member of the bar

Tue May-2nd-2006 // Filed under: Games

I’ve recently been playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the Nintendo DS. I finally found the time to complete it last night. It’s a fun little game where you take up the role of the eponymous Mr. Wright, a defense attorney par excellence, and try and make sure your clients beat their respective murder raps. (For Phoenix, it’s murder or nothing.)

The gameplay is centered around listening to witnesses’ testimonies and spotting contradictions, either within their own statements, with other witnesses’ statements or with evidence that has been recovered from the crime scene. This is a lot of fun. You can either press the witness and ask for a more detailed explanation — which quite often means that they hand out more rope to hang themselves with — or scream “objection!” and present evidence that proves that they’ve just lied themselves silly. (Thanks to the built-in mic on the DS, you can literally scream “OBJECTION!” and “HOLD IT!” if you like. I LIKE.)

So, it’s good clean fun. But as a long time connoisseur of crime literature and movies, I find a couple of things about the game kind of annoying.

It’s a Japanese game, but I don’t think the legal system the game describes has anything to do with reality in Japan, never mind in the United States, where the localized version of the game strongly implies it is set — clearly, the system described in the game has more to do with the laws of dramatics than anything else. Crimes are investigated with a merrily carefree attitude, all witnesses are treated by the courts as dependable and believable, no matter how many times they’re caught lying and change their testimonies, new evidence can be introduced at the drop of a hat without any question as to their veracity (that door swings both ways, though) and hearsay is king. It’s just full of weirdness.

For example, at one point it’s declared that in a case where an inncoent man is convicted of a crime because the police have forged evidence, the prosecutor in the case is responsible for the outcome even if he acts in good faith — not the police officers in question, apparently, and certainly not the judge who actually passes sentence on the poor bastard!

Furthermore, the system appears to operate under a strong presumption of guilt, and it’s up to the defense to prove that the defendant didn’t do it — it’s not enough to show reasonable doubt. As long as the prosecution can say, “well, he still could have done it,” your client’s going to be in hot water, even if you’ve already shown how improbable it would be. Indeed, like a good little spiky-haired Perry Mason, Phoenix must always prove who the actual murderer is instead of simply proving that it wasn’t his client. Unless you can point the finger at someone else and prove his guilt without a shadow of doubt (typically not by actually showing concrete proof, but by piling on the circumstancial evidence until the murderer on the witness stand pretty much cracks and shouts his guilt to high heaven in an extremely dramatic fashion), your client’s going to fry. Or hang. Take a big bite of capital punishment, anyway; they don’t really specify how it’ll happen.

Things get downright ridiculous when you’ve got the Chief of Police — suspected of some serious foul play — who openly taunts the defense in court, threatens the defendant (“nice sister you got there, be a shame if something were to — y’know — happen to her,” pretty much) and refuses to testify at all because the law says that he doesn’t have to, because he’s the Chief of Police… and yet nobody finds this particularly suspicious. At that point suspension of disbelief quietly slips away and shoots itself in the mouth with a .44, content in the knowledge that somebody completely innocent will soon be blamed for the crime simply because he can’t prove right away that he did not do it.

Of course, all this makes for a more dramatic game, and don’t misunderstand me — I do think it’s a great game. There’s a lot of fun to be had in hunting contradictions, even if most cases tend to be fairly simple, and even if the game only accepts a single solution to any problem, so even if you spot a contradiction the game isn’t prepared for, you can’t really call anyone on it — but that’s games for you, really; dynamic systems are always more difficult to create than linear ones, so eh. It’s not like the game pretends to be more complex than it is. Point is, it’s a lot of fun and I had a blast playing it. Things like using the touch screen to sprinkle fingerprint powder and blowing on the microphone to blow excess power away and reveal fingerprints are just plain entertaining. Sure, it’s got just about as much to do with actual trials and legal processes as what the WWE likes to call wrestling has to do with actual sports or martial arts, only with fewer sweaty men, steroids and posturing, but fun is fun.

Still, no matter how much fun I think Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is, I’d seriously love to play a game that actually dealt with trying to get somebody off the hook in an even semi-realistic manner. I mean, I have no problems with anime (well, good anime, anyway) but when you encounter extremely tasteful dialogue like “WHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAT????!!!!” (from the judge, no less, and I omitted a whole bunch of A’s from that just to spare Fun Pastimes’ layout) when someone presents surprising new evidence, and people generally behave like they’re smoking crack and popping handfuls of speed every two minutes when they aren’t shooting massive overdoses up liquid drama, and many of the characters like to dress up in weird uniforms and/or some kind of semi-historical garb just for the fuck of it, and Phoenix (who’s supposed to be a hotshot lawyer) is apparently completely ignorant of not only the details of evidence law but even its very existence — you kinda stop pretending that you’re fighting for someone’s life and pretty much just treat the whole thing as a big puzzle. A fun puzzle, sure, but I can’t help thinking it could be so much more.

Still, it’s easily worth the hours I sunk into it.


  1. Thanks for the writeup, Mikki. I needed that.

    All off-beat games like this require our true scrutiny (and praise, where needed). They need our critical eye, I believe, since point to the Road Ahead. Out of the miasma of First-person Boredom Games.

    Comment by Olle Jonsson — May 9, 2006 @ 1147193340

  2. Glad you got something out of it — and yeah, I agree; there’s way too much of tired old crap out there and good or bad, at least games like this stand out.

    Also, hey, congrats on getting hitched, man. It’s pretty awesome.

    Comment by Mikki — May 11, 2006 @ 1147335920

  3. I only have this to add:

    Well, that and the game sounds like fun…and the legal inconsistencies should be worth some amusement.

    Comment by Elizabeth Brooks — October 3, 2006 @ 1159901556

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