I recently did an article on the philosophy of the eight types of fun and how it influences game design. Learning how to quantify fun in a specific way helped to sharpen my vocabulary when talking about games, and it gave me a better understanding of my own game preferences. I can understand and appreciate all of the types of fun to varying degrees, but the most significant to me are challenge and narrative. I want a game to push either my hand-eye coordination or my critical thinking skills (preferably the latter), and I want to experience an engaging story while it does this. It’s no surprise then that the Ace Attorney franchise numbers among my favorite series of all time.
Ace Attorney delivers in spades on both types of fun that I enjoy the most. The stories are compelling tales of corruption, misdirection, mysterious killings, and lawyers whose lives are filled with tragic twists and turns. The challenge comes from choosing just the right piece of evidence during a trial. Each piece of testimony is a riddle to solve – do I press for more information or is there a contradiction here? Which object in my inventory do I use to get across a point that I can clearly communicate in real life? The thing is, though, there are only so many ways to make the core gameplay of Ace Attorney more challenging. After all, at the end of the day this is a series of visual novels where there truly is no fail state – worst case scenario, you have to double back and reread some information to figure out where you went wrong. So how does Ace Attorney become more challenging?
To see how this series has handled difficulty over the years, I want to look at two specific approaches that the games have taken: the mechanical approach and the fictional approach. We’ll discuss the game’s core mechanic and the basic ways in which it has layers of difficulty added, how the way the story is delivered can create artificial difficulty, and then talk about which methods are the most effective and fun in my view. One final note before we get started: there will be unmarked Ace Attorney series spoilers throughout this article – I’ll keep them mild but they could be about any of the games in the series and will even include some of the final cases. With that out of the way, prepare yourselves, adventurers, because it’s time for you to hear my testimony!
To see how Ace Attorney’s difficulty can grow, we first need to know the most basic task you can engage in the game. I mean, I guess the most basic is just pressing A to advance the dialogue, so let’s instead call it the core mechanic of the game. During trials, you’ll hear from witnesses on the stand who give a testimony. Mechanically-speaking, these are special dialogue prompts that wall your progress – you can no longer press A to advance the dialogue until you accomplish something. That something is to point out a contradiction in the testimony – a statement that doesn’t make sense given the facts of the case. Once you find a contradictory statement, you present the evidence that shows the testimony is flawed and that breaks the loop, allowing you to once again advance the dialogue until you hit the next wall.
The tutorial case in each game provides the simplest execution of this idea. The witness makes statements that blatantly contradict the evidence in your court record. In Phoenix’s first ever trial, for example, the witness states that he found the body of the victim at 1 PM, but a quick look at the autopsy report shows that the victim died between 4-5 PM. There are no dramatic leaps of logic that need to be made here and you barely have to open the evidence to look at the detailed description – there is a clear and obvious error in the testimony that’s practically begging you to shout “objection!”
This basic skeleton can be made more difficult in a few easy ways. Perhaps the most frequently used is the requirement to press statements. Pressing is asking for more information – it elaborates the current statement of the testimony so that you can get a better understanding of the context. In the above example, pressing the statement about the body being discovered at 1 PM prompts your mentor Mia to point out how suspicious the statement is. Pressing essentially gives you hints towards the correct answer so you better know when to present evidence.
Of course, if that’s all there was to pressing, it would actually make the game easier rather than harder. The ability to press for context gives the game leeway to make the leaps of logic more dramatic. I’ve been playing through Spirit of Justice and in the case I’m working through at the time of writing, I got stuck at a point where I had just learned the full name of a witness. That information was supposed to help me identify that a particular piece of evidence was linked to this witness because his initials were written on it, on a single line in a tiny corner of the page. Pressing in this area gave me a hint that the full name of the witness triggered some kind of memory for Apollo – I had to take that tiny bit of information and make the rest of the connection on my own.
Pressing is also used in some cases to play a mind game with the player. Certain testimonies don’t initially have contradictions – you are not meant to present any evidence at all, just to press every statement. This can earn you a penalty in court if you jump to conclusions and present evidence on a statement thinking you’ve seen a contradiction that you didn’t. I certainly have lost some points with the judge in this way, as it’s tempting not to press statements which seem to be unrelated or so straightforward as to be beyond questioning.
There’s one final way in which pressing adds difficulty to the game, and that’s by hiding additional testimony behind other statements. Sometimes the initial testimony given by a witness has no contradictions, but pressing a particular statement will add a new sentence to the testimony. These new statements include the contradiction that you need in order to present evidence and progress the game, but without taking the time to press the original testimony, you can get stuck and find yourself presenting evidence on statements with no contradictions.
With the basic tools of pressing statements and presenting evidence, new layers can be added to make testimony more complicated to navigate. One of the most common techniques used throughout the series is to have a sequence where you can press multiple statements which all add new testimony. It’s up to you to recognize which of the new statements actually contains a contradiction, as the others are red herrings which will result in a penalty if you try to present evidence there.
Some games in the series also play with the severity of penalties or the circumstances that can cause you to accrue them. During the third case in Justice for All, a witness who does nothing but tell jokes gets on the judge’s nerves to the point that the judge begins to penalize you for giving the witness opportunities to screw around. If you press the wrong statements, you get penalized as if you presented incorrect evidence. This makes even the act of pressing dangerous, forcing you to proceed very carefully if you want to avoid penalties.
There are also situations which cause penalties to increase in size. Klavier Gavin in Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney particularly likes this approach to ramping up the difficulty, encouraging the judge to give you double penalties when presenting evidence regarding potentially groundbreaking new testimony. There are even some situations where your entire case is placed on the line based on one single dialogue option: choose the wrong one and the whole case ends right there, forcing you back to your last save point to try again.
These are all ways in which the Ace Attorney franchise adds mechanical difficulty to a trial – it’s harder to progress the game because you have to go through more steps or slow down to carefully consider your options due to harsher penalties. However, there’s another way in which these games up the ante, one which comes from the game’s narrative rather than its gameplay. This method takes some clever application of the rules of the game, but when used effectively it successfully creates the illusion of difficulty even when you’re really doing the same things you’ve always done. I call this “fictional difficulty.”
In this context, “fiction” refers to the narrative world of the game. It’s the world in which Phoenix, Apollo, and Athena are at odds with clever prosecutors and malicious witnesses. It is connected to but still separate from the gameplay in the sense that your gameplay actions affect the fictional world, but the two don’t necessarily have the same stakes. This is because for you as the player, winning the game requires you to progress the story, but progressing the story doesn’t always mean that the characters are getting what they want or accomplishing their goals.
Here’s an easy example. In Trials and Tribulations, Phoenix is the defense attorney for a defendant named Ron de Lite who has been accused of being the gentleman thief Mask DeMasque. Phoenix manages to get a Not Guilty verdict for Ron, but there’s a problem – being innocent of being Mask DeMasque makes Ron the prime suspect in a much more serious murder case. As the player, the not guilty verdict during that first trial means that you won and can progress the game, but in the fiction Phoenix has fallen into a trap which could spell doom for his client.
That’s the interesting thing about fictional difficulty – it allows the game to feel harder even when the gameplay you are engaging in isn’t actually any more difficult. Instead of making the leaps in logic for evidence more ridiculous or having less clear connections between a piece of testimony and the evidence which contradicts it, instead the game gives you the opportunity to progress mechanically but “punishes” you fictionally. This is how Phoenix or his subordinates are often portrayed as being two steps behind the prosecution. You as the player are doing exactly what you are supposed to, but the game portrays your actions as failing even though in reality they are progressing the game.
Perhaps I’m noticing it more because Spirit of Justice is the game I’m currently playing, but this particular Ace Attorney title seems to incorporate fictional difficulty even more than previous titles. For example, during the third case you actually reach a point in the story where your client is found guilty. This normally only happens when you as the player make too many mistakes, but in this particular case the guilty verdict is part of the story being told. Phoenix fails at his job even though you as the player have done everything you’re supposed to in order to mechanically progress the game. During the final case, the prosecution wields a power against you that normally only you as the defense attorney have, adding and striking phrases from testimony to get the edge over you. From a mechanical perspective, you are doing the same thing you always do – pressing specific statements to turn them into new ones which will have the contradictions you need in order to progress. But in the fiction, the stakes feel higher because the opposition is manipulating testimony to put you at a disadvantage.
Fictional difficulty is an interesting tool in game design, and one that I historically haven’t liked. Have you ever played a game where you easily win a boss battle, only for the cut scene to undo all of your hard work and declare that the bad guy is better than you? That’s always frustrated me about action games, but for whatever reason in the Ace Attorney franchise the fictional difficulty doesn’t bother me as much. Perhaps it’s because I’ve bought into the idea of Phoenix as a bumbling goofball who skates by every trial by the skin of his teeth, but doing the right thing only to still “lose” doesn’t faze me in these games. I think it may be because, as a visual novel, Ace Attorney is about the narrative first, so I’m willing to happily accept whatever creates the most interesting narrative regardless of whether it makes mechanical sense.
I’m curious to hear your thoughts on the subject, adventurers. Do you think it’s more enjoyable when a game challenges you as the player, or when it portrays a character being challenged? Does fictional difficulty bother you when it portrays you being defeated even after you did the “right” thing? If you have experience with the Ace Attorney franchise, which of these approaches have you preferred to see during trials? Show me the evidence for your case in the comments below!
I generally don’t have a problem with fictional difficulty — I’ve played enough RPGs over the years to be well and truly used to it! I can understand why it rubs some people up the wrong way, however.
Visual novels (especially “pure” ones as opposed to adventure game hybrids like Ace Attorney) tend to make particularly good use of fictional difficulty, as you might expect; in a game with no mechanics beyond making occasional choices, you need to provide a sensation of “challenge” from somewhere. (That said, making it through all 80+ hours of Fate/stay night is an achievement in itself, even without the numerous bad ends!) It makes for good, interesting storytelling; things don’t get resolved neatly simply by your input, and the protagonist doesn’t act as a “magic bullet” to fix everything.
This can be particularly effective in visual novels that place an emphasis on interpersonal relationships. An example I frequently come back to is the Grisaia series; whichever of the routes you proceed down in those titles, both the protagonist and the heroine face significant hardships, often without anything being truly completely “resolved” by the conclusion. Trauma, mental health and the like aren’t something you can just “get over”, after all, and those are Grisaia’s bread and butter.
I love Ace Attorney though. I feel the gradation of both mechanical and fictional difficulty is well-paced in each of the games… there’s a real “crescendo” of tension up until the final case of each arc, and a real feeling of “beating a final boss” when you finally crack that last mystery.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I totally agree. Ace Attorney does very well when it comes to bringing each game (and on a grander scale, each character arc) to a satisfying conclusion, and they put in the work to make the story feel epic.
I haven’t played many visual novels which are exclusively a visual novel experience with no other mechanisms mixed in – now that I think about it, I think the only games I’ve played which even sort of count as visual novels are Ace Attorney and Zero Escape. So I can only imagine how much more significant fictional difficulty becomes in games that are lacking in puzzles to solve!
LikeLiked by 1 person
One of my favorite series as well, dying for an original new game on Switch! What I love about Ace Attorney is that the difficulty in the game is always tricky but fair – you’re never in a situation where you need to backtrack super far to get what you need, and you can logic yourself through any testimony. Mostly. I think Capcom has learned a lot over the years, but there were definitely bits of testimony in the early games that were so obscure that matching it with the evidence didn’t make a lick of sense to me, even after eventually looking up the solution. That being said, successfully navigating the webs of lies makes the denouement of the stories all the more satisfying.
LikeLiked by 1 person
They’ve definitely gotten better over the years about the weird leaps in logic. They’ve also made it easier to identify what the game expects you to present even when you don’t quite understand why. I distinctly remember having a couple of moments in Spirit of Justice where I was thinking “I clearly need to present this specific piece of evidence, even though I have no earthly idea why it matters right now.” You really feel like Phoenix in those moments because you are bluffing as hard as he is!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Ha, true enough. Your honor, this broken cherub statue head obviously proves that the witness is lying about never having been to clown college!!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I can’t believe that I still haven’t played any Phoenix Wright games, since I adore Professor Layton games and have been told they are of a similar vein. I had to skip some bits of your post here to avoid spoilers, but it’s interesting to read how a game such as Phoenix Wright is made more difficult.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I originally checked out the series because I’d heard the music and thought it was super catchy – honestly, I can’t believe I never played it earlier because crime drama is one of my favorite genres of television/books, so why not games too? I think there’s definitely a lot of crossover between Layton and Ace Attorney fans; at the very least, there was enough for them to literally make a crossover!