks to witnesses.
- Chapter 2: Trial. Phoenix proves that there’s an unanswered question that prevents the judge from issuing a verdict. The judge orders the attorneys to go collect more evidence.
- Chapter 3: More investigation. New evidence and/or witnesses are found.
- Chapter 4: Trial again. Phoenix proves that there’s another unanswered question that prevents the judge from issuing a verdict. The judge orders the attorneys to go collect more evidence.
- Chapter 5: More investigation. New evidence and/or witnesses are found.
- Chapter 6: Third and final day of the trial. Phoenix proves his client’s innocence.
You might not think this back and forth between trial and investigation is weird, but American lawyers would find this pretty odd. We totally do not do this. It’s true that the Sixth Amendment includes the right to a speedy trial, but this right is routinely waived because investigation and preparation takes way more time than the deadline imposed by the speedy trial right. Cases go to trial only when they’re ready to go to trial; by then, the attorneys have spoken to the witnesses multiple times and already know about all of the evidence that will be presented.
But, as it turns out, the back-and-forth between court and investigation is apparently pretty standard in Japan. From Wikipedia:
...Japanese trials before the institution of the current lay judge system were discontinuous. The defense and the prosecutor would first gather in front of the judges and present the issue. Then, the court would enter recess and both sides would go back to prepare their case. As they reconvened on different dates, they would then present each case... the court would be put in recess again and each side would go back to gather further evidence. Some complex trials took years or even a decade to conclude which is impossible under a jury system. During the questioning of evidence, judges were explicit about their opinions by the way they questioned the evidence, which gave greater predictability about the final verdict.
...Yeah. Sounds pretty familiar, huh? That’s literally how things go in Ace Attorney.
So I guess PWAA may be a lot more accurate on the technical details than I initially thought. Regardless, I feel confident that there’s still some major things missing from this game, which still flow from that silly three-day rule. Like, I’m pretty sure Japanese prosecutors still have to abide by basics like the rules of evidence. I’m pretty sure they don’t ever personally visit the crime scene. I’m pretty sure they still file motions and engage in other pre-trial litigation that doesn’t happen in the Ace Attorney universe... and I’m certain that Japanese prosecutors and defense attorneys would both cringe if they heard about the three-day rule.
Next Time: Fake Courtroom, Real People!
After all this talk that’s (mostly) about how Ace Attorney is pretty inaccurate, you might be thinking back to my previous introductory blog post. Specifically, I said that the Ace Attorney series is both totally inaccurate with real lawyering and “absolutely, painfully accurate” at the same time. When I said that, I knew I was going to have to get into the fact that the game was probably more accurate to the Japanese legal system than the one I was familiar with, but that isn’t what I was referring to when I said something as strong as “absolutely, painfully accurate.”
But, I know this article is getting long and I promise I’m not gonna keep you for too much longer. I’d like to save most of my remaining points for future articles, especially the next one addressing the second game, Justice for All. The overarching story of the trilogy is spread out across all three games, and this article is just about the first one (and meant to be spoiler-free too). That’s why I devoted most of it to looking at the courtroom constrictions that are introduced in the first game and continue throughout the other three.
But I’d like to close out this article by bringing up one of the most wonderfully on-point parts of PWAA: Phoenix Wright, the main character.
Phoenix is My Spirit Animal
Maybe it’s pure coincidence. Like, maybe they just wrote him that way and it just happened to be 100% perfect. Maybe it’s an unintentional side effect of the localization. I don’t know. But I have maybe never related to a video game character more than I related to Phoenix during my replay of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
Phoenix has absolutely no idea what he’s doing. He’s just graduated law school. He’s completely broke. He’s inexperienced. He’s outmatched by the prosecution, who has all the information and power and resources. He needs his boss to back him up during trial. He bluffs and fumbles through each case, just barely winning by the skin of his teeth.
He’s even got a so-called “useless” undergraduate major - Art - thus incorporating a negative stereotype of today’s young lawyers that’s actually hilariously true if you look closely enough. I’m guilty as charged myself. That’s pretty topical of you, Capcom.
You see, doctors, another group of people with a lot of professional responsibility and educational demands like lawyers, have a period of employment called “residency” after they graduate medical school. It’s basically an extension of your education. Doctors recognize that when you’ve just graduated, you’re not actually ready to treat patients with no oversight. There’s too much you need to know that you can only learn through experience. So, even though you have a degree and you’re a doctor, there’s another 3-6 years of low-paid work that’s essentially an extension of your education. Once you’re done with that, you’re more prepared to be a fully-fledged doctor, working and helping clients independently.
Lawyers don’t get that. There isn’t a formalized method for us to pick a specialization and slowly build experience in the same the way new doctors get to with their residency programs. Once we graduate and pass the bar exam, nothing is technically stopping us from accepting complex high-profile cases that are normally handled by a millionaire who graduated from Harvard in the 1970's. There’s no extended education for us. We’re booted out the door and told to be free. Go, young lawyers. Try cases, sue people, have fun. Oh... you don’t know what you’re doing? Better go find a mentor to help teach you the ropes. (And Phoenix’s case, he found a mentor with fantastic cleavage. Bonus.)
Phoenix is that guy who just got booted out the door to fend for himself. I love Phoenix. I mean, I loved him when I first played PWAA, but I love him even more now as a young lawyer myself. He screws things up, gets yelled at by the judge, and talked down to by the prosecutor... but he doesn’t fall victim to cynicism, and he still makes it out on top. Even if its courtroom procedures are bunk, PWAA does an amazing job communicating what it’s like to be a ramen-eating, exhausted, exasperated young lawyer. Phoenix’s realism helps me stay grounded through the more unbelievable trial developments, bringing the story back to the point where I can get invested in what will happen to him and his client.
Phoenix isn’t the only refreshingly accurate aspect of the Ace Attorney series. However, while on the topic of the relatability of the characters, I will bring this first article of mine to a close. I think this probably feels like a sudden ending, but I have a lot to say about the other two lawyers that we see in PWAA - Mia Fey, Phoenix’s mentor, and Miles Edgeworth, the rival prosecutor - and for spoiler reasons, Mia and Miles are better left for my posts about the second and third games, Justice for All and Trials and Tribulations. Because I’m trying to keep these articles relatively spoiler-free, it’s more appropriate to discuss them later. My next few posts will also talk about a few points about the series as a whole that I wasn’t able to fit into the flow of this post.
On a related note, because each game chronologically follows the one before it, avoiding spoilers through this entire series will probably be impossible. So the post for game 2 may have spoilers for game 1; game 3's may have spoilers for games 1 and 2, etc.
Finally, if I’ve got anything wrong or you have any feedback, please let me know in the comments. :)
Thanks for reading!
To summarize, the initial game in the Ace Attorney series, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, is a fantastic entry in the sparse non-hentai visual novel genre. It’s made successful by its strong story and cast of colorful, outlandish characters. The courtroom battles are hyped for maximum drama, thanks mostly in part to the fantastical legal requirement that all cases be resolved within three days.
For lawyers, the game can sometimes skirt the line between being fun and engaging and going too far into the implausible. You may find yourself rolling your eyes when, for example, Phoenix doesn’t have a witness arrested for punching him unconscious after basically confessing to a murder. You’ll probably think it’s incredible that both the prosecutor and defense are allowed to hide evidence from the other side until the middle of trial. There are a lot of moments in this game where you’ll need to suspend your disbelief and just accept it. But lawyers will also enjoy the familiarity of the main protagonist, Phoenix Wright, and a host of other things that I look forward to talking about in my next blog posts.
If you aren’t a lawyer? And you don’t mind story-heavy games, with lots of fun twists and turns? Go pick up this game. I think you’ll be glad you did. And you won’t even have to wonder about whether it’s “like being a real lawyer” as you play it.