Magical Realism and Phoenix Wright

Phoenix Wright 3: Trials and Tribulations features one of the most effective climaxes I've witnessed in a game. Permit me, if you will, an extended elaboration:

Near the end of the final trial, it becomes obvious to the player that Godot, the prosecuting attorney for the case, is the murderer. What clarifies this to Phoenix is that Godot, because of his Visor, cannot see red, and the remaining clues at the crime scene could only have been missed by a person who cannot see the color red clearly. The final nail in the coffin comes when it is proven that the murder was wounded during the killing, and that Godot has been hiding the wound under his visor. When asked to remove his visor, Godot balks, and confesses to the murder.

The confession, of course, is designed to pay off all of the set-ups laid out through the three games, and does an excellent job of doing so. At the height of emotion, a trickle of blood seeps out of Godot's visor. The witness says, “Mr. Godot! Your wound is bleeding!” and he counters with “No. Since the color red doesn't exist in my world... these must be my tears.” Cut to a flashback of Godot telling Phoenix's mentor: “The only time a lawyer can cry is when it's all over.”
There is more resolution to be had, but this represents the state of highest emotion for the entire game, and an impressive feat of storytelling in a game. To find out why it's so effective, let's talk about what the ending does.

1. It confirms the truth of Phoenix's accusation.
Since Godot does not remove his mask, until that point, there is no undeniable physical evidence that Godot was the murderer. Though he confesses, convicting someone at the end of the series without undeniable physical evidence would be an aesthetic betrayal of the game.

2. It tells the player that things are finally “all over”
The flashback, combined with Godot's tears, serve to tell the player that all the issues of the past have been dealt with, because it's time for Godot to cry. The timing of the flashback serves to remind the player of the inciting incident of the entire sad affair, and assure them that all the wounds have been dealt with, not just the case at hand.

3. It gives special insight into Godot's character
Godot's comment informs the player that he feels as if he is crying, but allows him to still make a witty rejoinder. Godot's character is dry and sarcastic to the end, even when he's brought to his lowest.

That is the real magic of the moment. The player suspends disbelief regarding the trickle out of Godot's mask. It cannot be both blood and tears, but if it's not tears, then Godot is no longer a sympathetic character, but if it isn't blood, then Godot has no wound, and cannot be convicted. The player, if they stopped to consider it, would lose the magic of the moment, but they understand that for now, it needs to be both, so they suspend disbelief. If Godot simply said, “It might as well be my tears”, not only would it violate the age old axiom of “show, don't tell”, it would remove the quasi-magical element. Does the player believing that Godot truly is crying add to the emotional impact of the moment? I say that it does.

The key lies in what a climax is supposed to do. People can argue that it depends heavily on what the target audience for a game is, but I am of the opinion that the emotional payoff of a climax is always more important than the logical payoff. Always. The player is willing to look over a fairly small logical anomaly (both blood and tears) in exchange for the delivery of a powerful emotional punchline (Godot's redemption).

Case in point: Hayao Miyazaki's film “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind” (Kaze no Tani no Naushika, 1984) features a blatant Deus ex Machina style ending, yet is still critically acclaimed, and Nausicaa ranks highly in Japanese polls of favorite fictional characters. The viewer's desire to see an emotionally powerful culmination of events overpowers any logical criticism they might harbor.

I would even go so far as to say that too much attention to the logical explanation can ruin the magic of a moment. If Phoenix Wright had said, “No, that's clearly blood, but we know how you feel”, instead of just standing in awed silence, it would have completely ruined the moment. I feel like I still haven't entirely cracked the nut of why this magical suspension of disbelief enhances the quality of the emotional climax so much, but I've elaborated on the idea, at least. Soon to come, more about the core aesthetic of Phoenix Wright than you ever wanted to know!

(And yes, I know that "Magical Realism" has a clear-cut definition in fiction, and that this isn't it, maybe I'm just engaging in an audacious feat of lexicon-expansion, so there)


Story Style

Having already given my two cents on non-linear storytelling models, (that until most game studios change their opinion about the importance of storytelling in a game, trying to expand the paradigm will be largely wasted) that begs the question of what makes a good story. That's a huge question, and I'm not gonna try to tackle it, but the least I can do is talk about my preference.

I've always been partial towards character work. Interesting twists of fate and a good world to immerse yourself in have never been as engaging to me as a good character arc, plotted out with careful attention to the character's past, conscious objectives, unconscious objectives, and culminating in a profound, satisfying change. “Satisfying” in this case doesn't need to mean a change for the better, merely that the denouement scratches the itch that the writer has coaxed out of the gamer ever since the direction of the character arc becomes clear (this begs the question of non-linearity again, but we'll save that one).

Talking about creating a dramatic situation that demands satisfaction in the gamer is very much screenwriting language. The classic thought on the matter (though by no means the only one) is that you have to give the audience (interchangeable with “gamer” in my mind) what they want, but never in the way they expect. In “Die Hard”, if John McClane was never helpless at the hands of Hans Gruber, you'd feel cheated out of a good time. In Portal, at the end of the final test chamber, if you exited the facility with nothing more at stake, you'd feel cheated. And yet, if you were able to predict that (ZOMG SPOILERS) the main character of KotoR is Darth Revan, you felt a little disappointed when they revealed it to you. Likewise, you know that Bruce Willis has to beat Alan Rickman's character somehow, but if you guessed that he had a gun attached to his back with Christmas stamps, you'd be disappointed when the camera panned over to reveal it.

To reiterate, you need to give the gamer what they expect, but not the way they expect it. This requires a careful eye towards what you are coaxing the gamer to expect, which is the best argument I've ever heard for some kind of a narrative mastermind involved in a game. In an expertly directed game, everything should coax the player into anticipating the climax. A simple example: In a throne room, everything should direct the eye towards the person in the throne; the music should indicate a presentment; etc. etc. Though the player may not know exactly what position the throne bearer occupies, the general feel should be clear before anyone opens their mouths.

A more complicated example: In Final Fantasy VII, a lot of people were put off by the sudden introduction of Cloud's severe ontological crisis. It more or less came out of nowhere. There were some vague issues of Cloud not remembering some events, but it didn't seem to bother him, and weren't played as bearing any real importance. Suddenly, when his emo streak becomes crystallized in the form of “I am my own monster!”, people were left scratching their heads.

Final Fantasy VI, while prey to the cliché of “main character who can't remember her past”, let you know from the very beginning that Terra is going to have to resolve the question of who she is before she can meaningfully interact with the world around her. She resolves the issue of her physical heritage, but it's not until the orphanage in Mobliz that she is brought face to face with the issue of who she decides to be. The struggle in Mobliz is her realizing that her power, even her power to destroy, can be used for good. Again, an aware gamer will see this coming. The entire game hangs on the edge of whether mankind can be trusted with the power of magic safely, and Terra has her own issues to resolve, from her period as a victim of the slave crown. I'd love to launch into a discussion of Fei's issues with exercise of power in Xenogears, but that deserves its own essay. Suffice it to say that in Xenogears, while all these crazy outside events are going on, much of the game is designed to continually force Fei into reconsidering his position on the exercise of power. While you watch events unfold, everything tells you subconsciously that Fei is going to have to deal with this issue once and for all.

That, my friends, is my favorite kind of story. I've already stated that I'm partial to engaging character arcs, but what really seals the deal for me is a fascinating envelope that helps the character arc along. For all the epic science fiction in Dune, it's about Paul embracing the mantle of a messiah. For all the bizarre comments on human nature, Kino's Journey is about a girl who ran away from her conception of adulthood. For all the acrobatics, the newest Prince of Persia series is about the Prince realizing what it takes to become a man. For all the apocalyptic events, Xenogears is about Fei resolving his issues with his mother enough to embrace Elly as an equal, as opposed to a surrogate mother.

This is not meant to downplay the intricacies of the external plot developments. Portal is not known for the complex character arcs, Gordon Freeman is a relatively implacable character, and any MMORPG features completely inaccessible PCs, but that doesn't mean World of Warcraft doesn't feature an incredibly engaging world. I'm merely stating where my preference lies. Next up, magical realism, and the best kind of character development.


Games and Movies

With the growing legitimacy of games as a storytelling medium, there's been a lot of talk about what games are capable of doing to tell stories that other mediums simply can't. A novel can give you inner dialog far better than a play or movie, while a movie lets you tell expansive, sweeping stories with far too many locations to ever be used in a play. Etc. etc., the list goes on.
Games can most easily be compared to movies. You have as many locations as you need to tell to tell the story, the story mostly occurs through outwardly visible events (an excess of internal monologue can bog the story down), and it lends itself fairly easily to spectacle. The question comes when you ask what facets of storytelling games lend themselves to more than anything else. Games aren't movies, but the easiest way to approach the question is to see how they differ importantly from them.

Games are longer – Though nowhere near all of the content is storytelling, games can easily tell stories that are far too long to be contained in a movie. This is not to say that they need to; Portal doesn't contain enough material to make any kind of a film, but no one can question the quality of the writing, despite the very simple story. (This actually necessitates the question of “writing” versus “storytelling”, but that's for another time)

Games get you attached to the main character much faster – This appeals to common sense, but I'd be interested to see some psychological study to back it up. When you control a character's movements, it creates the illusion of controlling the character's fate. Even if the gameplay is completely linear, you still control the fate of the character in terms of whether you pass the next challenge the game brings to bear. We identify with well written characters because they resemble us in some way. It doesn't matter that none of us have ever been charged with carrying a ring of ultimate evil; we can all look at Frodo, and remember times when we had a huge burden unwillingly thrust upon us. We want him to rise to the occasion because we want to think that, in the same situation, we would be able to rise to the occasion as well.

When a character does what we tell them to do, that bond forms that much faster. Curiously enough, this phenomenon manifests even if the player has minimal control over the fate of the character. The line waffles between wanting to complete the next challenge, and wanting Gitaroo Man to pass the next challenge, despite the fact that your “control” over Gitaroo Man consists of turning the analog stick and hammering arbitrary buttons to make him dodge clumsily. Nonetheless, I am more eager to pass the game's challenges because they also represent the struggles of this fictional character, as opposed to abstract hoops to jump through.

Games open up the possibility of non-linear story structure – Not since the choose your own adventure book has there been as much buzz as there is now about non-linear story structure. I'm not really going to open up the huge can of how best to do that, but suffice it to say that the holy grail of narrative design in games would be a game in which the player has full reign of the world around him, and the world reacts to anything the player wants to do, even going so far as to put dramatic emphasis on the events the player cares about, and tending to skip over the ones the player has spent less time engaging in.

No one has quite nailed this one on the head yet. It seems that no one has even really broken the code of how to approach a story from this angle. There's been a lot of interesting discussion on the topic, but I'm not here to push my opinion on what constitutes a non-linear storyline. The question that pops into my mind is “Does a game's story have to be non-linear?” A truly non-linear storytelling model would be revolutionary, but it wouldn't necessarily push older models out of the spotlight. Many gamers today grew up playing entirely linear Japanese RPGs, some of which (though by no means most) are still revered for the quality of the story. Likewise, if a non-linear story hit the market, it wouldn't attract very much attention if the story wasn't good to begin with. If you have an infinite number of options for potential fates of a character you couldn't care less about, well... that doesn't make people start caring.

All that being said, it seems that all this discussion of a good non-linear storytelling model isn't going to do a ton of good until the concept of writing in games has achieved a greater level of legitimacy. It seems a bit hackneyed to say it, but I'm not sure pushing the envelope will accomplish much until the current medium has been mastered. Until it becomes general knowledge that an excellent, emotionally engaging story sets a game apart, conceptual, high level thought about the nature of non-linear storytelling will be largely wasted on the mindset of a great deal of game studios.