Aviary Attorney is a game based on the caricatures of 19th-century French artist J. J. Grandville, who skewered the aristocrats and politicians of his time by illustrating society figures as animals. Lions sport monocles, birds act as judges, the king is a penguin, and one illustration has a falcon wearing a cravat and sleuthing-style hat. That feathery figure became the protagonist of Aviary Attorney — Jayjay Falcon (his name a play on the French pronunciation of “J. J.”) — a game set in 1848 Paris, as the city swayed on the edge of a new revolution against the July Monarchy.
Developed by the UK-based Sketchy Logic and supported by a successful Kickstarter, the game was released in December for Mac and PC on Steam. Much like the Phoenix Wright/Ace Attorney games, the gameplay is based on collecting evidence in preparation for court cases, where you cross-examine witnesses to earn a “not guilty” verdict for your client. Here, of course, you are a bird, your assistant is a sparrow, your client is a cat, the murder victim is a frog, and the jury of your peers is a curious crowd including a hippo, a ram, and a seal.
There aren’t many games that tip their hat to the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons in their credits, but Aviary Attorney is a triumph of reinventing public domain art. Along with the Grandville engravings, there’s music by Camille Saint-Saëns (featuring “Carnival of the Animals,” naturally), and backgrounds from other 19th-century publications. The characters, from the Javert-like Inspector Volerti, a rooster police officer intent in his pursuit of the Viridian Killer last seen in the 1830 July Revolution, to brother wolves Remus and Romulus (no animal pun or reference is overlooked), are all from Scènes de la vie privée et publique des animaux. The 1840s publication was like an early graphic novel, with illustrations by Grandville alongside satirical stories by authors like Pierre-Jules Hetzel, Honoré de Balzac, and George Sand.
Critic John Berger wrote in his 1977 essay “Why Look at Animals?” that at first Grandville’s animals “appear to belong to the old tradition, whereby a person is portrayed as an animal so as to reveal more clearly an aspect of his or her character”:
But as one goes on looking at Grandville’s engravings, one becomes aware that the shock that they convey derives, in fact, from the opposite movement to that which on first assumed. These animals are not being “borrowed” to explain people, nothing is being unmasked; on the contrary. These animals have become prisoners of a human/social situation into which they have been pressganged. The vulture as landlord is more dreadfully rapacious than he is as a bird. The crocodiles at dinner are greedier at the table than they are in the river.
Much like his contemporary Honoré Daumier, Grandville used his art to comment on the oppressive political atmosphere of the time, turning to book illustration when France’s censorship laws were reinstated in 1835. Later, his often fantastic imagery was looked back on as a precursor of Surrealism, admired by artists including Max Ernst.
Some interactions in Aviary Attorney can be frustrating, like if you miss some vital piece of evidence in the few days you have to explore Paris, you are often left offering completely irrelevant items and getting your case on the brink of being thrown out. Yet one of the smart aspects of the game, which unfolds as something of a visual novel with a flexible narrative, is that your choices don’t end it or win it, they impact your future in several possible endings. (And some of these are quite bleak.) A victory at the first trial isn’t as clear-cut as it seems, and deception is thick as fox fur in an atmosphere of assassination attempts on the king, secret meetings in the catacombs (lined with animal bones), and the ultimate confrontation between the people and the power.
French history is cleverly mixed in, such as Notre-Dame undergoing repairs from the French Revolution’s 18th-century Cult of Reason, crocodile characters reminiscent of the Egyptomania that arrived in the country in the aftermath of Napoleon’s campaign, and the barricade bloodshed of the 1848 Revolutions. By casting Grandville’s animals, Aviary Attorney balances the beastliness of humanity with the work of one of the wittiest 19th-century artists to use anthropomorphism.