Two hours, two persons, two buttons. Glen and Nathan once again wander off the beaten path to bring you this in-depth discussion of the 2009 Nintendo DS cult-classic, Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors.
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Note From the Author: The game discussed in this article, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Duel Destinies, has been rated M for Mature (ages 17+) by the ESRB for the following: violence, blood, suggestive themes, and language. That said, this article focuses only on the game’s mechanics and should be appropriate for all audiences. Please use care and caution when deciding what games are right for you and your family.
I typically don’t play story-heavy games during the school year: they take a long time to beat and all of that pesky suspense and intrigue makes them hard to pull myself away from. So when summer rolled around earlier this year, I decided it was high time I got around to playing a game I’ve been meaning to tackle ever since it came out way back in 2013, Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies.
After slogging through other plot-driven games in the past solely out of pride (I beat games, not the other way around), I figured that I—a busy adult with things to do—simply had grown out of those types of games. As such, I went in to Dual Destinies with fairly low expectations.
It didn’t take me long to remember one crucial piece of information: I like the Ace Attorney series…a lot. This game is no different. While not the strongest entry in the franchise (clumsy writing in places, too much hand-holding, and not nearly enough Trucy Wright), Dual Destinies still managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
The Ace Attorney series is no stranger to introducing new gameplay mechanics and gimmicks, but until Dual Destinies, I honestly can’t think of a game in the franchise that took existing elements and trimmed the fat. Overall, the game has the best pacing and flow of the entire series, which is why I think it’s the perfect candidate for a case study on how to streamline gameplay mechanics. Court is now in session!
Dual Destinies managed to impress me, especially where I least expected it: the game mechanics.
Opening Statement: The Investigation Phase
Cases in the Ace Attorney franchise are generally split into two distinct parts: investigations and court sessions. For anyone not familiar with the franchise, defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator. They question witnesses, search for clues, and sneak evidence out of crime scenes when the cops aren’t looking, all to prove their client’s innocence. This portion of the job is represented in gameplay with what’s known as the investigation phase and plays much like a traditional adventure game in the vein of the Monkey Island series or Princess Tomato in the Salad Kingdom. These segments of the game are often the longest, and fittingly, most of the trimming the game does is in these portions.
Defense attorneys in the Ace Attorney universe are two parts lawyer and one part private investigator.
Exhibit A: The Search Command
Like many adventure games, players in Ace Attorney games must search the environment to find items they can use, in this case evidence to prove their client’s innocence. The examine command brings up a cursor that the player can then use to click on objects in the environment to investigate them. Now, not everything the player sees in an area is going to be evidence (Phoenix’s office plant, Mr. Charlie, for instance), and when clicked these objects, instead of advancing the plot, will just trigger some flavor text wherein the protagonist and his plucky sidekick humorously palaver on about the object in question (#TeamStepLadder).
Now, in games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there (I’m looking at you Wright & CO. Law Offices). This meant players were expected to search every area. Just because a murder occurred in, say, a public park doesn’t mean the player won’t end up searching an abandoned doctors office for clues on the whereabouts of the true killer’s lost shoes.
In games prior to Dual Destinies, every location was searchable, even if there wasn’t any evidence there.
Dual Destinies improves on this feature in several ways. First, the game limits use of the examine command strictly to crime scenes. This means that there’s only ever one searchable location for the player to worry about at a time, unlike previous games that let the player switch between searching multiple areas, each of which could change depending on event flags. More over, the game now has the courtesy to inform players when they’ve found everything they need, which too often wasn’t clear in previous titles. Lastly, Dual Destinies introduced the ever so subtle—but oh-so-useful—addition of having the cursor take the shape of a check mark if the object being highlighted by the player has already been investigated. Considering that many of the conversations triggered when clicking on something could be quite long, even with fast forwarding, this U.I. feature is something longtime fans can appreciate.
And to top it all of, despite the newly imposed restrictions there’s still plenty of that sweet, sweet flavor text.
Exhibit B: The Travel Menu
Locations in the Ace Attorney series are normally static, disconnected, one-screen “rooms” that the player travels between via selection from a menu. It’s about as utilitarian as it gets, and yet Dual Destinies still managed to smooth out the rough edges. See, for whatever reason, previous games in the franchise had a four option limit on the travel menu, meaning the player could only travel to four other locations from any given area. The way the developers got around this—quite frankly arbitrary—limit was to have each area have its own list of destinations. So, for example, if the player wanted to go from the detention center to the crime scene, they may have to travel to back to Wright’s Office, then to the front door of the building the body was found in, and then to the actual crime scene.
Of course, a sleek, afigimatiko-dynamic game like Dual Destinies isn’t about to put the player through all that for something as simple as getting from point A to point B! Enter the magic that is “scrolling”! With this space-aged technique, players now have the uncanny ability to pick any location from anywhere in the game simply by “scrolling” between options! (Restrictions may apply in accordance to plot demands.)
Exhibit C: The Notebook
Anyone who’s played an old-school adventure game can tell you that the worst thing that’s guaranteed to happen to the player at some point is getting stuck without any clear directions. This is why many modern games of all genres keep an objectives list or provide a character who the player can ask for advice at any time. Unfortunately, until Dual Destinies the Ace Attorney games fell into the old adventure game trap of not always giving the player clear directions on what to do next. To make matters worse, N.P.C.s had an annoying tendency to just up and disappear until the player triggered the right event flag. This led to the player constantly going back and forth after every event to see which N.P.C.s had returned to their post and who had new dialog options.
Dual Destinies introduced an extra section to the court record (basically the player’s inventory screen) for notes—which in this case is more of a checklist than a place for the player to jot down information. Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notes tab, and be on their way. Admittedly, Dual Destinies’ plot is structured in such a way that the player rarely needs extra input, especially once you factor in the previously listed enhancements, but the handful of times I did need it, I greatly appreciated the fact that I could just hit a few buttons and continue the game instead of wandering around in circles for ten minutes.
Any time the player isn’t sure what to do next, they can just open the court record, hit the notebook tab, and be on their way.
What I hope to get across is how seemingly small changes eventually add up. Small U.I. improvements can help better communicate information to the player, which leads to less time spent on tasks that slow progression. Moreover, limiting when a player can perform certain actions—like investigating their environment—can keep them from getting side-tracked or lost. In Dual Destinies’ case, the end result is the first Ace Attorney game that didn’t have me at a complete loss for what to do next at any point. As I mentioned in the beginning of this article, it’s not necessarily the best game in the series (my personal favorite is Apollo Justice), but I will say right here and now that it’s the best structured and paced, all because the developers weren’t afraid to make some compromises regarding many of the accepted, long-standing conventions of the series. I’ll miss you, dear glut of humorous flavor text, but I can’t deny the game’s pacing is better off without you.
About the author:
Glen is a lifelong Nintendo fan and has been an Ace Attorney enthusiast ever since he first played Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney back in 2008. His love of video games has inspired him to pursue a career in computer programming and is currently studying to get a masters in computer science. Despite his name and choice of professions, he is in no way related to Glen Elg.