|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.