Games That Make You Read: Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

Phoenix_Wright_-_Ace_Attorney_Coverart
“Badly written and annoying” were the notes I wrote to myself when I began playing Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.

The game was originally created in Japan in 2001 and is the first in the series of Ace Attorney visual novels. Phoenix Wright is a just-graduated defence attorney and even though he is somewhat naive and fumbling when it comes to practising law, as long as you steer him correctly he manages to win every case. He also has a lot of help from the plot, which is constantly finding unlikely scenarios and throwing them in his direction in a way that eventually proves helpful. His main nemesis and possible friend is the prosecuting attorney, Miles Edgeworth.

Like most visual novels, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is quite light on animation. But what there is is character defining. The animators present to us the gestures and mannerisms each character has, that are expressive of who they are. Phoenix’s show him sweating when he’s under pressure in the courtroom. Edgeworth’s focus on his perceived superiority, which he demonstrates through facial expressions and a wagging finger.

Now that I’ve played an entire game, I can see how clever it is that everything that is presented to us about any character serves only to underline who that character is. It’s not just the way the characters are animated, it’s also what they say and what they do.

But when I started playing, I was very annoyed by the first episode and the character of Mia Fey, Phoenix’s boss and mentor, who has her bra-clad breasts permanently on display outside her white shirt and business suit. I was also annoyed by the way the murder victim in that episode was denigrated in court, once she was found to be an unfaithful girlfriend. And I thought the language was facile and the story exhibited absolutely no depth or sophistication.

I’m not sure why I kept going with it. Partly I think it’s because I hate not finishing things. But also the first episode was quite quick to play, so I think I thought I would finish the whole thing very quickly. But the episodes get longer and longer. I discovered I didn’t mind though, as I progressed further into the game my attitude started to change and I developed a soft spot for it. I’m not exactly sure how or at what point this happened. But it turns out that while it’s true, the game is quite facile on the one hand; on the other hand it’s completely not at all.

The characters are one dimensional. But in that one dimension in which they exist, they can be extremely deep, particularly the main characters. The bit players, who are just there to either help or hinder through the various episodes, uniformly have one particular character trait that everything about them turns on. For example, there is Dick Gumshoe, a recurring character who is very loyal to Edgeworth and whose name, as well as three day growth, shaving cut and loosened tie tell us just what manner of detective he is before he ever says a word. There is also Jake Marshall, a police officer in the final episode, who thinks he is a cowboy but has actually appropriated Native American dress and meanwhile is not adverse to standing in the witness box and shaving himself with an open blade.

Unfortunately, almost all the female characters are depicted according to whether or not the writers consider them sexual beings. And this almost always depends on the age of the characters. Often as I played the thought “maiden, mother, crone” came into my head. Specifically, as it relates to this game, I mean below the age of consent, above the agent of consent and too old to even consider. It’s a sad fact of this game (not to mention a lot of the world) that this is how women are defined and portrayed. And the crone character, who appears in episode three and is past it from the writers’ point of view, is portrayed very unsympathetically.

I’m not sure that there was one defining trait when it came to the men. Power, or lack thereof, played some role but then characters such as Jake Marshall were just there for a bit of fun.

These things aside, I thought the writers were actually very clever. They did a lot with a little. I particularly liked the differentiation between Phoenix speaking out loud (white text) and his thoughts to himself (blue text). His own thoughts are often quite self-deprecating and funny. I loved what they did with Edgeworth, who seemed somewhat malevolent in the first case he was involved in, but was quite vulnerable by the last. I’ve thought about how they did this — it certainly wasn’t through any words that were spoken by Edgeworth, who outside the courtroom doesn’t talk much and doesn’t like to talk about himself. I think it’s in what Phoenix finds out along the way and in Edgeworth’s own particular tortured stoicism about the situations he finds himself in. I would almost like to say we had character development with Edgeworth, but I won’t go that far. I think it’s more that the writers used a very steady hand to reveal his (still one-dimensional) character to us, and in doing so made him seem deeper than he really is.

The gameplay could be a little irritating in the way that the storylines were non-branching and always working to the same end. This meant sometimes going through the same text over and over. Specific pieces of evidence need to be presented at set moments in the text in order to move the story forward and I didn’t think there was always logic about those decisions. I played the Nintendo DS version and the fifth episode in the game was added after the others. It’s longer than the earlier ones and also more interactive. There is an opportunity to look for blood stains, find fingerprints and examine pieces of evidence in 3D.

I didn’t want to start playing the second game in the series Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Justice for All until I finished writing this. Now that I’m done, I’m starting it straight away.

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