“Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” by Shu Takumi

Open "Turnabout Beginnings", a case in Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations.
Open “Turnabout Beginnings,” a case in Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations.

A thrilling courtroom drama delivered through a medium which blurs the line between visual and textual narratives, Ace Attorney, whose first release in 2001 proved unexpectedly popular in the West, can be counted among the works most responsible for bringing the visual novel paradigm to the mainstream. It, along with selected others which can be strictly categorized as true “visual novels”, such as:

…are most easily described as text-based adventure games which require minimal player input, since visual novels are formally labelled as ‘computer games’ by society at large. In practice, however, they are essentially a novel-length narrative retold through text and animation.

Ace Attorney’s narrative is centered on protagonist and player character Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney with a strong sense of justice, who uses his keen investigative skills to acquit his clientele of heinous crimes, usually entailing murder. However, the pivotal narrative device in each entry is the game’s portrayal of the judiciary system, which is based on current legal practices within the inquisitorial law system employed in Japan. Often, due to the exaggerated, borderline satirical portrayal of the inquisitorial system, (as opposed to common law counties) Phoenix’s cases often appear un-winnable, prompting the reader to reflect after winning the case upon how many other innocent people are wrongly convicted within this universe, and the social implications of valuing a conviction above the elimination of reasonable doubt. This Manichean stance is the driving force behind Phoenix’s antagonists: the prosecutor’s office.

“…In Japan, being convicted of a crime once legally accused is almost certain… many defense attorneys may never win an acquittal throughout their career. The conviction rate in Japan, higher than much of the rest of the world’s, has been suggested to be a result of prosecution departments, running with low budgets, selecting only the most likely cases for achieving conviction to bring to the courts.” (via)

Characterized by branching narratives which are influenced by player choice, and a ubiquitous first-person perspective, visual novels have often been viewed as the response of the electronic realm to the popular “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of print fiction, published by Bantam in the 1980’s and 90’s, and which has since seen a renewed interest, as evidence by works such as Ryan North’s “To Be Or Not To Be: That Is The Adventure.” This may be indicative of a resurgence in modern readers’ affinity for works that allow themselves to be influenced by the audience’s decisions, and reflect changes accordingly (i.e. interactivity) in order to undergo a more immersive experience.

Because of the uncomplicated nature of the programming behind these texts, production values can vary wildly from one work to another. Visual novels published by indie developers, for instance, often rely solely on open-source engines and creation kits, such as “NScripter”. Resources for these are limited to static drawings and/or photographs to accompany their text, which traditionally is delivered on a closed-caption scroll at the bottom of the screen. Larger productions published by major entertainment studios, such as Capcom’s popular “Ace Attorney” series, often benefit from richer user interfaces, voice acting, and robust animation, sometimes even in a digital-stereoscopic or three-dimensional format. Taking full advantage of the features on Nintendo’s “DS” platform, Ace Attorney for instance sports touch support, voice commands, and hybrid 2D-3D gameplay.

Puzzle segments sometimes require users to manipulate objects in 3D space.
Puzzle segments sometimes require users to manipulate objects in 3D space.

These multimedia elements are crucial to the ethos, the ‘thing’ of Ace Attorney; when readers yell “OBJECTION” at a screen in order to present a contradiction in a witness’ testimony, they will presumably agree when Phoenix remarks on the direness of their situation, and after meticulously dusting a murder weapon for prints, readers will react with the same indignation and anger as the attorney when it is revealed that their tireless effort is inadmissable as evidence. Despite lacking AA’s considerable resources, this resultant emotional sympathy is something all visual novels aspire to as integrated multimedia experiences.