Ace Attorney: pioneer Rationalism-didactic game?

byRaw_Power8y23rd May 201130 comments


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.)