Thursday, April 21, 2011


I've had Phoenix Wright on the mind on and off. I was really sick yesterday, and built a Phoenix Wright engine. It's certainly not something perfect, but it made me think that maybe I should explain some of the details about what makes Phoenix Wright games Wrightlike.

It's easy to say "the writing", but that's a copout. Let's go over some of the facets that give these games their particular feel.

The most important aspect is that these games are relentlessly linear. There is one specific route forward, no deviations, no branches, no nothing. While there is space to explore, it's 90% color. Because the game is so linear, all the writing effort can be spent on the scenes that will definitely happen, knowing full well the exact path the player took to get here.

This is quite a limitation, but like all limitations, accepting it can open up new vistas of possibility. In this case, the super-rich environments and characters are possible only because of this limitation, and the way each case ticks over into the next with a strong continuity is also because of this.

Nearly all the writing and gameplay elements stem from this relentless linearity.

For example, the pacing of a Phoenix Wright game is a simple but unusual factor. I think of any part of the game as having a pacing which is the risk divided by the exploration capability.

In "exploration" mode, the only real risk is that the player will quit. And there's lots of places to explore. So it's a low-paced part of the game.

In "court" mode, there is some well-defined risk of losing health if you do specific things, but there's also a fair amount of riskless exploration in pushing and listening. So this is a kind of medium-paced part of the game.

In "lockbreak" mode, every move you make is a health risk. There is absolutely nothing to explore. This laser-like focus makes this the most pushingly-paced part of the game.

In actuality, I split these three up into five, because exploration mode has three grades: "wander" mode in early midgame where you get to explore loads of places, "investigate" mode where the number of places is reduced and the amount of interplay between objects increases, and "inspect" mode, where there are only a few places you can go/people you can talk to (for example, if you're locked in a basement).

These pacing tricks can be extrapolated out into a wider variety of games - the amount of risky exploration/choice vs the amount of risk-free exploration. Through this lens, you can see a lot of games taking the same kind of approach. However, there are also games where you have risk-free zones that have no real exploration - hubs, basically. These hubs are very useful to a not-so-relentlessly-linear game where you might have the option to customize things or take different approaches.

Another factor to the Wrightlike games is their puzzles. The puzzle quality varies - it isn't rare to fall out of synch with the script writers and end up either stuck or trying desperately to solve a puzzle that isn't what they want you to solve.

However, setting aside the quality, the puzzles have a slightly unusual timbre to them. The puzzles are relentlessly linear, as mentioned. Unlike normal adventure game puzzles, there's not a world where several puzzles lie in wait. The puzzle coming down the line in a Wrightlike game is the only puzzle, at least at the moment. Other puzzles may be tied to it, but they cannot be dealt with at the present time.

This means that all the inventory stuff, color text, and hints you give out are focused like a laser on the next puzzle. This is a distinctively different feel than you get from an adventure game where there might be four puzzles itching at the back of your mind while you collect stuff.

I think this gives the Wrightlike games an unusually tight, fluid flow to them. Of course, it also gives them a clogged-drain-style flow when the player can't solve a puzzle, which is a downside. Being forced to replay a mission after losing too much health is also unusually onerous, since you have to go through things in precisely the same order again.

Anyway, I'm not normally a fan of linear games. However, to paraphrase Ebert, I may disapprove of a game for going too linear, and yet have a sneaky regard for a game that goes much, much more linear than merely too linear. Embracing this linearity is, I think, what makes Wrightlike games so unique and enjoyable.


JonT said...

Hi, after reading your post I would have to agree with you in saying that a well-made linear game can be very enjoyable as any other game. This of course is not limited to the well written story or characters but also to the different elements when creating the limitations of the game word and building from those restrictions. As you have mentioned ‘like all limitations, accepting it can open up new vistas of possibility’, and would agree with you on this statement. There however seems to be a trend towards non-linear or sandbox games as players want to have more freedom of how they play their games. One such game would be the popular Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series where players get to roam free around a city, and take on missions when they feel like it. When comparing two games like GTA and Phoenix Wright games huge differences and comparisons can be made with gameplay mechanics, style and genre, however I believe that these two games are not that dissimilar in providing an enjoyable game. In a way both games provide a good pacing, which you have also mentioned. In GTA, players will eventually play missions that form the main story line and are linear in nature and with Phoenix Wright, although you do not get to choose what case to solve, you do have some control over when you have free play in ‘exploration’ areas before proceeding to enter the areas of the ‘court’ where you have risk. In essence a linear game can be given the feeling of nonlinear through innovation and not just from evaluation of technology and creations of open worlds, but giving a player a sense of exploration and pacing can really make a great game.

Craig Perko said...

You're completely right, but for the sake of my poor uncaffeinated language center, please use paragraphs from now on!

If you wanted to look more deeply into the idea of pacing, linearity and the illusion of nonlinearity, I recommend reading up on the idea of "agency".

For example, in GTA3, a big part of why the game felt less linear was because the missions only started when the player walked onto a glowing spot and clicked a button: even if there was not really any other choice, the fact that the player started the mission rather than the mission starting itself gives the player a strong feeling that they are controlling the pace and flow of the game.

JonT said...

Oh sorry about that!

Thanks for the reply and i shall read about agency.

Charles said...


Linearity often seems to be taken as a kind of false dichotomy when it comes to describing games, with it being easy for people to give into the temptation to label a game as either 'open world' or 'linear' as if each case perfectly fits one or the other.

I think it is an interesting point to raise in the example of Phoenix Wright how the progress of the game can be separated into different modes in which the degree of linearity or freedom of play, within that section, can differ sharply from the sections surrounding it.

You can see this kind of delineation in all kinds of games. You can see it in the different sections of Phoenix Wright, and you can see it in the games like GTA in JonT's example which uses hubs, like you describe, with less linearity or risk than the sections into which they branch (The individual missions, which are entirely linear).

I think it's interesting to examine, and perhaps healthy to be conscious of, how this continual change in constraint effects the player's experience. Whether a player actually registers a change in the constraints of the game when moving from one section to another, and whether or not they adjust their expectations accordingly (consciously or unconsciously).

This would obviously differ from design to design and in some cases it seems like it would be a matter of course to draw the player's attention to it, but in other games, especially ones which try to create a sense of openness or the illusion of freedom, would hiding the shift make a discernible difference to the player's experience? In this instance I'm mainly thinking about open world games like GTA and Rockstar's other titles, and RPGs which have extensive exploratory sections which include highly linear individual missions.

Craig Perko said...

I don't think it's really possible to hide the shift from an open to linear setup. However, I think there are a lot more shades here than we normally talk about.

For example, how about an "open linear" play like Nuts & Bolts, where the missions are linear but the play is radically nonlinear? I can see loads of options like this, including a bunch based around the idea that the game is intelligent enough to use what the player is doing.

The "open" or "sandbox" games we talk about today were, I think, a first stab at this sort of thing. We'll regard them as rather primitive in a decade, when we have eight different genres that a subtly distinct from each other but are all "open world".