RWP 2024 — Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney (Jasmine Steele)

When I first played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on my 3DS in high school, I fell in love with it instantly, and the series has since become one of my favorites of all time. It likely speaks to the classic nature of Ace Attorney and its pervasiveness as a pop-cultural touchstone that I genuinely couldn’t tell you how I first learned about it— or even what made me ultimately decide to play it. I just remember that I couldn’t put it down once I started!

As a lover of the visual novel genre, Ace Attorney has always stood out to me for its ability to tell a 100% linear story about a predefined cast of characters  (ie. Phoenix is Phoenix— you might decide which topics he brings up and when, but you have no control over what he says or thinks about those topics or what kind of person he is. There are even large chunks of his story you aren’t privy to and never get to be!) in a way that still gives me a sense of agency in driving that narrative forward, a feeling that Phoenix’s victories are my own. I struggle to pin down exactly what gives me that feeling, but I suspect it has something to do with the ludonarrative harmony of the game’s dialogue mechanics; despite the frequent mixing of straightforward dialogue sections with more “gamelike” mechanics like cross-examination and Justice for All‘s Magatama, the games rarely make me feel like I’m merely clicking through a story occasionally interrupted by minigames. Rather, I feel empowered through those mechanics to show my actual thinking while playing: identifying contradictions, pointing out which bits of dialogue give me pause, and being rewarded with the satisfaction of hearing Phoenix voice (usually, more-or-less) the same thoughts that led me to that conclusion. While I may lack control over the story’s direction, I do determine its pace— not only through my reading speed (as with any VN), but through my reasoning speed and understanding of the case. It rarely feels as though Phoenix is moving forward with information I don’t have access to or reasoning I didn’t first need to work through myself.

Ace Attorney also stands out for its memorable character writing and visual style. Ever since I first got into the series, the concept of an “Ace Attorney sprite” as a distinct genre of talksprite has become a touchstone for me. When thinking about character design, I often find it a fun exercise to consider what a character’s Ace Attorney sprite would look like: what poses they would strike, what their personality-encapsulating idle animation would be, how their progression from smug to nervous to desperate would look, and how they would break down in an over-the-top comical fashion that pushes some distinct character quirk to its wildest extreme. It’s no surprise that describing someone as an “Ace Attorney witness” has become shorthand in some circles for a person whose personality and presentation are fully committed to an often absurd theme— despite the series’ large cast, with 3 or more new characters regularly introduced with every trial, a great number of Ace Attorney characters (even background characters!) are nonetheless memorable because of how hard the series commits to making every design as distinct as possible, from name to silhouette to mannerisms to speech pattern. Although the Ace Attorney games push all of this to a degree that is near-impossible to take seriously, I think there is inspiration to be taken from this approach even in the context of more serious storytelling.

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  1. It’s wonderful to hear about your deep affection for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney and how it’s held a special place in your heart since high school. Your connection to the series highlights the enduring appeal of the games and their impact on fans.

    Your insight into the series’ unique blend of visual novel storytelling and interactive mechanics is particularly intriguing. It seems that the way Ace Attorney merges dialogue with gameplay elements like cross-examination and the Magatama system enriches your engagement, allowing you to feel an integral part of Phoenix’s journey. The game crafts a narrative experience where, despite its linearity, you feel a significant sense of agency. This is a testament to the game’s design, which effectively intertwines story progression with player interaction, making each victory feel personally earned and satisfying.

    The distinction you draw between having control over the pacing of the story, through both reading and reasoning, enhances this sense of participation. It’s an excellent point that, while Phoenix may be the character driving the action, it’s your deductions and understanding that propel the narrative forward, ensuring you are never just a passive observer but a participant making meaningful decisions that affect the outcome.

    Additionally, your appreciation for the character writing and visual style in Ace Attorney adds another layer to its charm. The concept of an “Ace Attorney sprite” as a genre of talksprite is a fascinating way to look at character design. It shows how deeply the visual and stylistic elements of the game resonate with you and others in the community. Your description of these characters as being so vividly realized that they can be recognized by their distinct animations and expressions speaks volumes about the creativity and thoughtfulness behind their creation.

    The way you describe using the character design from Ace Attorney as a template for thinking about other characters in various narratives is a brilliant reflection of the game’s influence on your perception of storytelling and character development. The idea that the exaggerated yet memorable character presentations in Ace Attorney could serve as inspiration even in more serious contexts is a profound takeaway.

    Thank you for sharing such a thoughtful reflection on your experiences with Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. It’s clear the series not only provides entertainment but also sparks a deeper appreciation for narrative and game design.

  2. As I’ve talked about with you in-person, it’s always great to hear about your thoughts on Ace Attorney given the significance and lasting impression it had on you. While culturally aware of it and having vaguely played through a bit in the past, it somehow hadn’t found its way into my memory of hallmark games. I think your points about the way the dialogue is implemented is standout and a particular element that VNs/storytelling experiences often wrestle with. It’s interesting because Phoenix is very much his own character, and in a way, it almost circles back to being comfortable “role-playing” as him, as the player. Lots of similar games attempt to maintain a level of plausible self-insert, which can actually be a detriment to immersion if the elements don’t come together. That “harmony” is key and Ace Attorney does it very well. Like you note, the reasoning and knowledge Phoenix works through is done in tandem with the player, and that creates a very smooth and satisfying experience.

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