Ace Attorney Inversions
Despite not selling as well in the United States, the Ace Attorney series seems to have aquired a bit of a cult following. It’s not that hard to notice a Phoenix Wright or Miles Edgeworth cosplay at just about every con in the country, and hearing the word “Objection!” rarely brings something else to mind first. And there lies one of the classic Ace Attorney tropes in and of itself – what is normally somewhat bland, like a suit for a lawyer, is jazzed up. One of the biggest tricks to making the Ace Attorney series original, and ultimately successful, is the inversion of what is normal and what is action packed, making the mundane high stakes and serious points less so.
The easiest examples can come almost instinctively. The games take a court case, often perceived as boring, and make it straight out of an action movie; characters faces and words blow up in tense moments, music intensifies during greater points of logic or plot. Conversely, many scenes are watered down, such as the fact that every story involves murder. Characters like Manfred Von Karma are never explicitly mentioned as executed, but characters will talk about the daughter with words like, “Her father’s gone, you know.” In general, tough times are watered down in adjustment to the kids in the audience.
But it’s more than just the obvious details where something serious is made light and humorous – the sheer fact that the games are (or were at the time) a reasonably accurate depiction of Japanese court systems could be terrifying when given proper thought. The games are one giant satire of the Japanese legal system; the reliance on and pressuring of confessions, for example, is not an exaggeration, but actually realistic. Not only that, but Wright’s eternal curse of starting out entirely screwed in each case adequately reflects Japan’s 99% conviction rate. A very well known example is Takashi Takano, one of Japan’s most well respected defense attorneys, who, despite practicing for over twenty five years, has only won five cases. Additionally, in 2008 the Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama described “innocent until proven guilty” as “an idea I want to constrain.“ Capital punishment is also strongly enforced, making the stakes of this conviction rate very high.
Considering all of these facts are reflected in some way in the Ace Attorney world’s court system, the games’ humorous characters and pop culture references often make it very easy to forget just how completely hopeless it is for anyone who gets arrested. The game never denies that these harsh rules of the legal system exist, but they sure do sugarcoat it. Between a ditzy judge, gimmicky prosecutors like coffee-obsessed Godot or rock-star Klavier, and an relentlessly picked on good guy Phoenix, the games reliably contain a positive and generally light hearted atmosphere for those not paying too much attention.
Evidence is a great example of the opposite happening, even in the face of the critical nature of being on trial. Ace Attorney games regularly use unreasonably juvenile evidence to make valid points, such as the Larry’s rough doodle of a bridge on fire in Trials and Tribulations, or a pair of magical panties in Apollo Justice. Many crucial pieces of evidence stem from a moment of ignorance or sheer incompetence, like Larry damaging a prop spear in Investigations only to have this lead to an unplanned contradiction in the antagonist’s testimony.
So what makes this trope so accessible, and subsequently a staple trend of the Ace Attorney series? A large part of it comes from the humor derived from taking petty things seriously and taking serious things lightly – our brains have a niche for finding the absurd or unexpected humorous. But there’s also a vicarious feeling that comes with taking trivial things and claiming high stakes; in a similar fashion, making mediocrities of our own lives more epic becomes accessible, and even encouraged. At the same time, in taking serious things lightly, we subtly have a moment where we don’t stress out as much. If Maggey Byrde can repeatedly get fired and accused of murder and still remain optimistic for that one piece of good luck, one can logically ponder, it seems silly to take friend drama so seriously. Anytime that others who have it worse handle it better, it’s a good reflecting point. And it shows that this trope works; other shows and games make mediocrity high-stakes and vice versa include Community, The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, and No More Heroes, among plenty of others. In a way, we as a culture almost have cultivated a taste for this kind of humor, perfect for preparing our palettes for other shows or games that do the same thing.
There’s almost an art to how the Ace Attorney series does this. Too little seriousness, and the game lacks a proper sympathy for the characters or driving force. Too much seriousness, and the overwhelmingly critical view of the Japanese legal system can be overwhelming at some points, and rather boring at others. But not only can these games find just the right levels and timing of both, there’s almost a strengthened impact in making the lighthearted points serious and dark points dulled; the natural and expected reaction doesn’t happen, and that draws the player in more with attention. And with more than half a dozen games under their belts, I have no objections to the way they handle this art.
currently works for Spare Change News, a non-profit newspaper whose proceeds benefit the homeless of Boston, and Heading Home, a non-profit scattered site homeless shelter. He also has his own blog, The Analytical Couch Potato, where you can read more articles that overthink entertainment like this one does.