Courtroom Lessons: The Mechanics and Implications of Ace Attorney’s First Trial

Written by guest writer and friend of the site themasterofcubes. You can find them on Twitter here.

I’ve played Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney six or seven times in my life. This hopeful, colorful murder mystery series has been one of my favorites ever since I first played the initial iOS port on my iPod Touch around 2012. Because of my extensive experience with this series, I have a very strong sense of what Ace Attorney is: what its sense of humor is like, what tone it usually strikes, the typical structure for a case, et cetera. I don’t consciously think about it very often, but when I play a new Ace Attorney game, I’m bringing with me expectations based on the previous games. One consequence of this is that precedent established in previous cases often plays a large role in what approach I use to try to solve new ones. In my most recent playthrough of the original Ace Attorney, I began to notice the ways in which the game’s writing actively encourages players to develop a specific mindset to approach its puzzles from. Its first case, titled The First Turnabout, is written and structured to subtly coax players into the right mindset to approach a typical Ace Attorney case from, preparing them for the series. It’s an excellent example of tutorialization, demonstrating to a new player what information is important, what questions they should focus on, and what kinds of problems they will have to overcome.

The First Turnabout signals to players what information is and is not important in an Ace Attorney game from its very first moments. The opening cutscene reveals immediately that there has been a murder and the identity of the culprit. The victim, the context, even Phoenix Wright himself aren’t introduced until after these two points are established. The reveal of the murderer tends to be taken for granted now that the Ace Attorney games are well-known, but this is a crucial point; players are never even given the chance to wonder who could have done the murder. In most detective fiction, uncovering the identity of the culprit is the mystery at the centre of the story and the end goal of the investigation. However, most Ace Attorney cases don’t go to great lengths to obscure the guilty party, or only does so in the beginning of a case. Phoenix Wright is not a detective looking to refer a suspect to the police, but an attorney looking to establish how the murder was truly done. As such, Ace Attorney is more interested in determining the specific circumstances of a murder, the conditions and motives that would drive someone to commit such a crime, as well as the dark histories haunting the spaces around us. By preventing the murderer’s identity from ever coming into question, The First Turnabout focuses players on asking how and why the murder took place, establishing that those are the questions that this series is interested in. The game only begins obscuring murderers’ identities in the third case, once players have practiced investigations in this game and know what to focus on.

Players never have any reason to doubt their client in this case.

 

Before it closes, the opening cutscene establishes one more fact of the case: this killer will frame an innocent bystander for his crime. Were it not for this, Phoenix’s naive insistence before the trial that Larry couldn’t possibly have committed murder, coupled with Larry’s sleazy demeanor, could be interpreted as foreshadowing that Larry will in fact be found guilty and this will be a tale of a rookie defense attorney being faced with the harsh realities of the profession. However, Ace Attorney is anything but a series about the realities of the legal profession; the way the case is written, Phoenix is shown to be right for believing in his friend until the very end. One of the most prevalent themes of Ace Attorney is the power of conviction and emotional intelligence, especially in the attorney-client relationship. Trials are consistently won and lost over the trust Phoenix and the client can have in each other. In Ace Attorney, being persistent in pursuing what you believe in your heart – usually, the innocence of your client – will, in the end, reveal truth. Phoenix isn’t written as overeager and naive in the courtroom lobby so that his youthful ignorance can be destroyed; it is so that his attitude can be shown to be the correct one despite its cheesiness Phoenix is characterized so that his attitude reflects the values that Ace Attorney presents in its themes. Complete faith in his friends and a refusal to accept incomplete truths are the traits that allow Phoenix to win cases, and they are also what the game thinks make him a good person. By making it clear that Larry has been framed before players have even met him, players are allowed to enthusiastically believe what Phoenix is saying until the game can demonstrate why he’s right to have such strong faith in his client.

While the framing of The First Turnabout shows players the values of Ace Attorney, the trial itself teaches players how to approach the series’ puzzles. This trial focuses on teaching the player about objections, the gameplay mechanic that is most central to the player’s interactions with the courtroom, and the basis upon which Phoenix will make all of his arguments.. The first objection players have to make is the most iconic kind: one where the player makes a breakthrough in the case by poking a hole in the foundation of the prosecution’s argument. These objections reveal important information, raise new questions, and refocus the trial entirely, making them pivotal moments. Usually, these result in swinging the momentum of the argument in the defense’s favor for a moment before the prosecution rebuilds their argument. Of course, these moments only work if the case is paced well; as such, they only happen a handful of times per case. The first witness in the trial is usually a detective who lays out all the strengths of the prosecution’s case, giving Phoenix little opportunity to substantially challenge their arguments and demoralizing him before Phoenix seizes the momentum of the case with a breakthrough objection to the next witness’s testimony. However, The First Turnabout makes the first objection a breakthrough one, immediately demonstrating objections at their most powerful so that players are encouraged to begin looking for them at all times. This breakthrough is even more powerful than usual, as the prosecution never does regain their composure or retake the momentum of the case. As such, the detective testimony is replaced by questioning of Larry, which only asks the player to choose a correct answer from a list of three and does not penalize the player for incorrect responses. This stands out as bizarre if this isn’t your first time playing The First Turnabout since no other case in the game begins this way, but it allows the writers to build up the prosecution’s argument without introducing the player to gameplay mechanics too soon.

Next, the prosecution brings out their star witness: Frank Sahwit. Players are for the first time presented with a proper testimony, but they are not immediately told there will be a contradiction within it. It is only after the first reading of the testimony, before the cross-examination, that Mia explains what an objection is and tells the player explicitly that something is amiss in the testimony, whether they noticed it or not. By withholding this until after the testimony has been heard once, many players are likely to read the testimony just as quickly as they have been reading the rest of the text in the game. The second reading of the text is made tense as both the mechanics and the presentation change dramatically: the text is now all green, signaling its importance, players can now scroll backwards to re-read text, and they have just been told that there is a secret hidden within these words for them to unravel. Players might regret their previous lack of attention and are encouraged to now scrutinize every word of Frank Sahwit’s testimony. While this testimony is about twice as long as is typical, prolonging the tension before the contradiction appears, that moment still happens within the last two statements, establishing a rule of thumb that most will follow. Of course, this contradiction is a somewhat obvious time discrepancy, and many players will likely spot it on the first reading of the testimony anyway. However, the evidence that contradicts this statement has never been brought up in dialogue: it can only be found by opening and reading the Court Record. Thus, any players who spot the contradiction immediately are already paying close attention, and don’t need to be taught this lesson.

The first contradiction in the game is set up to be a highly satisfying moment and encourages players to scrutinize every piece of information they’re given.

The second testimony Sahwit gives contains a contradiction that is even more obvious and based on information that has been expressed both in dialogue and in the Court Record. This one comes and goes fairly quickly. It does not teach the player new skills, instead serving to boost their confidence by giving them more experience with contradictions, showing that not every single one will require going through ten boxes of dialogue. This contradiction also increases the amount of information players have about the scene of the crime at the moment of the murder, encouraging them to keep and update a rough mental image of the murder – a skill that will serve them very well in future cases.

The third testimony takes quite a different tone from the first two; it isn’t a straightforward factual discrepancy between testimony and evidence, but rather a bizarre statement that just doesn’t make sense. Pointing out the contradiction, unlike the first two, does not immediately resolve the topic at hand and introduce another. This is established as another kind of contradiction: it causes the witness to clarify and add more information to your understanding of the case without necessarily losing any credibility. After the witness gives his rebuttal, Phoenix almost gives up, believing that he lacks evidence, but Mia tells him to try to figure out on his own the truth that will make sense of the contradictory facts before him. This is the last gameplay mechanic introduced in The First Turnabout: deduction. Being a new skill, this bit of gameplay brings with it a little bit of extra challenge that makes it a suitable climax to the case. Phoenix is tasked with figuring out on his own what happened rather than simply refuting Sahwit’s account. This is done by accepting all the facts presented and presenting an as-of-yet undiscussed piece of evidence, which provides an explanation for the last contradiction left in Phoenix’s account of events. This contradiction can be solved simply by presenting the only piece of evidence in the Court Record that hasn’t been used at all; while not every Ace Attorney case uses every single piece of evidence at least once, most do.

However, this case also establishes one of the more unfortunate elements of the Ace Attorney series: from the very beginning, Ace Attorney neglects to show any interest in the criminal justice system itself. The writing and story smoothly introduce players, and Phoenix by extension, into the way it expects them to go about the task of defending the client. While the lack of a disruptive, detailed tutorial does a great job at making the game narratively engaging, it also means that it never stops to explicitly describe the systems that make up the criminal justice system itself. In-universe, Phoenix walks into the courtroom and through his good moral character and strong conviction stumbles his way into a just outcome. By failing to comment on the procedure by which the trial is carried out, Ace Attorney implies that it is not worth questioning; after all, the true culprit was indeed found in the end. This lack of procedural criticism extends further: Payne is an adversary, but he is never portrayed as egregiously neglectful or expected to take accountability for sending an innocent man to prison and accusing him of first-degree murder based on flimsy testimony. Even in later cases where the series does try to address legal corruption, it tends to focus on acts of individual malpractice (such as forged evidence) or character flaws (such as unchecked personal ambition or pride) rather than structural issues that are a result of the system itself. Ace Attorney ends up framing the criminal justice system as an institution where most people act in good faith to determine the truth, where mistakes are either innocent ones committed with good intentions by lovably incompetent cops (a trope seen frequently in other procedural dramas, such as Brooklyn Nine-Nine), or because of a handful of evil individuals corrupting it.

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is very carefully written to seamlessly introduce players to the game and its mechanics in a way that does not disrupt the story while also framing them in such a way as to set their expectations and direct their focus in ways that will be useful throughout the whole series. It is a stellar introduction to a wonderful series and sets up themes about the strength of bonds forged between individuals and embracing emotion. However, it achieves these successes at the expense of any examination of the legal system within which the entire series will take place, and this omission leaves the game implying that any justice or happy endings achieved in the story are a result of this system. There are many touches of excellent game design here that are well worth studying, as well as a lesson in the risks of neglecting to comment on the implications of the rules that have been established for players.