Some games allow you to be bad. You’ve got your “Fable“s and “Knights of the Old Republic“s, with their presentation of multiple, morally-defined paths. But those games don’t really make you feel bad about being bad. In “Fable” you can give money to the spiritual authorities and switch back to being good — guilt-free! In “KOTOR” you’re primarily just picking an outfit and array of super-powers, not a code of ethics that defines your destiny.
Over the horizon are games such as “Mass Effect” and Sucker Punch’s “Infamous” which offer new promises of malleable, playable morality (remember that “Jack Bauer in space” line?).
But instead of waiting for the future, let’s take stock: Has a game yet made you feel like you were making your character do something wrong? Truly like you were not on the side of the angels?
I felt that way this weekend as I played a game I expected no such surprises from: “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney 2: Justice For All.”
The “Phoenix Wright” games, two of which have been released on the DS in the U.S., put you in the shoes of an ace defense attorney who defends people wrongly accused of murder. It doesn’t follow any real legal system, giving you the activities befitting a fictional lawyer rather than one who would have to operate in a real, functional legal system (cynics would call that an oxymoron?). To investigate crimes in the game, you tap your way through dialogue trees. You tap your way through more to argue your case. Gameplay-wise, it’s anything but brilliant. There’s not much more “play” involved than there is reading a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book. But the writing is funny, and the game successfully taps into the tension of court-room drama: surprise evidence, tense cross-examination, witness-stand confessions, etc.
I didn’t expect much more than what I just described from the second “Phoenix Wright,” which I’ve been playing on and off since May. But…. as was recently pointed out when I fretted about whether to complete “Final Fantasy XII,” I am a completist. I am one, because I believe that the most interesting part of a creative work might be hiding at that work’s end. In the case (that is, the final court case) of “Phoenix Wright… Justice For All,” my patience paid off.
Now I promise that I’m not spoiling things outright, because I’m not going to tell you who the murderer in the final case really is. But in order to make my point, I do need to tell you a little something about what happens.
In all of the previous court cases — which span about 30 hours of game time across the two “Phoenix” titles out in the U.S. — you, as Phoenix, are defending clients who are innocent. It’s the premise of the game and the character. You are never encouraged to doubt this fact.
In “Justice For All”’s last trial, however, Phoenix doesn’t just doubt that he is defending an innocent person, he comes to believe that his client is guilty. His actions are complicated by a kidnapping plot that forces him to continue defending his client, even though the moral standards of this game’s legal system strongly suggest that he should refuse a client who is guilty of murder.
In case it’s not clear how the game designers want the player to feel at this moment, Phoenix is jeered by everyone in the courthouse. Text bubbles pop up, showing people’s horror at a defense attorney trying to get a killer cleared of murder. Phoenix feels terrible. But the game still expects you to do your best to challenge people’s testimony, to argue that someone else is the true killer — to basically do what the game has made clear is the wrong thing. The game gave me the sense that I was suddenly wrecking these video game people’s lives.
For a captivating amount of time (I don’t want to spoil how long this lasts) I felt like I was the bad guy. Say what you will about the proper role of attorneys and how they are expected to defend clients regardless of guilt. In this game I knew where the moral compass pointed and I knew I was walking in the wrong direction. I felt like scum.
And for that, I salute the designers of the second “Phoenix Wright.” Thank you for making me feel like a bad guy. Other games have tried — tried so hard — and failed.
(Recent Thing I’ve Also Done: Asked For Help … To Quit Playing “Final Fantasy”)