3/31/2008

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)

2 comments:

Malgayne said...

Gah. Fine. Now I have to play the damn game.

William said...

Mission accomplished, sir.