Guilty as FAQ
"Ooooh!" I exclaim excitedly, tapping my stylus to the 3DS screen. The old lady had slipped up; I am certain. All I need to do is figure out where to present the proper evidence.
This namby pamby granny has been trying to make the case that her back was causing her so much trouble she could barely walk. Alright, I can buy it. A stout little Mrs. Potts of a woman having some back problems is perfectly plausible.
But, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if she was under such incredible pain, then how could she cross the worn-out, rickety bridge?
Note that I have no reason to suspect this woman is guilty of anything, but I am certain it will all come to light once I present that crucial piece of evidence and hear Phoenix Wright, attorney at law, cry "Objection!"
That is, once I figure out what evidence, and where. Do I present the map with the diagram of the bridge? Are any of these statements weak enough where it would seem relevant? Do I just need to press her harder after engaging in a specific conversation?
Bah, enough of this! I lodge the stylus between my teeth and tug my phone from my pocket, opening the web browser within. I'm the right track — I have to be — I just need a bit of a nudge from a good ol' GameFAQ to set everything in motion. Once that piece of evidence was revealed, the ball will start rolling and cause an avalanche of excitement.
Only it turned out that ball I was trying to get rolling was more of a square peg, and in my efforts to shove it down the hill I found myself tumbling over my firmly planted notion and downward. My train of thought was completely inaccurate, and the real flaw in her testimony had nothing to do with her back.
I obeyed the FAQ, presenting the real evidence, but any exhilarating thrill of victory was gone. I had essentially cheated, and somehow felt robbed of the "pleasure" of pounding my head against a problem that didn't exist.
This feeling of failure is actually rather uncommon for me. If I consult a FAQ for, say, Assassin's Creed, it's only because I don't feel like wasting my time searching every nook and cranny in Italy to snag a secret with little gameplay value.
So why bother, you ask? Achievements, duh.
Of course, the Phoenix Wright games aren't like other games, are they? Not like mainstream ones. They have more in common with the Telltale Adventure games, or the Zero Escape series that I previously discussed. You're not testing your skills and reflexes against a variety of quick-moving foes, or even against puzzle pieces dropping from the sky. It's all about finding clues, piecing them together, and maintaining a careful attention to detail.
And the occasion where you have to pick up and untangle the spaghetti trail that is the designer's train of thought.
Instead of the triumph of defeating foes, you celebrate in the jubilation of outsmarting the opposing prosecutor. When Phoenix Wright smiles, straightens his posture and begins to prattle off all the logical fallacies of the witness' testimony, you beam with a similar pride. "That's right," you think to yourself, "I'm smarter than the computer!"
Despite how different it is from other games, however, Phoenix Wright titles continue to have a sense of rising challenge. This isn't accomplished with stronger foes, but with less clear and obvious evidence. There are even details designed to mislead the player, just as an old lady's malfunctioning back misled me. More than a character quirk, it was made into such a big deal that it seemed contradictory to the chain of events. Yet it was simply there to misdirect and challenge me, to make me ask, "Is this really the correct path to choose?"
So why was resorting to the FAQ such a problem? Because it was cheating. It was like plugging in a code that grants ninety-nine extra lives, infinite ammunition, or invincibility. In some cases that might make a game more fun, but in many games, it not only robs the player of the thrill of victory, but can diminish the player's respect for the game.
A big chunk of what makes a game enjoyable is how it engages the player, and part of that is the challenge and the way the player learns to overcome the challenge. A designer must perform a balancing act between telling the player how to confront a situation and allowing them to figure it out on their own, and thus feel some prideful sense of accomplishment. That thrill of learning is at the core of Raph Koster's Theory Of Fun (by the way, do read the book, which is heavily recommended by many GWJ writers — Ed.).
Imagine playing the original Super Mario Bros. and, upon reaching King Koopa in the first castle, attempting to stomp his head. It has worked with every other foe in the first three stages, yet this time the player is hurt or dies. So what is a player expected to do? Try something else, perhaps noticing the glowing object at the end of the bridge. Clearly that must be important, right?
Or perhaps, as soon as their first attempt fails, the player pauses the game and wanders over to consult a FAQ, guide or walkthrough. The lesson that some enemies can't be jumped on becomes a gimmick for the mind to swerve around as it rolls ever forward.
Or take the Hunter from the original Halo. No one tells the player to shoot them in the back, but the game calls attention to it. Other marines will aim for the Hunter's back, which is the only unarmored section and is displayed in a contrasting color. The player's attention is called to it, and once they shoot a bright burst of blood spills out. Yes, the game tells the player, that's the correct choice. Alien goo splurts out of the Hunter's back and endorphins splash into the player's brain.
Yet there's still another secret. If you use the pistol to shoot the Hunter in the back, you can kill it with a single bullet. When I was in college, two years after the game's release, my roommate watched me shoot a Hunter in the back and his jaw dropped. It had never occurred to him to try fighting a Hunter with the pistol.
The discovery of such information and strategies is part of the game's experience. It's what makes it so entertaining not only the first time, but on the second, third, and thirtieth time through. Like good literature, it offers something both to the beginner and to the returning veteran.
Now imagine instead first encountering these new foes for the first time in Halo, having never encountered them before, and pausing the game to check a FAQ. Any sense of discovery, of challenge, is gone. The memories developed from that first encounter, the panic you may have experienced as you watched your fellow soldiers drop one by one to this powerful new force. It would all have been gone. Pick up a pistol, get behind a Hunter, and pop it in the back. Rinse and repeat.
The game goes from climbing a mountain — a challenging yet memorable experience — to walking on a conveyor belt, your progress sped up through the assistance of a machine. What pride is to be had upon reaching your destination?
Of course, just as with mountain-climbing, there are times the path laid before you is hidden or impossible to parse. In these situations it is better to have a professional mountain guide, helping you on the journey rather than carrying you on their shoulders. When I was in middle school I had this experience with Breath Of Fire III. In fact, it is thanks to that game that I discovered FAQs and walkthroughs online altogether. Near the end of the game I found my heroes lost in the desert, forced to follow the constellations to find their way through. Only I could never find the path.
Despite writing down the information found in FAQs and even glanced at within the strategy guide at my local Software Etc., I still could not progress through. I don't know what I had been doing wrong, but do this day I have never finished Breath Of Fire III because of that desert.
Sometimes the guides are a necessity, a way to keep us from getting frustrated due to the designer's lack of proper testing or relying on too specific a thought process in the player's mind. It is at these moments when we need the guide to inform us there's a switch camouflaged in that dark, shadowy corner, or an old man ten villages back that mentioned something about frog oil that you can coat yourself with to slip past the marsh beast. It is at these times when the guides prevent us from throwing the controller in frustration, wasting hours of our time banging our head against the wall, or abandoning the game altogether.
So despite my growing guilt at having put little effort into this badgering of the witness, feeling no jubilation as the Ace Attorney smiled his cheshire grin and revealed the fatal flaw in the prosecution's testimony, I have to remember that this guilt is shared. After all, I had been convinced that I was following the correct path by one simple, nagging statement that repeated over and over again. A misdirection, perhaps, but the only one that stood out clearly.
In that regard, the designer is also quite guilty.