BLOOD CHURCH

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game review: ghost trick: phantom detective

★★★★☆

"travels back in time to undo the death of the adventure game."

ghost trick is a 2010 nintendo ds adventure game developed by capcom and directed by shu takumi, the director of the first three ace attorney games. this was actually part of the reason i'd avoided playing it. i had heard very little about it, and assumed that was because it failed to live up to the quality of the ace attorney games. my impression couldn't have been more wrong: ghost trick is, in almost every way imaginable, an improvement on what made ace attorney great.

each ace attorney game consists of several chapters. each chapter concerns phoenix wright attempting to defend a person accused of a crime (usually murder) in court. the series title is 「逆転裁判gyakuten saiban」 in japanese, meaning "turnabout trial," which indicates the game's narrative structure. each case builds to dramatic plot twists that flip information you thought you understood on its head. the cases at first seems unrelated, but the final case in the game pulls together clues from each previous case in one final massive twist ending.

ghost trick takes this approach to storytelling and gives it nuclear rocket boosters. the final twist of the game is, without spoiling it, the absolute wildest i have ever seen in any story in any medium. and between the game's beginning and its end, it pulls off countless twists of similar magnitude with takumi's trademark dazzling style.

in ghost trick, you play as a ghost named sissel. you have found yourself in the afterlife looking at your corpse face down, ass up in a junkyard. other than the appearance of this corpse, you remember nothing about your life before you died. you learn that as a ghost you have special powers, namely the ability to posess and manipulate objects. each level is a set of nodes representing objects, and you can jump between nodes that are close enough together. some objects let you perform "tricks," which is some specific action unique to that object, like opening an umbrella or causing a ceiling fan to spin faster. you use these abilities to create convoluted rube goldberg machine solutions to various puzzles.

your other ability as a ghost is the ability to go back in time to four minutes before someone's death. this allows you to use your ghost tricks to save their life1. you spend a substantial portion of the game using this power to save people from death. the very first puzzle you solve in the game is going back in time to four minutes before the death of a young detective named lynne to save her from an incompetent hitman. you then get told by a talking lamp that she holds the key to the mystery of your identity.

the plot then expands to involve at least seven major characters and even more minor ones, all with their own motivations and relationships to the mystery at the core of the story. the strongest aspect of the game by far is its characterization, which extends further than the writing. the plotting is excellent and the dialogue is hilarious and charming, but a huge amount of the game's character lies in its stunning visuals.

ghost trick's graphical style consists of 3D models post-processed to appear 2D. it pulls this off better than any other game i have ever seen. i only noticed because i have a sharp eye for that sort of thing. it would not surprise me if many players finished the game believing it was fully 2D. it pulls this off so well not because of advanced shader technology the brains at arc system works could only dream of, but because it takes advantage of its low resolution to disguise clues that would normally indicate a scene is 3d. the developers paid tremendous attention to shadows, lights, and colors to ensure that each frame could pass for one drawn by hand.

beyond the graphical style, the animation in ghost trick is among the best i have ever seen in any medium. each character tells you so much about who they are just by how they move and how they're drawn. every character is an absolute master class in character design. the backgrounds are also lovingly detailed and give each area a delightful sense of being a real, lived-in place, and each character's environment also communicates a great deal of information about them.

ghost trick's characters also don't sacrifice complexity for the sake of visual storytelling. each major character feels like a whole person with many aspects. like ace attorney, ghost trick concerns itself with justice: what it means for justice to be served, and the difference between how justice is carried out legally and how it ought to be carried out morally. each character's arc ties into how their own internal senses of justice conflict with their perception of their own best interest. this is one of the biggest improvements over ace attorney. ace attorney also featured world-class character design, but characters often had to be more disposable becasue many characters would appear only in one case and not again for the rest of the game or series.

sissel is trying to figure out who he is. lynne is trying to prove a friend of hers innocent of a murder he's hours away from being executed for. as sissel saves lynne from death repeatedly, they remind each other that they're only willling to help each other out insofar as they can achieve their own goals until it becomes clear their goals are actually the same. jowd, the accused man, has come to terms with his sentence and continues to insist on his own guilt even in the face of evidence to the contrary. inspector cabanela, the detective in charge of jowd's case, has doubts about his guilt but goes along with it because of mysterious skeletons in his closet he's afraid of revealing. there's also a mysterious mustachioed man in a submarine, a scaryhot tall goth gf and her beta male boyfriend, a talking dog, and so much more.

where the game stumbles most is in its puzzles. i'm not the sort of person who is particularly interested in adventure game puzzles. my preferred kind of adventure game puzzle design is that found in games like kentucky route zero. kentucky route zero has puzzles that are less challenges and more about giving texture to a world through interactivity.

the puzzles in ghost trick kept me entertained longer than most adventure game puzzles, but i did get bored with them. the game does a phenomenal job of using puzzle design to communicate story information. the objects in the puzzle environments can tell you a lot about those environments and their inhabitants. it also characterizes sissel and his friends through the adventure game trope of the character talking to themselves. this is a double edged sword, however. the incredible amount of character put into the dialogue and the animations means that they take a long time to resolve. this can be somewhat infuriating when you're trying various possible solutions to a puzzle.

this is a problem i have with most adventure game puzzles, as opposed to more abstract puzzle games. because adventure games take place in a physical world, the iteration time for trying different solutions to scope out the bounds of a puzzle increases. this is why a lot of contemporary adventure games have moved away from the idea of puzzles being elaborate lateral thinking problems. games like gone home, kentucky route zero, and firewatch have embraced adventure games as the genre that uses the medium of games to tell stories. they recognize complex time consuming puzzles as largely orthogonal to the goal of telling a good story.

obviously, a lot of people like adventure games with complex puzzles involving lateral thinking. but since the 2010s revival of the adventure game as a popular genre, i've noticed two branching strains of adventure game design. one is backwards-looking, attempting to re-create the glory days of lucasarts and sierra adventure games in the 1990s. often these games involve designers who actually worked on those classics, such as tim schafer with broken age and ron gilbert with thimbleweed park. the other strain has sought to revive adventure games by cutting out what people found annoying in the first place: the kind of obnoxious cat hair mustache puzzles that old man murray pinpointed as the moment adventure games "committed suicide."

ghost trick, however, serves as a counter example to this narrative that adventure games "died" in the late 90s and were "revived" in the early 2010s. ghost trick came out two years before the double fine adventure kickstarter. ghost trick is one of several nintendo ds adventure games, alongside the excellent hotel dusk: room 215 (2007) and takumi's own ace attorney series (2001-present). the close cousin of the graphical adventure game, the visual novel, had a boom decade in the 2000s, with successful releases like fate/stay night (2004), steins;gate (2009), 428: shibuya scramble (2008) and song of saya (2003). a close cousin of both the japanese graphical adventure game and the visual novel, the dating simulator, also had a tremendous decade in the 2000s, with releases like kimikiss (2006), amagami (2009), love plus (2009), and a half dozen tokimeki memorial games (1994-present), none of which saw release outside of japan. much like with the narrative of the video game crash of 1983, the "death of the adventure game" seems to have only occurred in the US.

there's a lot of variance among these games. some, like hotel dusk and ghost trick, have mechanics like western adventure games, or older japanese adventure games like the portopia serial murder case. most have mechanics as complex as western adventure games but completely different in character (tokimeki memorial, amagami), or simplified mechanics (428: shibuya scramble, love plus), sometimes to the point of almost no interactivity at all (fate/stay night, song of saya).

in 2009, a year before the release of ghost trick, future firewatch developer nels anderson wrote a post on gamedeveloper.com2 about the "unreadability" of adventure game design. he was attempting to identify a problem with adventure games that had already been solved in countless different ways by developers of games anderson was presumably either unaware of3 or didn't consider to be "really" adventure games4.

ghost trick has a lot in common with the adventure games of the 1990s. it solves this readability issue anderson identified in an interesting way that doesn't sacrifice the complex puzzles. the classic adventure game model is that you have a set of valid verbs you can perform on the various objects in the game. this descends from the parser-based text adventure games of the 1970s and 80s. what anderson points out is that because only some objects work with some verbs, and which objects work with which verbs is inconsistent ("Pushing object X does nothing, but pushing object Y will get you closer to a solution. Trying to pick up one object results in the player's character saying "I don't want that," but the character is perfectly happy to pick up a different object."), there is a combinatorial explosion of possible solutions to a problem. neither past experience with adventure games (even the specific adventure game you're playing), or with the real-life equivalents of the objects involved in the puzzle will improve your chances of coming to the correct solution.

ghost trick's solution to this is simple: get rid of the verb drawer. instead, you have three main verbs to use in puzzles: move, examine, and trick. "trick" takes the place of the noun-and-verb combinatorial explosion of classic western adventure games. when you perform a trick with an object, it does whatever the designer needs it to do to both be useful in the solution of that room's puzzle. you can "examine" an object for sissel and whoever he's with to give you a short quip about what the object is and how you might use it. the animation that plays when you perform a trick with an object often suffices as enough of a hint to get an idea about the object's role in a puzzle.

one side effect this has is to eliminate the sorts of puzzles that are common in 90s adventure games where you find an object in one area of the game for a puzzle in a completely different area of the game. in his essay on thimbleweed park, ian danskin writes about the design philosophy behind this sort of puzzle, saying:

the sprawl of Thimbleweed Park is so overwhelming that it makes me question whether it ever worked in the first place. Like, is the nonlinearity of LeChuck’s Revenge only enjoyable when you already know all the solutions? Is a huge knot of intersecting puzzles actually fun to solve, or is it just fun to know?

(...)

I can’t tell you how many puzzle chains I followed simply because I could tell they were puzzles and that the game wanted me to solve them. There was no hint that the payoff would be a random item that I’d been looking for in an unrelated puzzle chain (or, worse, an item whose purpose was still obscure to me), I was just doing it because I was clearly supposed to.

ghost trick completely eliminates this kind of puzzle by being linear. its structure is much more like that of a puzzle game like portal than it is like lechuck's revenge. this allows the puzzles to better reinforce the overall plot and character. your motivations for solving each puzzle are clear and the stakes for failure are also clear.

despite all this, i still sought a walkthrough for most of the puzzles in the second half of the game. i have a particularly low tolerance for these sorts of puzzles. at a certain point stopping to solve a puzzle over the course of twenty or thirty minutes killed the pacing of a story i was engrossed in. ultimately, ghost trick is in the same boat as other puzzle-focused adventure games in trying to both tell a complex, well paced story and present the player with challenging logic puzzles, and trying to do both of those things at the same time is doomed to failure.

these sorts of adventure games have a greater interest in how something gets done than in what is being done. in a film, the sorts of problems that make up the bread and butter of adventure game puzzles would be an opportunity for the screenwriter to show you a character's expertise. but adventure games want to let you show your own expertise. this kills the pacing because while a screenwriter has control over the exact degree to which a problem provides an obstacle for their protagonist, a game designer only exerts a limited amount of influence over how difficult a puzzle is.

you can contrast this with the way that many role-playing games solve this same problem. in a game like deus ex, playing a character who solves problems by hacking computers and picking locks doesn't require the player to have significant expertise in hacking computers or picking locks, or to solve puzzles that abstractly represent skills the designer believes are associated with hacking computers and picking locks. instead, "expertise in lock picking" is abstracted away as a "lockpicking" skill, because the important part of the story is "jc denton gets into this building by picking the lock," which tells us something about the sort of person this version of jc denton is. a different player playing deus ex might deal with the same situation in a different way: they might break the door down instead, or fight their way in through the front door with brute force, or climb up to an adjacent building and jump across to the unsecured roof. the puzzles in ghost trick tell us about the game's characters too. it's just that its way of communicating is less efficient than other possible alternatives.

despite spending more than half the length of this review criticizing the game's puzzles, i really do mean it when i say i loved this game. the puzzles in this game are as good as they could possibly be while satisfying the two conflicting priorities of "tell a story" and "give people brain teasers." they succeed much more frequently than most "classic adventure games".5 ghost trick contains no puzzles that are even close to being as bad as the cat hair mustache puzzle. most often the game's puzzles become annoying when they incorporate signifiant real-time elements. the worst is a puzzle where you help a prisoner avoid guards during an escape attempt. this was the exact moment i started using a walkthrough, and the puzzle was still extremely tedious.

you should play ghost trick. knowing my proclivities, you'll probably enjoy it substantially more than me! and i enjoyed it a lot!

ghost trick: phantom detective is a game directed by shu takumi and developed by capcom. it was released for the nintendo ds in 2010.


footnotes:

1

the "four minutes" restriction might seem rather arbitrary in english, but it makes more sense in japanese: the word 「(shi)」, which means "four", is pronounced the same as the word 「(shi)」, which means "death."

2

then known as gamasutra.

3

because many of them were only available in japanese.

4

due to a complex set of reasons involving their being japanese and their not resembling the adventure games of the 1990s by virtue of having solved the problems that had come to define "adventure games" in 2009.

5

though don't be fooled into thinking i don't like 90s lucasarts adventure games. i recently completed a four-year long quest to finish grim fandango playing each in-game year only on four successive days of the dead.