I’ve just been playing the original Phoenix Wright trilogy. These DS games have you play as a lawyer trying to win court cases. (Minor/vague spoilers in this post.)
These games are good fun and packed full of drama and humour. They are heavily text-based; it’s like an interactive story, so the focus is on the twists and turns of the stories and the interactions of the characters. As Phoenix, a defense attorney, you have to frequently defend people who seem to have all the evidence stacked up against them. You investigate the crime scene, interview people, gather evidence – and yet most of the time you step into the beginning of a trial with almost no idea what actually happened or what you’re going to say.
At the beginning of the case, you start with almost impossible odds, which would make a normal lawyer seriously question their own possibility of success. For example, you might take on a client who not only has numerous points of evidence against them, but has actually already confessed to their crime. Or you might have to defend someone who was actually shown to run the victim through with a sword. If someone actually saw you running someone through with a sword, it’s pretty hard to get off the hook, isn’t it?
Fortunately, in the world of Phoenix Wright, things often aren’t all they seem. People constantly dress up as other people, have doppelgangers, and channel the dead. Even if numerous people actually witnessed you murdering someone, that doesn’t mean you actually did it.
Usually you start the case having no idea what happened or how the contradictory facts you’re hearing could possibly be true. All evidence points to your own client being guilty. However, as time goes on, you learn that there’s always more to the case than initially meets the eye. The game works well at gradually revealing more and more facts so that by the end of the case, you can finally piece together what really happened. It was very rare that I could predict where a case was going to go; even if I could guess who the murderer might actually be, it would take a while to figure out why and how they’d done it.
Happily for Phoenix, your clients are usually conveniently innocent and so there’s no moral dilemma defending them. The job of a defense attorney, after all, is to bravely defend the innocent and believe in them until the end! I wonder if Phoenix could be quite so heroic if he had to defend a string of clients who were all blatantly guilty of their crimes…
(On that subject, this blog entry is an interesting look, by an actual lawyer, at the second Phoenix Wright game (it has lots of spoilers) that talks about this issue. It talks about how the games portray being a defense attorney as achieving justice for the innocent, whereas in reality, as a defense lawyer you should provide your client – innocent or guilty – an essential service, which is the right to a fair defense in court. See also their first post for more about how the justice system in Phoenix Wright differs from the real justice system (in America anyway).)
The game’s logic
The main decisions the player has to make are in regard to presenting evidence. As a case goes on – and sometimes during the investigation period, as well – you have to prove your points with supporting evidence. Conveniently for the defense, every witness on the stand will either lie their heads off, have misinterpreted something, or have remembered something incorrectly. Your most important job is to identify the contradictions in their statements by choosing the right statement to query, and presenting evidence that will highlight their error.
Ideally, the player’s mind will follow along with what Phoenix is thinking and be able to logically work out what to produce. For example, if a witness says they recognised the defendant by their distinctive hat, but you have a photo that proves the defendant wasn’t wearing a hat that night, you produce the photo. In general, I feel that most of the time it is possible to logically deduce what to present and when.
When you can’t follow it, though, it’s time to save constantly and keep hitting the strategy guides, because a game only allows you a few errors before you fail your case, and finding contradictions through trial and error is too costly. I usually have a walkthrough open in the background while playing this, and especially in the last case of each game.
Figuring it out
Occasionally, you’ll know the witness is lying through their teeth but have no idea how to prove it. This can happen either because there’s too great a leap in logic required for the player – and this doesn’t happen all that often but it’s quite frustrating when it does – or because you just have so many pieces of evidence you could produce that it’s hard to know how to proceed or which statement has the flaw.
Unfortunately, the game cannot read your mind either. So you might be thinking ‘well, obviously the victim couldn’t have written the defendant’s name in the dirt in huge letters, because the victim had a broken neck; are you all stupid or what?!’ But until the game is ready for you to make that point, it won’t accept the piece of evidence you want to present.
Or perhaps you have figured out what the correct problem is for that stage in the trial, but not how to present it. In another example, a witness claims that it had stopped snowing by the time a murder took place. You know this is untrue, for three reasons. Firstly, there were two pieces of evidence that fell into the snow during or after the murder, which were both found with snow on them (indicating the snow hadn’t stopped at the time they fell on the ground). Secondly, a weather report shows when the snow stopped, and it seems unlikely it would have stopped before the murder. Thirdly, if the witness really had dragged the victim’s body across the ground after the snow had stopped, there would have been tracks left in the snow, and there weren’t any.
However, producing those two fallen items, the weather report, etc, all fail to make Phoenix make your point. It’s not that your logic is wrong. You’ve figured it out perfectly, and you get frustrated because everything you do makes you get penalties rather than progress in the game. Turning to a walkthrough, it turns out that instead of presenting this evidence after the witness says ‘it had stopped snowing…’, you have to present it when she says she dragged the body. Sometimes it can be frustrating having the game only accept one very specific action at one specific point.
Every witness gets a hearing
No matter how dishonest or incompetent the witness is proven to be, every new statement they make is considered gospel truth and taken very seriously.
Made-up but very representative example:
Witness: At about 9pm, I saw Joe drag the victim’s dead body across the room and push it out the window.
Phoenix: Objection! At 9pm, Joe was outside with a broken ankle, as we know from Jane’s testimony.
Witness: Oh… well, maybe I misremembered the time. Yeah, maybe it was earlier. I can’t be expected to remember every little detail! So maybe it was about 8 o’clock. He dragged the body across the room and pushed it out the window. Oh, but before he pushed it out the window, he hacked at the victim several times with an ax, and that’s when the victim died.
Phoenix: Objection! This autopsy report clearly shows that the victim died of gunshot wounds, not an ax.
Witness: Oh yes, I forgot, it was a gun, not an ax. I saw Joe chopping wood earlier in the day and I must have just got confused. Silly old me. Joe shot the victim with a gun and then pushed him out the window. That’s the truth, I swear it.
Judge: Okay, so clearly, it has been proven that Joe was the murderer in this case.
This judicial system has the attitude of ‘guilty until proven innocent’. No matter how many holes you poke in witness’s testimonies – no matter how much you establish ‘reasonable doubt’ – you still have to conclusively prove that someone else committed the crime before your client gets let off the hook.
Missing the obvious
Sometimes also, the prosecutor will make a point, all smug-like, and you, the player, will think of a perfect objection that Phoenix completely fails to bring up.
Example: a witness describes how she saw a certain person fighting another. Phoenix strongly doubts that these two people would have been fighting. The witness admits it was very dark, so she couldn’t see what happened to the murder weapon, and she blatantly makes an error when describing how the victim was killed. Phoenix points this out, and the prosecutor smugly replies that the witness has already covered herself by pointing out that it was dark, so she couldn’t be expected to have seen everything perfectly.
In that case, shouldn’t Phoenix make the logical point – if visibility was so terrible, how can this witness actually be sure she saw the people she claimed she saw? To me, the fact that she could barely see anything is hardly something to proudly proclaim; it completely invalidates her whole testimony and we shouldn’t be taking anything she says seriously!
Still, these nitpicks don’t often get in the way of enjoying some genuinely fun games. Apart from some occasional disconnects between the player’s brain and the game’s, it’s fun to go along for the ride, prove your clients’ innocence and serve the bad guys their due.