Turnabout Thinking: How Ace Attorney’s Logic Embraces Neurodiversity

As someone with ADHD, these games see my way of thinking not as a detriment, but as an asset.

Despite being certain his client is not guilty, defense attorney Phoenix Wright is quickly backed into a corner during the first trial in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Without proof a clock was three hours behind on the day of the crime, all hope seems lost. However, things turn around when his mentor, Mia Fey, offers a simple but profound piece of advice: to worry not about how to prove the clock was slow, but instead focus on why.

This scene demonstrates how lateral thinking is integral to Ace Attorney’s logic, investigation, and puzzle-solving. These elements are born from series creator Shu Takumi’s love of mystery fiction like Sherlock Holmes, in which twists are revealed through the art of deduction, unusual thinking, and observation. The series’ lateral problem-solving is also what made me fall in love with Ace Attorney — and through the lens of further understanding my ADHD in adulthood, it’s why the franchise has become important to me and many other neurodivergent people.

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The Defense is (Not) Ready

Lateral thinking is problem-solving via an indirect, creative, or unusual approach — one that derives from seeing the problem from a different angle. Those who are considered neurodivergent — such as people with ADHD or on the autistic spectrum — often excel at lateral thinking since they see the whole world from a different angle, relying on creativity and out-of-the-box thinking to navigate it.

I was diagnosed with ADHD around the time I turned 10. It greatly affected my ability to handle school work not because I couldn’t understand lessons, but because I approached them differently. I was often scolded for things like not showing my work in math because I figured out how to find the answers differently in my head. I could solve problems, but not how school wanted me to — it made me feel like a dumb kid, as did teachers and peers, for most of my life. Once I reached middle school and began playing the original Ace Attorney trilogy, something clicked: these games not only accepted, but also encouraged my weird way of thinking — though it wouldn’t be until recent years, when I gained a better grasp of just how much ADHD affects my thinking, that I would fully come to understand and appreciate this. 

The Ace Attorney trilogy follows rookie defense attorney Phoenix Wright, who players take control of via visual-novel gameplay through which they find contradictions in witness testimonies, present evidence, and come to the right conclusions to prove their clients’ innocence. Throughout every case in the franchise, the defense is often left without key information pertinent to the case, while the prosecution unfairly holds exclusive access to evidence, police resources, and witnesses. This leaves Phoenix Wright (and later other defense attorney protagonists) to crack the case from a different angle: not one strictly of logic, but of creative thinking and trust in their client. 

Playing as the defense attorney, players must contradict the rigid thinking of the prosecution and weave a new and unconventional path forward. It’s a type of problem-solving anyone with ADHD, or other neurodivergent people, would instantly recognize.

Hold It!

In each Ace Attorney game, the first episode places you in the courtroom without much evidence and no chance to investigate the crime scene yourself. It’s only until later that the investigation gameplay is introduced — and, when it is, you are primed to look beyond the surface. The inability to investigate during the first trial forces you to take a more creative route. Driven by lateral thinking skills learned from the first trial, you’re not looking for bloody knives or fingerprints; you’re looking for less obvious clues, small details that may not appear to have anything to do with the crime itself, but still catch your eye. In this, neurotypical minds are made to think like neurodivergent minds, which are being challenged and stimulated by puzzles practically built for their thinking.

Just as important as noticing and observing overlooked details is the defense attorney’s fixation on these details, which others might see as trite. In both the investigation and cross-examination segments, you are encouraged to pick apart any and all inconsistencies or strange details. No matter how insignificant they may seem, you are meant to keep pressing on those details while fighting off ridicule from the prosecution. This mirrors the hyperfixation of ADHD and autistic folk: from interests to observations, neurodivergent minds often place importance where others don’t — a trait that commonly leads to social outcasting.

In my own experience, I very easily become hyper-fixated on TV shows, anime, or even a weird video game about lawyers. I usually focus on specific details about these things, too — like a scene, character design, or particular game elements (I used to be obsessed with using the games’ signature “OBJECTION!” exclamations.) When I’ve tried to explain why I have clung to these things, it feels like I’m speaking another language — like I’m focusing on the wrong things. To neurotypicals (and in the Ace Attorney metaphor, the prosecution), these details are unimportant and perhaps even silly. But to the neurodivergent (the defense attorneys), these details are vastly significant. With enough time and leeway, the importance of these details eventually and inevitably become clear. 

Take, for example, the fourth case of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, “Turnabout Goodbyes,” in which Phoenix defends his rival, Miles Edgeworth, for a murder that took place at a lake — and, crucially, that he didn’t commit. During the trial, Phoenix brings up the legend of a lake monster. The detail seems insignificant until he reveals a photographer witness was busy searching for the monster, and thus had not witnessed the crime itself. This blows the whole case open, even leading Phoenix to reveal a connection to a previously unsolved tragedy that occurred 15 years prior. It wouldn’t have happened if his fixation wasn’t indulged; if the game didn’t place importance on fixations that neurotypicals might presume as silly, annoying, or completely irrelevant.

Phoenix’s tendency to bluff as a tactic to stall and fish for new information is an extension of this. Sometimes, he doesn’t know where his hypotheticals and theories are going until he gets there. He uses them to stand-in for hard evidence before realizing he’s actually had the evidence he needed all along. Not knowing my point until the middle of saying it is exactly how I talk — heck, it’s how I wrote a chunk of this piece. In addition to stimulating my brain, Ace Attorney gives me the validating experience of being able to see myself in Phoenix. Like him, I sweat because I struggle to feel like I know what I’m doing — but I’m also kind of thrilled to figure it out as I go.

Take That!

Furthering the importance of overlooked details are the defense attorneys’ sensory “abilities” —  skills of observation that give you a leg up over the prosecution. These game mechanics both emphasize lateral thinking and ring similar to the physical and emotional hypersensitivity I experience as a result of my ADHD — feelings many other neurodivergent folks can corroborate. 

For example, Phoenix’s ability to see people’s psyche-locks, which are locks that represent a truth they are hiding, mirrors the neurodivergent experience of being denied information because of our neurodiversity; of being locked out of neurotypical society because of our differences and being wholly aware of this snubbing. Apollo Justice’s “perceive” ability, which allows him to hone in on people’s ticks when they lie or hide information, mirrors my own tendency to focus on body language because I’m avoiding eye contact. Through wearing special headphones as a child to cope with overwhelming sound, Athena Cykes develops “sensitive hearing,” a power that allows her to pick up subtle emotions in people’s voices and that feels reminiscent of autistic hypersensitivity. 

Finally, The Great Ace Attorney introduces multiple-witness cross-examinations and protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo’s “pursue” ability. By encouraging the player to pay attention to how other witnesses react to a testimony, it highlights a non-conventional method of interrogation that involves catching subtle cues and body language you wouldn’t normally pick up on. This, in turn, captures the distractibility of ADHD. As someone with ADHD, I take in multiple stimuli at all times and lack the ability to prioritize which stimuli I should be focusing on. Often, what I prioritize isn’t what others believe is important. Ace Attorney doesn’t see this distractibility and executive dysfunction as a detriment, but rather a powerful tool in finding the truth. 

I can also see myself in how these attorneys go about using small details to slowly reveal the truth. Their methods mirror my personal productivity coping mechanism, one very common to others with ADHD: breaking a larger task (getting a Not Guilty verdict) down into a number of smaller tasks (finding and following any leads and inconsistencies). Tackling a case that will potentially define the fate of multiple victims and criminals is less daunting when I can chip away at it slowly without being overwhelmed. It’s a valuable lesson that many people with ADHD have to learn over time to tackle their executive dysfunction — one that Ace Attorney embraces. 

Closing Arguments

I don’t know whether Ace Attorney’s embracement of neurodivergent thinking is intentional or not. But the games have still had a lasting, impactful effect on me regardless. My love of them goes far beyond their fun gameplay and loveable characters. With a better understanding of my ADHD, I now know why this is — why it’s one of the most important series to me and why it feels like a part of my core. In its multifaceted exploration of how the protagonists’ problem-solving methods are constantly underestimated, the Ace Attorney games portray an experience nearly identical to my own, embracing my way of thinking in the process. I feel seen and encouraged in a way no other video game franchise accomplishes.

People on the spectrum or those with ADHD, myself included, are often told our brains are wrong; that we approach problem-solving in an incorrect manner or that we focus on all the wrong things. Ace Attorney validates and rewards the exact things teachers, peers, friends, and family members see as unintelligent or bothersome. It’s one of the few factors in my life that has made me see my ADHD — a part of myself that has long felt like a burden — as something to embrace, appreciate, and love.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean is a big dumb weeb with ADHD and also a freelance writer and researcher. You can follow him on twitter (@Sean8UrSon) or catch him streaming on Twitch (Twitch.TV/Sean8Urson). You can also check out his Sonic the Hedgehog podcast, Sonic Podcast Adventure (@SonicPod).

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