If you like courtroom drama, there are many movies you can watch and quite a few versions of "Law and Order" on TV. But if you like the spectacle of lawyers arguing and witnesses cracking under pressure and like video games, you've had very limited options: the poorly reviewed "Law and Order" computer-game series and the cartoonish "Phoenix Wright" series on Nintendo DS.
How did an entertainment field full of legal drama produce so few legal-drama video games?
With the release of the new "Phoenix Wright" game, "Trials and Tribulations," last week, series producer Minae Matsukawa offered her theories about the lack of lawyer games and explained just how the "Phoenix Wright" series came to be — and why the key to the whole thing is a lot of lying.
"To be honest I'm not sure the base idea of a law game is inherently interesting on its own to most people," Matsukawa said in an e-mail interview with GameFile, "although I really can't speak for the rest of the team." She stated this despite the growing popularity of the "PW" series, which has had four installments in Japan, first three of which are now available in the U.S.; and despite the fact that the series' publisher, Capcom, is also working on a game based on the cartoon "Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law."
But perhaps even the producer of "Phoenix Wright" isn't sure about the popularity of courtroom games because "PW" wasn't a courtroom game initially. "The original director and creator, Mr. Shuu Takumi, had wanted to make a game where the player would find the lies and contradictions in statements when he set out to make the first [Game Boy Advance] 'Gyakuten Saiban' ['Ace Attorney'] game," Matsukawa said. "And it was from that single gameplay concept that he realized the perfect setting would be in the courtroom, or so I've heard."
That simple concept of lies and contradictions led the designers to invent their own legal system that has defense attorney Phoenix Wright badgering a series of witnesses in order to convince a judge that his client is innocent. He also can present any evidence he finds at the crime scene and put a halt to the proceedings at just about any time by yelling, "Objection!" Wright's court operates like no court on earth, though Matsukawa said Japanese reporters often ask if it's based on American courts.
For the record, there are people associated with the American legal system who approve of the game. Matsukawa said a teen approached her at the San Diego Comic-Con two years ago to say that his father, a lawyer, was excited about the series. And earlier this year, at Comic-Con again, she was approached by a law professor. "He told me that as an educator of lawyers-to-be, he highly recommended the 'Ace Attorney' games to his students."
While the "Phoenix Wright" games are known for their colorful, ridiculous cast of angry old women, goofy nerds and vain movie stars, Matsukawa said the development process doesn't start with drafting them but with crafting lies. He explained: "The game starts out as a collection of ideas and concepts, such as, 'Let's use this trick,' 'This is where the contradiction should be,' 'We should betray the player here' or 'Let's put a misleading lie here,' and is centered on the idea of the case. The team then uses these ideas to construct an outline of the cases." Then the characters are added along with most of the humor, which Matsukawa said is usually written in the second draft of the development team's three-stage writing process.
While the designers really push the writing of their games — Matsukawa even describes the games as, at "their most basic, text dialogue pieces" — the actual gameplay of the "Phoenix" games is limited. In the courtroom parts of the game, players watch the case unfold, choosing only when to press a witness for more information, to object or to present evidence. They don't choose who to question, how to phrase Phoenix's statements or even explain why they've chosen to present the evidence they select. While the games are well-reviewed, some critics have complained that players can go through these games using guesswork and the process of elimination.
Matsukawa said such feedback is common. The obstacles to making the game more difficult, however, are formidable. She said the team would have to write three to five times as much text. More importantly, they would have to radically change the games' formula. "We wouldn't be able to tell a single story anymore if there were too many paths. Also, what we want the players to enjoy is not so much the solving of each riddle they come across one at a time, but rather, the ability to use their logic to put together what happened as they collect the pieces of the larger puzzle, as it were, and that's something that we feel is an important aspect of the game."
So far, the "Phoenix Wright" series — now curiously called the "Ace Attorney" series by its creators — is sticking to tradition. There's just one upheaval coming: The new "PW" game closes an initial trilogy in the series. "Trials and Tribulations" is the third title on the DS in America — all three appeared on the Game Boy Advance in Japan. "The ending of 'Trials and Tribulations' is the climax and culmination of the Phoenix arc," Matsukawa said. "So it has even more mysteries and puzzles to figure out than its predecessors. There may be times when [players] may feel frustrated, or think they have no chance of winning, but 'Ace Attorney' games are always about happy endings, so I hope players will be able to enjoy it in the end."
"Phoenix Wright: Trials and Tribulations" is currently available on the Nintendo DS. The next game in the series — which is the first initially designed for the DS system — is set for release in the U.S. next year.
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