Ace Attorney is a popular and commercially successful series of visual novel adventure games about being a lawyer and defending your client. But wait, you may think, how is being a lawyer fun? As demonstrated by the series’ success, not only was the series able to make being a defense attorney fun, but also able to make trials tense and exciting, despite being a visual novel. I will explore how Ace Attorney accomplishes this by looking at their innovative game mechanics, sound, story, and use of game flow.
Contradictions and Objections
The Ace Attorney games are always split into two phases: investigation and courtroom trials. The investigation phase plays similarly to a point and click adventure game, where the player examines various locations and talk to people to gain evidence and clues for the trial. Investigations are admittedly not as exciting but they provide hints to the upcoming trial, develop characters, and foreshadow story elements. The investigations also serve as a relaxation period in between each day of a trial.
The second phase, the courtroom trials, are where the games really shine, thanks to an innovative game mechanic: finding contradictions. Multiple times during a trial, the player has to cross-examine witnesses, which involves carefully reading each of their statements and pressing them for more information. When the player sees a statement which contradicts evidence that the player has, the player presents the evidence that it contradicts. The mechanic of finding contradictions is similar to solving a puzzle and makes the act of uncovering witnesses’ lies fun and interesting. However, this mechanic mainly serves as a base upon which the other elements of the games build on to create the tension and excitement.
The Sound of the Court
The sound and music of Ace Attorney is not only superb, but also greatly enhances the experience of playing the games. A lot of the courtroom music is composed to create tension and suspense and since most of the time the player is being pressured by the opposition and in a bad situation, it gives the feeling that the player is surviving by the narrowest of margins. Furthermore, when the player presents the correct evidence to the contradictory statement, the music stops, which makes the player feel less pressured and more confident.
In addition, when the character the player plays as starts going down a line of logic that completely refutes the opposition’s argument, some of the series’ most iconic tracks play. These tracks are epic-sounding tracks composed to build hype and make the player feel like a total badass. Combined with the player’s character verbally pressuring the opposition and turning the situation around, these moments give the player a feeling of pride and accomplishment.
On top of using music to improve the experience of being a lawyer, the series also uses sound effects to subtly and not so subtly make the games more exciting. When a cross-examination begins, the screen shows the player’s character and the opposition in a fighting game versus screen style and plays a sword unsheathing sound, subtly making the player think of a fighting game. This makes the player subconsciously associate cross-examinations with a fighting game, making it seem more exciting than it actually is. Both the player’s character and the opposing side always loudly shouts “Objection!” (or a line unique to that character used for the same purpose) whenever they refute a point, and it is the only voiced line in the entirety of the first four games. Later installments in the series began adding in voice acting for cutscenes, but “Objection!” remains the only voiced line outside of cutscenes. The voice line is played in tandem with a large comic style speech bubble covering the entire screen, which adds a lot of energy to the court. By making the court more lively, the player is more likely to get excited while playing the game.
Solving Mysteries … in Court!
Ace Attorney’s cases are best described as being similar to a mystery novel. The player is given a bunch of clues, but is constantly held in suspense until the true murderer is revealed. There often are red herrings and twists to keep the player constantly guessing who the true culprit is. The story, like mystery novels, is written to hook the player in and intrigue them, making the want to play more so they can solve the “mystery”. However, in contrast to mystery novels, where you just read about the mystery, one of the most compelling parts of Ace Attorney is that the player actually gets to “solve” the mystery. The story is linear and the solution is singular and preprogrammed, but the gameplay mechanic of finding contradictions and choosing the right evidence to present makes the player feel like they are the one solving the mystery. By making lawyering like solving a mystery, the games make players excited about the case and finding out the true culprit.
The main story, however, is more normal, with character development arcs and regular pacing, which serves to connects the cases together and tell an overarching story. By having a main story told by individual cases, the player is kept interested by the mystery elements and, at the same time, grows attached to the characters. Not only does this keep the player interested throughout one game, but it keeps them wanting more, which is one of the reasons why the Ace Attorney series as a whole is so popular.
In order to keep trials tense and thrilling, Ace Attorney puts the player in a constant back and forth battle with the opposition and keeps the player’s side in a constant state of near defeat. Not only do most trials start out with the player on the verge of losing the trial, but the opposition constantly shuts down any advantages the player gains and always seems to be several steps ahead. By keeping the player always losing, Ace Attorney keeps the player tense and excited. However, always being in a losing state is not very fun, which is why the player, through the finding contradictions mechanic, is able to push forward before being blown back. This back and forth repeats itself throughout every trial to keep the player feeling like they are moving forward yet constantly losing at the same time. This culminates in a final push, where the player finally proves the true culprit guilty and feels very accomplished having achieved a huge turnabout.
The Ace Attorney series is able to create riveting gameplay out of being a lawyer through a well-crafted blend of game mechanics, sound, story, and flow. By designing a mechanic that allows the player to feel like they are solving a mystery and writing mysteries for the player to solve, Ace Attorney keeps the player intrigued and wanting to see the resolution. Combined with the soundtrack and the seemingly constant losing state, the player is kept on the edge of their seat as they play through the trials, giving them a thrilling experience. The Ace Attorney series is very well put-together and the cohesiveness of all its systems is what makes it shine.