Rookie attorney Phoenix Wright’s first case was a lively battle of wits. With the freedom of his client on the line, the lawyer pressed the witness about the crime and threw down evidence that contradicted his claims until his testimony crumbled, all while his mentor Mia Fey stood beside him. But at the start of his second case, the rookie’s fortune is flipped upside down when Mia is killed by a mystery man with curly hair and a loud purple suit, and her spirit-medium sister Maya is wrongfully fingered for the murder. With no other attorney willing to help, Wright vows to defend her against the notorious prosecutor Miles Edgeworth. With Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Shu Takumi and his team built a different kind of visual novel that turns deductive reasoning into a weapon to bring justice to the corrupt, while creating confident stories filled with energy, humor, and drama. A close inspection uncovers how.
If story is the interplay of plot and characterization to present a theme, then pacing comprises the structural support that joins them all together and controls when they develop over the course of the narrative. By properly spacing the events of their story’s different progressions – of which there can be dozens in a single work – an author can construct a tightly efficient tale that maximizes excitement and heightens emotional impact. Pacing manifests horizontally and vertically. Horizontally it is a rhythm of alternating beats and vertically as varying degrees of intensity, concepts that have a corresponding use in music and explains why those two artistic fields can overlay so well on top of each other. But as a story is a mathematically organized product, it is built of many differently-sized units that create the completed whole. Visual novels offer great examples of how these units work in practice, as their visual representation are precisely framed and their progression closely controlled.
The decision to make Phoenix Wright a defense lawyer gives Ace Attorney a baked-in structure perfect for the adventure game, a genre dominated by variations of the detective character and mystery story. As the attorney’s goal is to build a body of evidence that exonerates their client, they will be interviewing witnesses and investigating crime scenes as a matter of course. But unlike the classic detective archetype, their job extends to transforming that data into a persuasive argument to convince the judge to rule one way or another, all while the police and prosecution do the same. Though Phoenix’s first big goal is to interrogate Ms. April May about Mia’s death, the player’s exists at some unknown distance past it: to find out the identity of the man in the purple suit that really killed her.
Now it shouldn’t be a surprise that different game genres are designed in their own unique ways, but even within one as structurally simple as visual novels there is a lot of room for variation. Ace Attorney’s setup is actually quite different from the likes of Hideo Kojima’s Snatcher or Policenauts, mostly due to the fact it doesn’t have action scenes like those games’ shooting segments. What it does have are four verbs that have uses in both the investigation and court room scenes, even if those uses aren’t immediately apparent. Though these verbs are assigned different buttons in each scenario, you have to be able to TALK to a subject, PRESENT evidence, EXAMINE specific information, and MOVE between locations.
Of these four verbs ‘talk’ is the most obvious as it opens a list of dialogue trees, each about a different topic, while ‘presenting’ evidence will ask the subject about some specific item in particular. ‘Examine’ is perhaps more important in the investigation phase as it causes the character sprite to be replaced by a two axis reticle that will investigate details in the background but still allows you to look through your Court Record at the bench. Perhaps the most subtle command is ‘move’ which lets the player change locations and get access to the characters and environments within them, but requires a bit of explanation before we understand how its applied outside that.
In visual arts such as painting, framing is a container for visual information about a subject and uses techniques to guide the audience’s eye to important information within it. Cinema adopts photography’s framing and displays a series of individual pictures in a sequence that shows the subject, environment, or the camera itself, in motion. Images are given depth of field by layering objects at different distances, so something near and something far can be observed in the same picture. Everything that happens within the space of this linear camera view is considered a shot and continues until the camera cuts to another location or subject. A shot can be its own complete whole or a single unit for a larger part when you connect more than one together.
Study almost any given frame in Phoenix Wright and you’ll find that it’s actually composed of three separate graphical layers – there’s the static setting in the background, the animating character in mid-ground, and the transparent dialogue box in the foreground. By separating character and environment, it feels more like you’re freely shifting your priorities between subjects as character sprites move into the scene to talk and move out to make room for another, rather than crowding both onto the same screen simultaneously. The effect creates a fluid flow of shots, even if no one in particular stands out.
Though they give the illusion of being living entities reacting to each other based on their own distinct personalities, animated characters are really just a series of individual still frames linked together to show movement. In Ace Attorney, Phoenix, Maya, Edgeworth, the Judge, and any ancillary characters are given a handful of animation routines that cover a wide range of reactions. By having a library of stored animations that show each when they’re calm, smug, inquisitive, shocked, stressed, vulnerable, and, when faced with their imminent defeat, spiraling into full-blown psychological breakdown, the game is able to easily change a character’s mental state as the narrative sees fit. All the game needs to know is when to switch between them.
This brings us back to the last of the game’s four verbs. In PW, the ‘Move’ command becomes a programming trigger that links character animations or shots together and is a significant contributing factor for its excellently directed drama, changing a character’s emotional status, moving between characters during a heated exchange, or cutting away from the static courtroom setting to animated backgrounds to ratchet up the tension. Phoenix Wright moves its story ahead whenever the player hits the ‘A’ button, connecting one shot to the next. While these techniques are all put to good use in Ace Attorney’s investigation phase, they come alive in the courtroom.
Because of your sleuthing, you’re walking into the courtroom armed with a small arsenal of evidence, including Mia’s autopsy, the recording of her phone call to Maya, and the wiretap you’d found in Ms. April May’s hotel room. The trial starts with Detective Gumshoe presenting his case. Divided into a string of phrases contained in their own dialogue box, the testimony is reduced to single ideas that can be judged by their merits. With them separated out, the player can ask the witness to expand on each point individually or present evidence that contradicts them.
A way to conceptualize the cross examination is by thinking of a circular hallway lined with locked doors, each statement acting as a rhetorical lock and every piece of evidence functioning as a key. To escape, the player needs to compare the keys in their pocket to the door they’re standing at. Gumshoe’s deduction that Mia wrote her killer’s name in her own blood is contradicted by the autopsy report that says she died immediately from a blow to the head by a small replica of The Thinker statue. Compare that fact to the claim and you get one step closer to finding the truth at the end of the mystery maze.
Ace Attorney ratchets up the drama in the cross examination by implementing a strike-based failure system: for every false accusation you make you get hit with a penalty. Get five in a single trial phase and your client gets chucked in jail and Game Over. While a fairly simple logic-based gameplay system, it helps solidify the craziness of the game’s fictional judicial system and further ties you to the story. You naturally end up paying more attention to the mystery and study every character. Considering the investigative nature of the gameplay, the writing needs to be able to cleanly communicate information just to function properly and here Phoenix Wright soars. It not only gives you important details in well-articulated ways, it grafts every character and situation with an astounding amount of depth, no matter their importance to the story.
When April May steps to the witness stand, she has already used her ample ‘virtues’ to charm the room into believing every word that comes out of her sweet smile. By the end of her testimony, there was little resistance to the idea she had seen Maya kill her sister, going so far as to call upon the Gatewater Hotel’s Bellboy to confirm her whereabouts at the time of Mia’s death. But she seems to know that The Thinker is actually a clock, despite its mechanisms being removed. Her info calls everything into question until you can only surmise that she’d somehow gotten access to the same records of Mia’s call to Maya that you have. Armed with the wiretap, your attack chips the flirtatious May’s façade away until the cute face turns ferocious and her complicity in this crime rears its ugly head. Halfway through the story, this moment flips the plot on its head, presenting a major shift in the nature of the story without solving the main question of who killed Mia Fey. But the light of discovery shows a new figure’s long shadow, a mystery man with ears everywhere.
The verticality and horizontality of pacing build off the two smallest units of human interaction: actions and words. In music, multiple instruments can hit a note at the exact same time, stacking them into a single perceived moment with a cumulative intensity greater than either alone. Since sounds and images are collected by different sense organs, they can be stacked in a similar way to make a single event, a single beat, more intense. A simple example of this is an animation that has Phoenix pounding his hand down on the defense’s podium, the motion and low frequency slam sound adding emotional weight to the act and adding tangible punctuation to the moment. Music and story beats become horizontal by connecting a consecutive series into a form that is perceived linearly, melody for the former and narrative for the latter. Just as different instruments can have separate intervals in a song, different narrative threads can hit at different times; if more than one story beat hits at the same time – say, revealing Maya’s innocence while exposing a new suspect – that moment is more intense.
It’s very important to understand the concept that a unit within a story is its own standalone idea while also being a building block for a larger one, as it keeps scaling up until it has built the entire story. The scene with Mia’s friend, attorney Grossberg, has him going through three distinct phases. His defensiveness about not helping Maya gives way to acceptance of his own cowardice, only to let him confess to his sins. This scene is a small unit in the larger story, but there is genuine development over its course. A string of related scenes like this build a sequence, which in turn build acts. Just as inches lead to feet which lead to miles, a shot makes a scene which continues until the audience has journeyed down the narrative to its end.
Until now, the competing forces of truth and deceit have put greater and greater effort into winning their battle, both having to raise the stakes for the sake of survival. The investigation leads Phoenix to Ms. May’s boss Redd White, CEO of BlueCorp, and closes the knowledge gap between player and character created in the opening cinematic. White wears an ugly purple suit and gold rings on every finger. Further, it reveals his broad surveillance apparatus that collects info on agents throughout the legal system and holds them ransom, freeing him to direct his criminal enterprise as he sees fit. And when you confront him, he proves it by having you arrested on bogus charges. Act two ends on the most intense beat yet, a lawyer framed for the actions of a criminal who owns the law; a man who uses information to enslave against one who uses it to liberate.
With the stakes their highest yet, the fight steps back to the courtroom as the smug White, ruthless Edgeworth, and blackmailed Judge form a strong defense against Phoenix’s probes. Then you find the crack and the real battle begins: Wright tosses down evidence that shows Redd’s lies, Edgeworth interferes to return momentum his way, the Judge slams his gavel; the code cuts between characters as the drama kicks up and fortunes swing. And oh yeah Mia’s spirit possesses Maya and drops knowledge bombs in their darkest hour, shedding new light on vital information to finally bring the egotistic jerk to justice and avenge your mentor’s death. Through expertly controlling its structure, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney builds complex stories with energetic beats. It’s an amazing design to witness.
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.