Ponify everything! (My Little Investigations Case 1: True Blue Scootaloo)

I mean, there’s definitely still Ace Attorney in its DNA.

It’s April 9, 2014. The top song is “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, and the top movie is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, arguably the best to date of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the news, the High Court of Australia takes a step in the right direction by establishing a third, “other” gender, while the U.S. Supreme Court takes another step toward plutocracy by overturning the limit on how much an individual can donate to a political campaign; pro-Russian activists in Donetsk, Ukraine declare an independent Donetsk People’s Republic; and on the day this game is released, a student stabs 20 people at a high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania.

Friendship Is Magic is on a two-week hiatus before the final four episodes of Season Four, but pony fans have something else to occupy their time: after three years of development, the fan group Equestrian Dreamers releases the much-anticipated first installment in a planned series, My Little Investigations. The premise of this series is to combine the setting and characters of Friendship Is Magic with mechanics based on Ace Attorney Investigations, a spinoff of the Phoenix Wright series that focuses on investigating and solving crimes through point-and-click adventure game mechanics.

I have written before about Friendship Is Magic crossovers, and noted with both Doctor Who and Phoenix Wright that there is a tendency for said crossovers to consist of Friendship Is Magic characters having an adventure in the style of the other work in the crossover–that is, for the narrative structure of Friendship Is Magic to deform in order to fit into the other work, as opposed to the two meeting in the middle. In the case of Doctor Who I explained it in terms of that series’ flexibility and ability to emboit and absorb other stories; in the case of Phoenix Wright I pointed to the rigid, ritualistic structure of the series as necessitating Friendship Is Magic to change to match.

However, it is worth considering that Friendship Is Magic itself may be the cause of this phenomenon. The series has notably strong characters, clearly defined and with readily accessible, idiosyncratic personalities, but relatively less worldbuilding and continuity than most of the geek-culture icons that tend to show up in crossovers. The very strength and diverse personalities of those characters makes it both easy and appealing to imagine them in different settings or story types, such that, for example, it is easier to immediately imagine what Twilight Sparkle would do upon finding herself in Middle-Earth than to imagine what Frodo would do on finding himself in Equestria–and easier to imagine how Applejack’s response would differ from Twilight’s than it is to imagine how Pippin’s would differ from Frodo’s.

But this isn’t a crossover; it is literally an attempt to place the Friendship Is Magic characters into the structure and mechanics of another game. Why, then, does it feel more like Friendship Is Magic than any of the genuine crossovers I’ve looked at for this project?

Which is not to say that it perfectly emulates Friendship Is Magic‘s feel. It is very much a fan game–like “Double Rainboom,” it is at times more interested in depicting the characters as fanworks tend to than as they are depicted in the show. This is most notable with Pinkie Pie, who, rather than merely interacting with the medium or occasionally showing hints of knowledge she would not be expected to possess, instead flagrantly and directly addresses the player, makes references to being in a video game, and provides tutorials which, according to her, she learned by reading a walkthrough of the game. From the perspective of other characters, especially Twilight Sparkle, this comes across as typically incomprehensible Pinkie Pie behavior, but the player knows exactly what she’s talking about. The result is that Pinkie becomes predictable, her actions completely explicable, and therefore no longer funny.

But despite this gaff, it does feel very much like Friendship Is Magic‘s world and themes. Several familiar, but non-obvious, Ponyville locations are used, namely the town center, Carousel Boutique, and the Cutie Mark Crusaders’ clubhouse. By avoiding some of the more iconic and outlandish, locations, such as Golden Oak Library, Fluttershy’s house, or Rainbow Dash’s house, the game creates a real sense of Ponyville as a place where people live.

The story also feels like something that could be an episode. The premise of it is that Scootaloo accidentally rode her scooter through Rarity’s window while practicing stunts, and witnessed the theft of a large emerald called “True Blue.” However, since Rarity only saw Scootaloo there, that makes her the prime suspect, and the investigative team being sent from Canterlot is not known for competence. Twilight thus takes it upon herself to find Scootaloo, who has disappeared, clear her name, and solve the crime before the investigators arrive.

Much of the story is predictable from the opening scene; this is very much the sort of mystery story that the audience solves long before the detective, as is often the case in the Phoenix Wright series. It is fairly obvious that Scootaloo is hiding because she’s afraid of being punished for breaking Rarity’s window, and that the Diamond Dogs from “A Dog and Pony Show” are the thieves. Far more interesting, in the end, is why they stole that particular gem–and again, that seems fitting for Friendship Is Magic, with its strong emphasis on character.

The game even has friendship lessons–notably, ones broadly related to honesty and kindness, which is interesting because Applejack and Fluttershy are the only members of the Mane Six who do not appear. Indeed, in having two friendship lessons that play off of one another, it rather anticipates Season Four’s practice of doing precisely that. (Although it was released late in Season Four, the long development time makes it highly unlikely that Season Four had any influence on the game’s story.)

One of the game’s mechanics also enhances the feel of it being a pony game, rather than an Ace Attorney game with ponies in it: the Partner System. Introduced a little over halfway through the game, partners are characters that follow Twilight around and have up to two abilities, one passive and the other needing to be triggered by the player. The first partner available in this case is Apple Bloom, who has only a passive ability because she doesn’t have a cutie mark–namely, she causes interactions with the Cutie Mark Crusaders to change, because of her friendship with them. The second is Rarity, whose passive ability is to change interactions with Diamond Dogs because she intimidates them, and whose active ability, based on her gem-finding spell, triggers a sort of Hot and Cold minigame that can be used to find otherwise invisible clues.

This reliance on friends is a welcome addition to the standard point-and-click mechanic, and as I said works well with the Friendship Is Magic characters and setting. I imagine that future games will have puzzles that require switching between partners, which could be interesting.

Ultimately, My Little Investigations shows that it is at least possible to create a “crossover” that retains a strong Friendship Is Magic feel. Time will tell if more begin to appear in other media.

Next week: I guess I don’t have any choice, do I? There’s no legitimate way to skip discussing this.

Hate Detected (Turnabout Storm)

Meanwhile, in the Lunaverse…

Turnabout Storm is a six-episode, eight-and-a-half-hour fan-made video series crossing over the Ace Attorney video game series with Friendship Is Magic, which tells you most of its major problems from the start.

The first of those is its length, barely an hour shorter than an entire twenty-six episode season of the show, while telling a story only barely more complex than a typical two-parter. Part of that is a testament to the efficiency of the show, of course–the writers are able to convey surprisingly complex story structures such as “The Cutie Mark Chronicles” or “Princess Twilight Sparkle” in very short running times and in ways still simple enough for the extremely young primary target audience to follow. Turnabout Storm lacks that efficiency, and at times (particularly in episode two) can become something of a slog.

The more interesting problem, and the one the series itself seeks to tackle, is the simple incompatibility of the two series. For all that both are heavy on puns, meaningful names, friendship, and a generally positive, sincere outlook on life, Friendship Is Magic is a utopian show that depicts a society of peace and order that is only ever interrupted by external threats, while the Ace Attorney series is set in a world where murder is so common a defense attorney can spend his entire career on nothing else, criminal trials are massively unfairly biased in favor of the prosecution, and said prosecution is so corrupt that, in his first three years as an attorney alone, main character Phoenix Wright uncovers murders by two prosecutors and the chief of police, not to mention instances of blackmail, evidence tampering, and the creation of fraudulent evidence.

The two worldviews fundamentally cannot coexist, and from the moment the series begins, this tension works to undermine and corrupt Equestria, the setting for almost all of the crossover. Despite that setting, as well as a cast in which only two Ace Attorney characters have large roles (though a third has a small but very significant part), it is the worldview of Ace Attorney that seems to win out for most of the series.

This is perhaps inevitable as a result of the choice by the creators to impose the Ace Attorney structure on Equestria. For those unfamiliar with the games, the Ace Attorney series has a fairly rigid structure for each case: a brief (and usually misleading) scene shows a significant event related to the case (usually a murder, but sometimes another event related to the motive for the murder), then has an “Investigation” sequence in which main character Phoenix Wright (or, in some cases, another lawyer) enters the mystery’s setting, encounters some of the major players in it, and is hired to defend someone falsely accused of murder (with, as of the series’ fourth installment, one case that does not initially involve murder and one where the client is guilty). The next morning the first trial sequence begins, during which the prosecution plays ridiculous games like concealing evidence until the most dramatic moment or trying to trick the defense into a rhetorical trap, while the player character (again, usually Phoenix )interrogates witnesses and tries to get them to contradict themselves or the physical evidence. Eventually, he exposes a whole in the prosecution’s theory of how the murder occurred or casts suspicion on a suspect other than his client, and the trial is suspended for a day, leading to another Investigation sequence that afternoon. The next morning the trial resumes, and this second day of court is usually where the really ridiculous courtroom shenanigans occur: the most eccentric witnesses, such as parrots, puppets, or ghosts, the absurd bluffs Phoenix throws up in an attempt to stretch out the trial until he can figure out the real killer, and usually (some cases, especially early in the series, stretch into a third cycle of investigation and trial) dismantling one of the witnesses’ stories and getting them to confess to the crime.

Turnabout Storm follows this structure to T. One might argue that this represents a narrative collapse from the Equestrian point of view, but not quite–there is no threat to the continued ability to tell stories, but rather the imposition of a new way of telling stories and a new genre of stories to tell. It is the imposition of a new narrative, but the old continues underneath. The essential tension between the generally sugary world of Friendship Is Magic and the brutal fact of murder necessitated by the imposition of the Ace Attorney structure is constantly highlighted throughout the story. Most obviously, the contradiction created by the crossover is used to create a diegetic justification crossover: no attorney or judge in Equestria is willing to take on a murder case, so Phoenix Wright and the nameless Ace Attorney judge are summoned magically from their world.

This tension also manifests in the conflict between Phoenix and Twilight Sparkle that defines Part Three of the series (which is actually the third and fourth episodes, one following each character). Phoenix has more than once ended the first day of trial by casting suspicion on someone he believes is innocent, as a delaying tactic to give him time to gather more evidence and find the real guilty party. He is forced to do this at the climax of the second episode, leading to the arrest of Fluttershy. Twilight Sparkle reacts to this as a complete outrage–she hired Phoenix to clear one of her friends, and now two are being tried for murder–and so she and Phoenix separate for the second investigation phase, allowing for the inclusion of more characters (Phoenix teams up with Pinkie Pie, which is delightful, and Twilight with Apple Bloom, which is all right) and a great deal more evidence-gathering and interaction, important since in addition to the (relatively complex) murder mystery itself there are also the ongoing story threads of why Phoenix in particular was summoned and why Trixie (who is serving as prosecutor) is so determined to destroy Twilight and her friends.

That last becomes important in the final two episodes, after Twilight and Phoenix reconcile and begin cooperating again. The two apparently incompatible structures of the murder mystery and the friendship lesson begin to merge as Sonata–who is clearly framed from fairly early on as the killer–takes the stand and begins bullying her former classmate Trixie, forcing Phoenix, Twilight, and Trixie to work together to take her down and heavily hinting at Trixie’s reasons for hating Twilight so much. This could fit in either world–it is particularly likely to occur in Ace Attorney where Edgeworth is involved–but the twist that follows makes it clear that the two structures are merging.

After Sonata finally confesses her guilt, Phoenix recognizes that there is still a contradiction in her testimony. He considers whether to simply accept his victory, but chooses instead to object, because an established and oft-repeated theme of the Ace Attorney games is that uncovering the truth is more important than winning the trial–that a correct verdict is better than a favorable one. In the case where Phoenix’s client is actually guilty, for example, the player has the option at the end to clinch the verdict of not guilty, or expose the client; the one that leads to a happy ending (which is treated as having happened by later games in the series) is the one where he gets his own client found guilty. Here the inverse occurs; Phoenix’s client is innocent, and he can either let Sonata go to jail for the murder everyone–including Sonata herself–believes she committed in self-defense, or he can pull on the one thread still dangling.

He of course chooses the latter, which is consistent with how the Ace Attorney universe works, and what he discovers partially restores the Friendship Is Magic universe to innocence: there was no murder. There was an attempted murder of one pony by another, of course, which is still worse than anything we’ve ever seen ponies do to one another in the show–as of this writing, the most evil act by one pony against another (assuming that Nightmare Moon blotting out the sun would not cause massive ecological devestation because Magic) is a toss-up between the callous greed of the Flim-Flam brothers in “The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000” and Silver Spoon and Diamond Tiara picking on Scootaloo for her disability in “Flight to the Finish.” But there was no actual murder, just a terrible accident that happened to the very pony trying to commit murder; Sonata is guilty of blackmail, but not murder, even in self-defense.

Equestria restored, Phoenix must return to his own world before his presence (and the Ace Attorney rules he brings with him) can cause another murder. The ending is long, happy, and silly, including both the traditional “everyone shouts Objection!” formula from Ace Attorney and the Friendship Is Magic letter to Princess Celestia. There are still questions left unanswered–most prominently, exactly what happened to Trixie to make her so bitter, and what exactly Rainbow Dash was doing in the pictures Sonata and Ace Swift planned to blackmail her with–but we get enough information to form our own theories, and more importantly we know enough to understand why the characters react the way they do.

And maybe having some mysteries left is a good thing. After all, both Ace Attorney and Friendship Is Magic continue on, restored to their own original structures, but both with hints of how this collision will affect their now-separate futures; Trixie has softened slightly, Rainbow Dash has joined the community of professional racers, and Phoenix has the magician’s hat he wanted as a kid, which looks suspiciously like the one his adopted daughter Trucy will have in the fourth game. The two seemingly incompatible worlds have influenced one another for the better–a concept which fits well into the themes of both series.