When It Finally Works
Sometimes a game just doesn’t click. And sometimes that same game doesn’t click after the second, third, and fourth times you try and get into it. That has been my relationship with the Phoenix Wright series. Visual novels have never really worked for me, I want to like them, but most of the ones I’ve played have just left me cold, or bored. Until now, that is.
Recently, I bought the Phoenix Wright Trilogy for my Xbox One on a whim—it was on sale and it has been a long enough time that now maybe the series would click with me. And, dear reader, it sure has. A lot of what I will say from here on out might be redundant to fans of the series, but I need some space to gush about this series and this is my blog so why the hell not? But I will also get into why I think the series is working for me now because I am hooked.
The marriage between visual novel, courtroom drama, and detective game makes this series so, so fun to play. The case structure means that each act is somewhat bitesized but also packed full with compelling narrative drama, things to do, and ways to feel smart (nailing an objection as Phoenix Wright feels so good). Interacting with the games—sticking with the first in the series for now as it is the only one I have played, and I am only halfway through it begin with—is deceptively simple. Click through text, make a few choices, inspect some stuff, and watch the drama unfold to the tune of dramatic music and animations. Seeing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney blown up onto a big TV makes the gorgeous animation stand out all that much more. And I am a sucker for a good underdog story, which the first game is to a degree. Phoenix Wright is a young lawyer—the first case in the game is acually his first real case ever—and the cards are often stacked against him. He second guesses himself and it seems like he never fits quite right into his suit. That is until he does. When Phoenix nails an objection or closes a case, he seems elated and on top of the world. He realizes that he is right where he belongs. And his coming into his role feels so earnest and warm that I can’t help but feel good while playing this game. It is positive but not in a lame overly positive, bubblegummy way. bad things do happen, but the whole crux of the series is about doing good—pulling the light from the dark, so to speak. And it is funny as hell. It is funny in a way that games rarely are, and what I mean by that is that it actually made me smile, I even chuckled a few times. Games are never funny and when they try to be, it is even worse. But this one is. Almost every part of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is working for me and I have not felt this way about a game in a bit. It is like I am finally unlocking something that has always been there and am seeing a whole new avenue of experiences ahead of me. Visual Novels have finally clicked with me.
Why have visual novels finally clicked with me after over a decade of trying to get into them? Honestly, I think it comes down to who I am now, as a person, and the whole “our current moment” thing. When I first tried the Phoenix Wright series I was around twelve and all I played were shooters and I pretty much stayed that way until I was seventeen. Yes, I played other stuff too but games that boil down to mainly reading? No thanks! I was a dummy. And now I am a bit older and somewhat sick of video games. I’ve grown tired of violence being the core verb through which we interact with game worlds. Seeking games that approach the medium through other angles has slowly become the only way that I am still tied to games. Yes, I love a good shooter every now and then, but I am so tired of games as military propoganda. And while Phoenix Wright can probably be viewed as police state propoganda—you spend the games locking people behind bars—there is still a more earnest approach to it. There is definitely room for speculation and criticism but I do not feel comfortable doing that yet; I need to see more. And I am more than fine with just reading a screen for twenty hours instead of seeing every game world through the sights of a firearm.
As for the “current moment” of it all, 2020 has made me perpetually tired and in a state of genuine despair. Games that ask very little of me mechanically are all I can take right now. Yes, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney asks me to use critical thinking but I am fine with that. It is more fun than pressing a lot of buttons. And oddly enough, reading books has grown harder for me as the year has slogged on. I miss reading a good novel, like I really, really do. In that way, I guess that Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney has become an outlet for my reading desires. You spend most of the game (and series) reading, as is standard with the genre it inhabits. But where reading a book right now, for me, allows space for despair to creep in and ruin the experience, playing this visual novel series gives me enough sensory stimuli and overload that I do not really have time to despair. I step into the shoes (and brain) of Phoenix Wright and I let that become my world for an hour or two every night. And it seems like a fine enough for world—I’ll take that for now.