As you may or may not know, I
am slightly obsessed with enjoy a series of video games called Ace Attorney. To make a long story short, you play as Phoenix Wright, a rookie defense attorney, as he investigates crimes and defends the innocent from wrongful convictions. As you can imagine, these games don’t feature a lot of fast-paces gameplay – instead, they focus more on puzzle-solving and logical thinking as you put the pieces of the case together and determine the truth.
Because of this, Ace Attorney happens to be heavily story-driven. It’s like reading a mystery novel, except you’re the main character. With all of the story and narration involved in these games, it makes sense that there are a lot of writing lessons that can be learned from them.
Since there are a lot of games in this series, I’m just going to focus on the first three, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Justice for All, and Trials & Tribulations, which actually fit together like a trilogy. I vaguely hint at a few plot points, but I did my best to keep everything spoiler-free. Without further ado, here are some writing lessons from the Ace Attorney Trilogy!
Lesson 1 – Complex Antagonists
Granted, Ace Attorney has complex and well-developed characters in general, but I specifically want to talk about the antagonists, since they are often the characters that get ignored in stories. In each game of the series, you’re pitted against a prosecuting attorney that serves as your rival for the game. Though they don’t typically end up being the “true” villain of the game, they still play the role of the antagonist.
Anyway, these rivals usually come across as cold, rotten jerks when you first meet them. For example, your first impression of Miles Edgeworth, the prosecutor in the first game, is that he’s known as the “Demon Attorney” due to rumors of him using underhanded tactics in his investigations and trials. However, as the game and the series go on, more aspects of his character are revealed. Although the rivalry continues, Edgeworth becomes more of an ally and friend. The same goes for many of the other rivals in the series.
The takeaway: Your antagonists deserve just as much attention as your protagonists, so give them a well-developed character, a good backstory, and solid motivations. It’ll make your readers appreciate them so much more.
Lesson 2 – No Guns Left on the Wall
Chekhov’s Gun basically states that if you tell the reader/audience that there’s a gun on the wall in one scene it must be used in a later scene, or else it’s extraneous information. In other words, don’t include details that aren’t important to the plot.
In Ace Attorney, just about everything has significance. As you go through your investigations, you catalogue a lot of evidence, some of which seems more relevant than others. I mean really, party poppers? How’s that going to help? But as the cases go on, you learn that every piece of evidence plays a role, some more significantly than others. Regardless, there’s nothing extraneous about the evidence.
The takeaway: In your writing, try your best to include only what’s vital to the story. Perhaps you don’t need to be quite as drastic as Chekhov’s Gun suggests, but keep an eye out for extraneous information – if it doesn’t add to the story, cut it.
Lesson 3 – Deus ex Machina
Apparently, today’s post could also be titled “learn fancy writing terms with Maggie.” In short, Deus ex machina is term meaning “god from the machine,” and it’s used to refer to plot devices that solve problems quickly and conveniently. This is usually a bad thing, and sadly, I see it show up in Ace Attorney sometimes. One specific example happens at the end of the second game, Justice for All, during the last part of the trial, when it seems as though all hope is lost. Then, just when things are looking bleak, another character bursts into the courtroom with just the right evidence you need to turn things around!
Now, granted, you still have to figure out which piece of evidence to present and to whom, which is tricky – and you only have one chance. And even though the moment feels victorious, there’s a part of me that thinks everything came together a little too well. It does seem rather convenient that this character arrived just in time, doesn’t it?
The takeaway: Try to avoid these convenient plot-resolving devices in your writing. Though sometimes they can be used to your advantage, most of the time, they’ll hurt your story. Instead, focus on ways that your characters can resolve the situation using the resources they have at hand.
Lesson 4 – Building a Trilogy & Tying it All Together
As I mentioned earlier, the first three games in the Ace Attorney series form a trilogy, and the three games all work together very well in that regard. Although it seems like each case stands on its own – and it does – there are actually ways that they build on each other to create one overarching story. However, it’s subtle enough that you likely wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it.
In the final case of the third game, Trials & Tribulations, the pieces finally come together. Something that was hinted at in the first game finally appears, and some of the events in the second game cause (in part, at least) this final case. As you continue, you see how everything comes together, and honestly, it’s a wonderful feeling. When you see things happen, you realize how the previous cases were leading up to event, and as a writer, it was very fulfilling to see that.
The takeaway: When writing a series, or even just a long story, give your readers hints. Build up to the climax in subtle ways (don’t be too obvious) so that when you finally start revealing things, your readers will see how all of the parts fit together to create the story.
There’s a lot more I could talk about in these games (like the dialogue – there’s a lot to learn there), but this post is already long, so I’ll stop myself here. I hope you were able to learn something new about writing today, and even if you’re not familiar with these games, you at least found it interesting.
I plan to do more of these “Writing Lessons” posts in the future, so is there anything that you’d like to see me talk about? I have plenty of ideas already, but I’d love to have your input as well! Feel free to drop a comment below and I’d be happy to start a conversation with you!
2 thoughts on “Writing Lessons from Ace Attorney”
Great post. The original Ace Attorney trilogy are some of my favorite games of all time and I adore the writing and narrative that stretches across the 3 games. I feel like the newer ones haven’t been as good, but they’re still enjoyable.
That said, would you like to share your articles in our FB group? We’re a growing community of gaming bloggers and we’re always looking for more great writers to share their work and discuss all things gaming. Just search for “Game Bloggers United” on Facebook.
Ace Attorney features some of my favorite writing and storytelling in gaming, so it was fun to be able to pull some lessons out of it. I agree that the newer games have felt a little different than the first three, but I’ve still enjoyed them immensely and the series has yet to disappoint me. I just finished Dual Destinies recently, and I hope to start Spirit of Justice soon!
And thank you for the invitation to your Facebook group! Although I don’t strictly blog about gaming, it’s one of my passions, so I’ll definitely look into it!
Thanks for stopping by and for your comment! I appreciate the feedback, and it’s always nice to talk to a fellow Ace Attorney fan.