Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Simply reading the title causes a mental car crash of headline proportions, with ‘crazy Japanese game’ causing the first casualty, closely followed by ‘a game about lawyers?’ and then ‘I need to find out more’.
While I love graphical adventure games, I’ve never played a Japanese one. From my limited understanding of the Japanese game industry, I gather that they’re more keen on RPGs, for which I’ve never had the patience. I’m sure there are a lot of Japanese adventure games out there, but I’m also sure that few of them get translated into English. When I saw Phoenix Wright on a store shelf, I simply chuckled and put it down.
Several months later, after seeing it on several ‘Must Buy’ lists of Nintendo DS games, I put an order in – for research purposes, naturally. What I found was a surprisingly funny, intelligent and at times, grown-up, game. In Phoenix Wright, you play a rookie defense attorney who has to take on seemingly impossible cases; of course, you know that your client is innocent, but often the odds are completely stacked against you.
There are two types of gameplay. The first is ‘evidence gathering’, where you (Phoenix) visit various crime scenes, pick stuff up, interview people, and so on. Standard graphical adventure fodder. You see things from Phoenix’s viewpoint – there’s no on-screen avatar walking around, and backgrounds are effectively static. The second is ‘trial’, where you have to question witnesses and point out contradictions (usually, but not always, lies) based on your evidence and what they say; this is essentially a long, rather bare and linear dialogue tree where you have to ‘use’ objects at certain points.
The graphics, while well drawn, are also very limited. I counted about five poses for Phoenix’s chief nemesis, Prosecutor Edgeworth. They are: normal, wagging finger, slamming hand on desk, giving a bow, looking shocked. I might have missed one. But there are no transitions between these poses, and the poses only have about four frames of animation each. In other words, it’s not even a cartoon – it’s more like a comic strip.
Likewise, the soundtrack (if you could call it that) has about four or five loops: sad, triumphant, expository, excited, defeated. These probably only last ten or twenty seconds long each.
As I mentioned above, the interaction is sorely limited. When you talk to a person, you are expected to ask every single question available. All four of them. It improves slightly on the last episode, where you get to do fun DS things like blow on the microphone or join up dots, but it’s still pretty basic.
Finally, the dialogue and narration is all conveyed via text – hardly surprising given the limited nature of the graphics and sound.
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that Phoenix Wright is about as advanced as a cutting edge game from 15 or 20 years ago. And yet it’s one of the most fun games I’ve played on the DS, and certainly as fun – if not more fun – than highly acclaimed adventure games such as Dreamfall and Syberia. Why? Because the designers made the most of what they had.
Indeed, at times it seems like the designers saw its limited graphics as a virtue rather than a hindrance. I can imagine them sitting in a room, looking at the paltry five animations they had per character, and saying ‘Okay guys, we have to make a story out of these.’ And what a story! While it’s ridiculous and juvenile at times, it’s well plotted and very dramatic. The humour is also well-placed, and the designers aren’t afraid at making fun of the game itself sometimes. The writing is wonderful, and even more impressive given that it was translated.
Phoenix Wright, I imagine, is anathema to designers like Will Wright. There is no room for freedom in the game, no self-expression. But what it loses in freedom, it gains in story. Computer games allow for the creation of addictive, entertaining experiences without story (see Tetris or Civilization), but many designers take that idea too far and believe that there is no place for a story in a game, because it’s too hard to reconcile with the need for interactivity. I’ve even heard it said that designers shouldn’t presume to tell a story to players, since players will always be able to create better stories themselves.
Rubbish. Even if I had a holodeck I wouldn’t be able to tell a story as good as Hamlet. There are some stories that you simply have to be told, and it’s folly for game designers to think that stories are inferior, or somehow cannot be told through a game.
Increasingly, I see designers of all game genres constantly striving for more realistic, more interactive games. When I played Dreamfall, the sequel to the Longest Journey, I was astounded by the graphics and production quality, but ultimately I enjoyed it less than the original – which I had played a mere few weeks earlier. The increased interactivity and improved graphics only disappointed me – I became frustrated by the way that I could perform some actions, but not others, and that the graphics were not perfect enough. It’s almost like the game equivalent of the Uncanny Valley – if you can’t replicate the interaction of reality enough, just don’t try. It’s not fun.
Phoenix Wright succeeds because it tells a good story in a simple, fun manner. Every aspect of its production is sorely limited – yet the designers used that as a virtue of the game, almost reveling in the way it allowed them to tell dramatic, funny stories. Storytelling can require sacrifices in terms of interactivity – but if the story is right, the sacrifice is more than worth it.