Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

The Ace Attorney series has been a runaway hit for Capcom. Originally a Japan-only franchise that was born on the Game Boy Advance, the series is noted for its humor and light satire. When it was brought to the United States, it became an immediate success because like so many examples of more traditional media (film, television, books), Ace Attorney was essentially a mystery story which unraveled in a unique new form of interactive procedural crime drama.

The Plot

Procedural crime dramas are most popular in novel and television formats. They usually follow a formula that parallels legal proceedings. They begin with discovery and investigation, continue to the construction of a hypothesis, and the execution of a trial and sentencing. A recent, famous example of this is of course Law & Order and its spin offs. Law & Order follows that pattern religiously. Critics of this series point out that it is often formulaic, and uses the same traps to confuse or distract the audience over and over. This might be in part because the series has such incredible longevity.

Phoenix Wright follows a very similar format. The game is divided into episodes. Each episode begins with a very brief pre-title ‘cut scene,’ as does Law & Order. The scene often provides just a small sampling of clues and foreshadowing. Gunshots, the discovery of corpses, and disjointed phrases are par for the course. The game episodes proceed from there to find our heroes– Phoenix Wright and his aide Maya Fey– going about their business when confronted with the particular case at hand. This is again similar to television shows, where the opening scene segues into the main characters, usually detectives.

From there an investigation begins. Since Phoenix Wright episodes are almost all about murder, it fits in well as parallel media to Law & Order. The investigation often includes the interviewing of witnesses and suspects. Since Phoenix Wright is a game about a defense attorney, the suspect is usually your client. The individuals in these games are never immediately forthcoming. Whether or not this diverges from real life investigations is moot, as having every character vomit information on the main character’s shoes would not contribute to dramatic tension.

It is at this point that another cliché of the genre emerges. Your client almost never committed the crime. As in Law & Order, the first suspect the detectives finger is rarely the actual perpetrator. It is always someone else that you, in the case of the game, or the detective, in the case of the show, came across during the investigation.

At that point the burden for both plot lines is the detectives or the players need to either build a case against the actual murderer, or to force a confession from that individual. Therein lies the drama. In Phoenix Wright, it is never enough to prove that your client is not guilty, but the player must also prove that someone else was guilty.

The Characters

Phoenix Wright himself is a flat mannered, ambitious, dedicated attorney. His even manner and curious nature make it easy for players to slide into his role. The people he is surrounded with not so plain. As in the case with many video games, in which the main character goes silent or has an ‘open’ personality, Phoenix usually plays the straight man to the antics of his aide and the others around him. These include the bumbling police detective, the easily manipulated judge, or any of the host of witnesses who appear in a seemingly unending parade of courtroom clowns.

The Stylus

Phoenix Wright differentiated itself from shows like Law & Order because it is interactive. The nature of plot makes it very difficult for multiple endings to be written into this game. The plots are so complex here, that there can only be one positive outcome– proving the innocence of your client and the guilt of the perpetrator. The only alternative outcome is a state of failure, in which your client is found guilty and the trial ends in defeat. This restrains just how interactive the game is, in that there are only a small number of variables at work. You are really just going through motions. However, that really doesn’t distract from the experience. In a real investigation, there is only one truth that can be discovered. The detective either uncovers this truth or not– the lawyer either wins his or her case or not. Their interaction will not retroactively change the reality behind the mystery. The Phoenix Wright series plays this angle of genre fiction exceedingly well.

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