Phoenix Wright, continued

As promised, more about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, than you ever wanted to know. I'm not really here to tell you what the game is like, I refer you to the excellently composed (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phoenix_Wright) for that purpose. I'm here to talk to you about the thematic elements of the game.

So what the hell does “thematic elements” mean? Instead of answering that question, allow me to launch into a discussion of Phoenix Wright, then use that to wrap it up:

Throughout the first three games of the series (ones where Phoenix is the protagonist), Phoenix enjoys virtually unheard of success as a Defense Attorney. If you really break it down, Phoenix has the following things going for him: He's very smart, he's very good at reading people, and most importantly, he believes in the innocence of his client, no matter what. Being intelligent, imaginative, and being able to read people's reactions well are all obviously helpful for an attorney (even one operating in the bastardized legal system that the games take place in). His unwavering belief in the innocence of his clients, however, is what makes his a great defense attorney, like Mia Fey (his mentor) was. It's even suggested that this kind of faith is what separates defense attorneys from prosecutors. Edgeworth (Phoenix's rival) tells one of Phoenix's defendants that a prosecutor's job is to doubt, while a defense attorney's job is to believe in people. To go even farther, the game suggests that prosecutors are the kind of people who could make for good defense attorneys, but have had their faith in justice shaken, or are blinded by some glaring personality defect. To wit:
  • Edgeworth's life with law started when he defended Phoenix against the accusations of classmates in elementary school, but eventually he becomes a prosecutor, prompted by the death of his father (also a defense attorney).
  • Manfred von Karma and his daughter, Franziska, both have the intelligence and ingenuity, but are blinded by hubris, the former is too attached to his win record to see justice done, and the latter is mostly engaged in law as a way to prove her worth.
  • Godot was an excellent defense attorney, but was unable to continue in the face of the sheer injustice of Mia's death, so he became a prosecutor instead.
  • Even Lana Skye, featured in only a single case in the first game, and never as an acting prosecutor, has the tremendous baggage of trying to shield her sister from what she perceives as the cruel world around her, which prevents her from trusting Phoenix to see that justice is served.

Taken together, these paint a picture of prosecutors as broken down versions of defense attorneys, lacking the emotional/spiritual wherewithal to separate their own negative experiences from their interactions with the justice system. All of these prosecutors are deeply wounded people, which brings up another important facet of the game. Virtually every case has a complicated interpersonal element, which is fascinating to watch unfold (much more so than legal proceedings tied to impersonal things). People in these cases lie and commit crimes because of their fears and hang-ups, and in the course of discovering the truth, Phoenix exposes these wounds. In the course of bringing them to light in the courtroom, Phoenix slices through and resolves much of this baggage. Just in case you haven't gotten enough lists yet:

  • Phoenix cuts through Edgeworth's self loathing, and proves him innocent of murder not once, but twice, allowing Edgeworth enough confidence to step into the role of defense attorney, even for just a day.
  • Phoenix frees both Lana and Ema Skye from the burden of guilt associated with the Joe Darke killings.
  • Phoenix allows Franziska to admit that she got into law to avenge her father and prove her worth to Edgeworth.
  • Phoenix saves Godot from going any further down the path of self destruction, and saves Maya from the shame associated with the Fey bloodline.

Mia even tells her sister, during the final case of the third installment: “Don't worry, Phoenix will save everyone.” Clearly, Phoenix possesses some kind of preternatural power to cut to the heart of another person's character.

Whenever Phoenix takes a case, it always seems completely impossible that his client could actually be innocent, and it's usually suggested that no one else will take the case because of how hopeless it looks. If Phoenix doesn't take the case, it will be legally decided that his clients are guilty of murder (Phoenix takes almost exclusively murder cases). So, if you'll hold my hand at this kind of complicated jump, it's Phoenix's belief in his clients that makes them innocent. He doesn't have any magic powers to change the past, but without his interference, they'd be declared guilty in a court of law, legally affirming that that's what happened. Furthermore, Phoenix is pushed to the brink of defeat over and over again, but only makes it back by assuming that his client is innocent, and then going off that assumption.

It's long been a Japanese tradition to make fiction about relatively mundane proceedings, and dramatize it as a life or death conflict. You can find countless animes about sporting events, mahjong, go, even trading card games. (Interestingly enough, that's why the Yu-Gi-Oh show was a clever marketing move in Japan, as opposed to just a laughable concept to most of the American audience.) However, this style works perfectly in Phoenix Wright, not only because it is an issue of life or death (the death penalty is given in the Phoenix Wright universe, not to mention all the victims), but because of the larger than life character that Phoenix is.

To return, I submit that the core fantasy of the Phoenix Wright games is that if you believe in something enough, and work for it enough, you can make anything happen, no matter how improbable it seems. Tim Schaefer talks about wish fulfillment as a large reason why people play games, and if you use that framework, a huge draw of the Phoenix Wright series is fulfilling the wish that you too, can do anything if you believe in it and work hard enough. It sounds corny, but I believe that watching the truth unfold from Phoenix's unwavering commitment scratches the same cathartic itch that, say, “The Princess Bride” does. In “The Princess Bride” it's about believing in the power of love, no matter the obstacles. In Phoenix Wright, it's about believing in the power of justice, no matter the obstacle. There's much more to be said about the themes of Phoenix Wright, which I may get to later, but that's plenty to read for now.

Up next: The April '08 Roundtable! (More details here: http://blog.pjsattic.com/corvus/2008/04/april-08-round-table/)


Malgayne said...

I know you and I have talked a lot with Carol about the term "Core Fantasy" and how it applies to things like this, but I don't think we've ever been able to come up with a solid definition. I'd like to see a whole post dedicated to that, I think--I always like to see terms explained.

William said...

You're right, a whole post IS in order, but I think the way I tend to use it related most clearly to the idea of Wish Fulfillment. Part of why I experience a game's story is because I want to believe that that's truly the way the world works.

More later, heh.