Saturday, October 04, 2008

Phoenix Wright (for all the Wrong Reasons)

My sister-in-law lent me Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice for All this summer, and I have meandered my way through it. For those of you not indoctrinated into this particular gaming cult, I'll illuminate. Justice for All is the second game in the series (now sitting at three, with a possible fourth game and a Japanese-only musical production in the works). The lead character, Phoenix Wright, is a defense lawyer who must pit his intelligence, wit, and bluffing skills against devious whip-weilding prosecutors, a weak-willed flip-flopping judge, and mountains of damning evidence in an attempt to clear his clients' names and discover the truth behind the crimes.

Did I mention that the cases are universally murders? They are. The court system you must wade through is some ill-defined parody of judicial proceedings. There is almost no sharing of information, the defense must do its own detective work, the prosecution's only goal is the conviction of the suspect, and innocence must be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. Justice is also very swift in this hybrid American-Japanese land, often only taking a few days from slaughter to sentence.

The game consists of four cases and breaks down into two gameplay sections encoutnered in each: detective work and courtroom drama. Law & Order, without Jerry Orbach... or sanity. Detective work has you exploring locations related to the crime, and talking to anyone who might have information. In each area you are given the option to examine your surroundings. Sometimes, after gaining certain conversational tidbits, you gain important clues or evidence. Each person has certain limited topics they'll converse on, sometimes they'll reveal more, sometimes they'll be Psyche-Locked. I'll get to that in a minute. You can also show them evidence you've collected or people you've encountered. They might have some flavour comment, sometimes it'll lead to more conversation or a clue, often they'll rattle off a generic response. Most of what you have to do is collect enough evidence to break through the Psyche-Locks that are preventing you from learning the secrets that will blow the case wide open.

After your detective work is done, you spend a day in court. This has three parts: reading a lot of conversational text, cross-examining testimonies, and making crucial descisions. Most of the time you have to find the lie or contradiction in the testimony just presented. You can press for more information on each statement, and present evidence to contradict and confound. Do your job right and the truth will evntually come to light. Make the wrong choice or present the wrong evidence and you'll receive a pentalty. Sometimes you'll get to do more detective work, but the end of each case always comes from a verdict.

Enough of trying to describe the ideosyncratic Japanese-style adventure gameplay. What I really wanted to talk about is how Phoenix Wright is both great fun while being a horrible game. Like most of the plots and logic in the game, this is a huge contradiction and doesn't make much sense. Nevertheless, I'd like to examine the evidence.

What Makes Phoenix Wright Great
There is actually only one thing that makes this game worthwhile: the writing. That's okay though, because there's only one thing that makes it awful; it's a fairly shallow game. The game is nicely drawn, and has some funny animations, but most of it will get old the 50th time you see it. Visually the game is pretty but static, and the graphics tend to do little to draw you in. They are mearly window dressing for the real meat of the game; the clever writing. By which I don't mean story or plot. Most of that is pretty thin. Chances are that you'll have figured out the twist a good while before anyone else does. However, the game does two things extremely well when it comes to the writing: character and pacing.

The cast is a varied, quirky, and lovable bunch. Many of them carry over from the first game, and some of the subtext is carry over as well. The dialog and internal monologues spend a lot of time examining relationships, and exploring how people connect. That extends from the suspects and witnesses to the core cast. It brings them to life and, like any good melodrama, makes you care about them. Then, when they are inevitably in peril, you are hooked into seeing it through to a happy end. The translators have also done a fantasitc job of replacing Japanese pop-cultre references with american ones, giving the game's humour a tuned-in geek flavour.

All of which is heightened by the incredibly tight pacing. The main gameplay flaws that I'll get to in a moment facilitate the precise timing of details and reveals. Everything happens just as it needs to, twisting unexpectedly and turning around in an instant. Feelings of anticipation and suspense are created at crucial times. The game speeds up and slows down in cycles, and manages to get climactic without feeling abrupt. Between the twin hooks of character and pacing, the game manages to draw you in and then pull you along to the conclusion, despite its flaws.

What Makes Phoenix Wright Awful
The problem with this game is that there isn't a game to speak of. The mechanics are present, and are used by the designers to ensure that the game blocks and procedes as intended. What they don't do is provide any sense of agency. The game does two things to advertise an open experience, but deny it in actuality: the free exploration is carefully locked down, and the meaningful choices aren't meaningful.

The first happens during the detective phases, as you wander from place to place. You are given the freedom to roam from place to place, sometime with multiple people to talk to at once. Despite that, there are things that must be done and people that must be talked to in a certain order to procede. Too obviously, you run into roadblocks intended to prevent progress until some other unspoken criteria has been met. More than just talking to someone to open a new area, or finding a new clue to open new avenues of discussion. Often you will have to talk to someone about a specific object before their converstation is truly complete, without indication of what. Flipping this flag will then re-arrange where people are or make new people available in old locations, stepping the story along one notch. It becomes very obvious that progress is meted out in tightly controlled chunks. Want to solve the mystery your own way? Not going to happen.

The second blow comes during the courtroom phases. These sections of the story are necessarily linear. The prosecution calls witnesses, gets testimony, then you cross examine. The bulk of the story is driven by the plot, and the opposing characters. Your goal is to expand, deduce, and present the contradictions and lies to the court. Often Phoenix is given a choice, some answer he must give or crucial descision he must make. Sometimes making the wrong one costs him a penalty. Lose too much and you lose the case. This happens a lot when you need to present evidence but can't figure out exactly what the game is looking for. That's not my complaint.

It's the little choices you are asked to make, often with a threat of pentaly, that turn out not to matter. You are initially led to believe that what you choose matters. Truth is, that often it doesn't. Pick either one and the same results unfold. It's false agency, and once you know it's there it becomes hard to ignore. You have to treat every descision as life or death because of the threat, but you can't because you know that the results will often be whatever the designers have predetermined is best. Then, when you choose wrong you are hit with a needless hinderance. These do-or-die penalties for not understanding the game-logic, or making a connection in the wrong place or at the wring time are screen smashingly frustrating, and do nothing to help the game.

Justice for Some
This game isn't for everyone. It's a bizzaro-world courtroom melodrama with manga sensibilities. It could have been a Saturday morning cartoon. You never really get to be Phoenix Wright anyway. The persona is too strong to be an effective avatar. You're more like his inspiration. Pointing him in the right direction, giving him the nudge he needs to make the puzzle fall into place. However, once started, it is hard to quit. If you drop your guard enough to let the characters in, and let the subtle pop-humour amuse you, you'll find yourself hooked until the end. Just have a guide ready. I recommend the Universal Hints System. Don't be ashamed, you'll only be playing it for the story and the characters anyway.


  1. I love these things largely as extensions of the written murder mystery. Much like a good detective novel, you don't really get to decide what investigations will be made or how witnesses will be questioned, but you are actively challenged to figure out what's going on before you get the answer spoon-fed to you.

    Phoenix Wright successfully builds an interactive experience around that idea of beating the story to its own punchline. It's a concept that's entirely dependant on stories that are, if not always sensible, then at least well paced, internally consistent, and predominantly fair.

    This is as close as we've gotten so far to the idea of an "interactive novel" which is both a good read and a fun game.

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