Ace Attorney: pioneer Rationalism-didactic game?

This article aims to prove that Ace Attorney is possibly the first rationalist game in the lesswrongian sense, or at least a remarkable proto-example, and that it subliminally works to raise the sanity waterline in the general population, and might provide a template on which to base future works that aim to achieve a similar effect.

The Ace Attorney series of games for the Nintendo DS console puts you in the shoes of Phoenix Wright, an attorney who, in the vein of Perry Mason, takes on difficult cases to defend his clients from a judicial system that is heavily inspired by that of Japan, in which the odds are so stacked against the defense it's practically a Kangaroo Court where your clients are guilty until proven innocent.

For those unfamiliar with the game, and those who want to explore the "social criticism" aspect of the game, I wholeheartedly recommend this most excellent article from The Escapist. Now that that's out of the way, we can move on to what makes this relevant for Less Wrong. What makes this game uniquely interesting from a Rationalist POV is that the entire game mechanics are based on

  • gathering material evidence
  • finding the factual contradictions in the witnesses' testimonies
  • using the evidence to bust the lies open and force the truth out

That the judicial system is Japanese-inspired also means the legal system is inquisitorial: the court has an active role in the case (whereas the adversarial system in the West reduces the role of the court to a form of referee) and its (alleged) mission is to dig out the truth. That and the lack of in dubio pro reo mean you can't just be content with putting your client's guilt in reasonable doubt, you have to thoroughly prove their innocence and find the true culprit and get them imprisoned. That means you have to find out the entire story and you can't leave any threads hanging.

Additionally, the fact that you are a lame attorney facing an unsympathetic judge and egomaniacal, dirty-playing, high-status prosecutors who *have led the police investigation and only prosecute when they think they have all the cards in their hand* means you will. not. catch. a break. Every single move you make will be scrutinized, you will face constant sarcasm, dismissal, condescending and ridicule, and sometimes a single mistake on your part (presenting the wrong piece of evidence) can cost you the entire case. This game forces you to take an unflinching stand for the truth in the face of every social sanction imaginable (including, obviously, attempts at your own life). Of course, the plot goes out of its way to make things difficult for you: everyone is as unhelpful as possible, and even your clients need to have the truth pried out of their mouths with the determination of a dentist. Other witnesses can cast remarkably subtle webs of lies that really force you to think out of the box in order to find their weak point. And, since the cases are Always Murder, your client's life is always on the line, and that's when you don't have another person in grave distress. This serves to motivate you and draw you into the story, but it also adds to the constant pressure you are in to find the truth.

But that's not all. In the latest sequel, Ace Attorney Investigation, you take the role of Miles Edgeworth, a prosecutor who Defected From Decadence and restricts himself to ethical methods in crime-solving, eschewing the questionable methods he used in the past, and which most of his colleagues still practice with abandon. The battle doesn't take place in court (which, unless Phoenix or his successor Apollo are defending, is but a formality) but during investigation, which is where the case is won for a prosecutor (if they aren't certain they have enough evidence to get a conviction, prosecutors just don't... er... prosecute).  This means you have to investigate the crime scenes, interrogate the suspects, and find the connections between the clues in order to reconstruct what happened. This is represented in the game by an entire gameplay mechanic for logical deductions (and a fair bit of Will Mass Guessing) that are hilariously over-the-top, concluding with a literal "Eureka!". The interrogations are no piece of cake either: oftentimes, (and, surprisingly, realistically enough in a police investigation) you have to take your suspects through excruciating logical baby steps to break their lies, since they can rely on something as cheap as semantics. Actual Eureka Moments, that is, sudden piecing of mental puzzles in a moment where deductive thinking is stalled, thanks to someone saying something unrelated that just happens to trigger the right association, is also a common phenomenon during investigation: composing a good hypothesis with nowhere near enough evidence is, of course, another rationalist skill, one that is underrated by modern Science as it is now.2

So, to sum it up, what virtues does these games teach?

  1. Uncompromising curiosity. The truth must come out at all costs, or your client *dies*.
  2. The ability to quickly relinquish false leads and weak plans: getting attached to them will only harm you, in very immediate and very dire ways.
  3. Lightness in the face of evidence: before the truth, resistance is futile. The witnesses themselves often lie, and often the lies are directed to themselves: the investigative process forces them to give the lies up, sometimes traumatically: in the case of the inocnet, it's almost always for their own good. In the case of the guilty, they are only delaying the inevitable.
  4. Evenness: The lack of it in the opposition is portrayed as repulsive and reprehensible. Motivated Continuation and Motivated Stopping are egregiously featured and are the main difficulty you have to surpass in your battle against the Judge and the Prosecutor.
  5. Argument: Those that refuse to plead are either guilty, and will be inescapably defeated by evidence, or innocent and are cutting themselves off from our help. Or just being uncooperative, callous witnesses, but they too will always find it eventually in their interest to talk. There's even an entire game mechanic built around this specific silence-breaking interrogation.
  6. Empiricism: Sometimes your opponents will try to derail the discussion with semantics, ad-hominem, and similar fallacies, courtroom antics, and Chewbacca Prosecutions. It's your job to keep your feet on the ground and use your only weapon: hard fact. When you try a Chewbacca Defense, expect it to be in dire danger of breaking down at any moment, and only a way of stalling the trial until you can come up with something better. Failure to come up with something better once the judge loses patience will automatically lose you the case.
  7. Simplicity: The best lies, those that are hardest to break, are those that rely on the least elements to function. The more lies a witness piles upon each other, the easier it is to expose them. On the other hand, disproving a lie doesn't require complicated dissertations, but often the presentation of one piece of evidence.
  8. Humility: You are constantly made aware of your own fallibility. The game will penalize you for every mistake you make, and rub it in your face in humiliating and even tragic manners. Overconfidence and inaction before one's failings is not an option when lives are on the line.
  9. Perfectionism: I could just quote that paragraph word for word, but I'll simply say this: the game teaches you to silence yourself and pay very close attention to what is being said. Anything short of perfect understanding of the testimonies and perfect thoroughness in investigating them can cost someone their life.
  10. Precision: When you have to present a piece of evidence to highlight a contradiction, you must present the piece of evidence, in the most precise and direct manner. Fumbling about will only exhaust the judge's patience, and make your client that much closer to condemnation.
  11. Scholarship: A very specialized version of this: talking to everyone, and asking all of the questions you are allowed, is extremely advisable: usually only a complete understanding of all the elements surrounding the case will allow you to find the right defense, and save your client.
  12. Void: The game won't reward you for following a procedure. The game will reward you for saving your client, by any means necessary (including kleptomania). Admittedly, the fact that this is a videogame with very restrictive game mechanics kinda gets in the way of this message, but you still come out with the lesson that what matters is getting the job done.1

I rest my case.


1. Sorry, couldn't resist the reference: I'm just that geeky. Sue me.

2. That, and, honestly, who could resist a game that names one of it's tracks "Logic, The Way To The Truth" and, when winning a case, "Solution! Splendid deduction."  "Cornered", which plays when you are punching a hole in a witness's declaration that is so huge it could swallow galaxies, leaving them no room whatsoever to continue with their lies and often leading to spectacular villainous breakdowns(MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT), remains an all-time classic. (One clip is even peppered with quite interesting quotes on Truth.)

29 comments, sorted by
magical algorithm
Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:23 PM
Select new highlight date

Objection! The Phoenix Wright games are not such a great Rationalism-didactic game!

My wife's a big fan of the series. While they're pretty good games and have funny dialogues, I don't think they're great tests of reasoing and cleverness. They're a bit better than the old point-and-click games (where you often had to fall back to "try everything with everything"), but not by much.

A lot of the things you mention are only present in the story, so they don't matter nearly as much when it comes to teaching things to the player. And plenty of games have stories that feature the elements you mention - life-and-death situations, the end justifies the means, you have to try everything, etc.

And one aspect of the game seemed anti-rational to me: that your client is always innocent; i.e. you always know the bottom line, you just have to find arguments for it. One way people shoot themselves in the foot is by taking a certain position (a split-second judgement on superficial features, or based on their peer's positions, or political affiliation, or fashion ...), and then filter evidence depending on whether it fits your conclusion or not, only changing their mind if clobbered with opposing evidence.

In terms of teaching how to think, I'd value complex simulation games above the Phoenix Wright series, or competitive multiplayer games - the best would probably be things like diplomacy, where you have to make alliances and may or may not hold your word. I know there are some webbased or play-by-email games, but haven't played any like that for some time now.

Hold it!

There is little to no Gameplay And Story Segregation: the quest for truth by disentangling lies with evidence being the key difference with any other game. (Except perhaps L.A. Noire but I haven't played that one yet so I can't say.) Other adventure games usually rely on your solving a gratuitous amount of puzzles: it's basically an expanded Rubik's cube. Do Rubik's cubes teach you the rationalist virtues of seeking the truth for its own sake and abandoning lies with haste? I think not, and neither does any other game as far as I know.

Also, for one thing, and I'll say this even if it's a huge spoiler, your client is most definitely NOT always innocent. However, this game teaches you to look for the subtle (and, sometimes, for the Genre Savvy, frankly obvious) cues on the guilt of every client. In the games where Apollo Justice stars, there's even an entire gameplay mechanic based on looking closely at people and picking up the tittle ticks that betray them when they lie. You also don't really work with a bottom line. As an attorney, it's obviousl your duty to look for evidence that will absolve your client. However, you often don't know at if the evidence will weight in either direction: this is literally the opposite of TheBottomLine: you are obliged to go wherever the evidence leads you, and can't obfuscate your way around. On the other hand, the opposition is the one who has a bottom line written down, and it is them you have to clobber with evidence.

The games you have mentioned teach you how to be a good social manipulator at the best of times, but they won't teach you to uncompromisinly look for the truth among a nest of lies like the Wright games do.

The Phoenix Wright games dont teach you to uncompromisinly look for the truth as much as put you in the shoes of a character who does that, which is a bit better than just say reading about a character who does that in a book, but not quite there yet.

To really teach about uncompromisinly looking for the truth, the game's mechanics should somehow give you the choice between compromising or not, and if you choose compromise, it shouldn't be game over - it shouldn't even be penalized, heck, if you compromise it's because you get more utility out of ignoring the truth.

(note: I'm a gameplay programmer, I implement game mechanics for a living (and design and implement some in my free time, and read game design books and blogs and have talked with a lot of designers etc.) - I'm very much used to seperating gameplay from story)

Oh, yeah, sure, but by presenting the protagonist as sympathetic, heroic, and in the right, and making you invest yourself emotionally in his endeavor and identify for him and care for his friends, wards and clients, it sort of gets you there.

If it isn't penalized in one way or another, how can you say ti teaches you to look of the truth?

I'm not suggesting you aren't, but this is very interesting news. How would you go about implementing an investigative game mechanic that values truthseeking over "comfortable compromise"?

Well, you'd need to reward the player for deciding to search for the truth even if it's uncomfortable, i.e. the player would have the choice between consequence X and the truth (and consequence Y), where consequence X is somehow more attractive.

For example, X could be an immediate, straightforward reward (gold, XP, completing your quest, finishing the level), and Y could be a rare achievement ("truth seeker!"), or Y could only become apparent in the long term (giving you access to the Temple of Truth later in the game), or it could open up some options ("unlocked character class: Monk of Truth").

You could also make it known to the player that in the past, he did not always find the truth ("Oh, and that swamp monster you killed last week? When the head inquisitor examined the remains, he saw it was actually the farmer's daughter under a curse. Don't worry, we won't tell her father, he's just some redneck, who cares? Now your next mission ..."), which could encourage him to think and investigate a bit more next time.

Example: a cooperative multiplayer game, the players are exploring/colonizing a dangerous planet; each is the head of a probe dropped at one point of the planet, and uses robots to explore the environment, dig for resources, experiment, etc. The only communication between players is by broadcasting research notes about the environment: "red trees are very dangerous", "areas containing yellow bulbous crawlers tend to be good mining sites for zirconium", "sector H41 is a safe place to build a processing plant", etc. Each player has a reputation score, and you win reputation by broadcasting notes, and lose some by changing your mind. A mothership orbiting the planet beams down a fixed amount of resources and energy each day, and players with a higher reputation get a bigger share (but it stays zero sum). The environment should be hostile enough that the whole expedition has a chance of being wiped out if the players make bad choices. So the players have an incentive to tell the truth to maximize the efficiency of the expedition as a whole, but each player has an incentive to make claims too early and not revise them to get a bigger share of the daily resource beam (this could be improved a number of ways!)

Other example: standard fantasy RPG, complete quests, kill orcs, collect gold and XP, have a "reputation" with various factions. But sometimes the NPC giving you a quest is lying a bit - the old woman looking for her cat is actually a necromancer, the farmer complaining about the orcs actually settled in the middle of their territory, etc. - this sometimes won't matter, but may sometimes have nasty consequences if you're too gullible. You can complete the quest as usual (and get the normal reward). You may get increases to your intelligence stat if you see through lies (just as you'd get an increase in strength for hacking orcs).

I'm sorry, I can't quite put my finger on it, but "I notice that I am confused"... that is, tere's something about this proposals that doesn't quite satisfy me... perhaps we're in a Double Illusion of Transparency?

Well, one thing could be that the games I described would be quite crappy :) L.A. Noire as Michaelos described it sounds better.

I admit that my attempts to make game mechanics that teach to values truthseeking over "comfortable compromise" weren't that great. Doing it right requires two things:

1) Having an environment in which it is possible and meaningful to choose between truthseeking and comfortable compromise (so the player can exercise his "truth-seeking muscle")

2) Encouraging the player to do pick truthseeking

I think the Phoenix Wright games fail at the first (the decision is taken "in the story", not in the game mechanics), and my examples fail at the second.

It may be that the best way to teach that is through a strory in which a sympathetic character uncompromisinly looks for the truth, but in that case it doesn't matter as much whether the story is in a game, a novel, a movie or a Harry Potter fanfiction. You could take the plot of a Phoenix Wright but replace the dialogue/interrogation/search gameplay phases with some minesweeper-like gameplay, then I get the impression that a lot of your arguments would still hold.

^You've just described the Professor Layton games...

Having played through part of L.A. Noire and a bunch of Ace Attorney games, I'll list a few differences between the two:

There is a case in L.A. Noire where there are two people who seem to have done it. The evidence was VERY similar (Access to one of the murder weapons, access to the type of clothes, correct shoe size, both had a motive.) You have the choice of charging either one, and either way you continue onto the next case. There is a an answer which will get you a higher rank, but it seems to be a case where you will be ranked higher because you told your captain what he wants to hear, and of course your captain is the one ranking you.

L.A. Noire also expands the "The witness is lying, and his face and body language says so" Mechanic. L.A. Noire will have you judge Truth or Lies 10-20 times per case once you get through the tutorial levels.

Also, you have to further judge between whether it's a lie you have evidence for or whether you think they're lying based on their expression but you have no evidence, where you pick "Doubt" instead.

If you fail to get certain evidence from people in interrogations it will adjust the course of the case. As an example:

Call a witness out correctly for lying: Get the location of the criminal. Do not call a witness out correctly for lying: You have to tail the witness carefully in your car to the location of the criminal.

In general there appear to be multiple paths to a conviction in L.A. Noire, although I can't say how many since I haven't played through the game enough.

The action scenes I have seen so far are fairly easy, forgiving and straightforward, so you don't have to be that good at shooting/racing style gameplay to play the game. There are also a lot of optional helpful tools which you can turn off if you want more of a challenge.

LA Noire is definitely a worthwhile purchase, and while I'd have to finish the game to be able to give it a full rating, I would definitely say that so far it's at least as good as the Ace attorney series.

Yeah, I'm starting to think of buying the PS3 just to play this game... The voice acting was really mind-blowing.

How good are the "visual cues" for lies and such? If it were a movie, would people say the performances are narmy or overblown? Or are they subtle enough?

My impression so far is that the cues keep you in the game the first time when you don't know what's really going on, but some actions can seem overblown if you already are familiar with the case and are going through the case again the third time.

Wait, I was under the impression that hindsight bias would apply if I were to have said "Yeah, some actions seemed overblown even when I didn't know what was going on." Because I would have gone back and changed my memory of my first impression based on my subsequent impression.

Ergo: First Impression: X Subsequent Impression: Y Memory of First Impression after Subsequent Impression: Y (This SHOULD be X, but it isn't because of hindsight bias.)

But if I say: First impression: X Subsequent impression: Y Memory of First Impression after Subsequent Impression: X

Then I don't think I have hindsight bias. Am I misunderstanding something?

No, it is I who was confused. Anyway, it appears that the acting is overblown, especially to indicate the suspect is lying.

These games seem slightly dangerous from a rationalist perspective, if anything. Despite wearing the attire of evidence, reason, and truth-seeking, what you described is an exercise in motivated cognition. If The Truth is a foregone conclusion, being willing to relinquish particular arguments in favor of it isn't very helpful. Maybe the Miles Edgeworth version is better in this regard.

Any situation where individuals are pitted against one another is going to be difficult training ground for rationality. Evidence needs to be treated not just as something to deploy against others. Reframing truth-seeking as a cooperative, positive-sum venture rather than an adversarial, zero-sum one can go a long way.

Any situation where individuals are pitted against one another is going to be difficult training ground for rationality. Evidence needs to be treated not just as something to deploy against others. Reframing truth-seeking as a cooperative, positive-sum venture rather than an adversarial, zero-sum one can go a long way.

That only holds if the individuals are trying to change each other's mind, or prove that the other is wrong to a third party. If the conflict isn't around belief or values, then the involved parties have better use the available evidence to be as effective as possible. So games like Diplomacy or Starcraft could be decent training grounds for instrumental rationality.

(I still agree with what you meant, i.e. adverserial debate isn't very conductive to either party weighting the evidence honestly and updating their beliefs in consequence)

Yes, I should have specified situations where the conflict is over beliefs. Conflicts over goals don't have the same mind-killing quality.

In both cases, the "investigations" game might be better in this regard. Being a Police Procedural, the investigation is a collaboration between a number of investigators. This might be even truer in the upcoming "Phoenix Wright VS Professor Layton" games...

Anyone here familiar with the Professor Layton games? I haven't played them, but I've heard them praised to high heaven and beyond...

first one was okay. second started getting a little tedious.

the trouble is that they can't make the puzzles too difficult for broad appeal.

What I like about the Layton vs Wright crossover is that it is about a witch hunt, a topic that has some very important rationality lessons to impart (see: ST:TnG episode: The Drumhead).

Witch Hunt... this reminds me of Umineko No Naku Koro Ni. Anyone here played that game? Does the gameplay mechanic relate to the current topic? I heard something about truths outlined in red or...

Umineko does not have gameplay mechanics; it's not interactive at all. It's a good story, and provides plenty of opportunity for the reader to try to figure out what's going on.

But I would not call Umineko a shining example of ideal epistemology: e.g. the protagonist is investigating a murder mystery; but if in the process he comes to believe in magic, then he loses; and he knows that, so he'll try to avoid a conclusion that involves magic whether or not it's true; and all this occurs in a universe where magic does exist elsewhere, the only question being what happened in this particular mystery.

The "red truths" are a case of filtered evidence: They are statements guaranteed to be literally true (guaranteed both to characters and across the fourth wall), but they are also selected by the villain in order to be optimally misleading.

Sounds interesting. So, we have a clear, enforced case of The Bottom Line, and a some automatically misleading evidence...

No interactivity? You mean you don't even get to choose a route?

No routes. It's a book, with illustrations and music and sound effects, that just happens to be published in software form.

How does Phoenix Wright identify innocent clients to represent, and why doesn't the prosecution use whatever mechanism he uses to filter out innocent suspects before deciding to prosecute?

One could ask the same question about Perry Mason or Arthur Kirkland. Mostly it's because either he knows the suspect personally and vouches for them even when the suspect insists that they don't want a defense (there are always convulted reasons for this, including the suspect legitimately thinking they are guilty), or the evidence accumulated feels... fishy. As in, you know that, "I notice that I am confused" feeling? That's it, in-universe, AFAIK.

Out-universe, some of the least passionate cases become interesting simply because of how curious we are about what actually happened. We notice there is untruth, and we want to dissolve it. We don't really know our client is innocent, but we're not sure they're guilty, and we can't let them get sentenced just like that, so we investigate, and the truth will be whatever it'll be.

That, and the character designs and mannerisms are really unsubtle for the Genre Savvy, you can usually spot the killer from a mile away if you know your tropes right. Though the games still manage to surprise you every now and then.

why doesn't the prosecution use whatever mechanism he uses to filter out innocent suspects

If they could, they would, so we should expect it's something that he has easy access to and they do not have easy access to. I am tempted to say Phoenix Wright's ability to be confused by fiction - it would be very difficult for the prosecution to use Wright's brain to filter out innocents.

That this is a video game (could be clearer in the article; I didn't understand "DS" at first). Is it possible to play it in English on a PC?

You'd need an (emulator)[] and the approriate rom. Also, for it to be legal, you would have to own the game (as in, go and buy the cartridge, even if you won't actually use it). Honestly, I suggest just buying the DS, it's become quite cheap (unless you want to go for the 3DS, like a boss). It's also very fun to use, has awesome games, and is NIGH INDESTRUCTIBLE.