When You Play "Phoenix Wright," Are You Really Phoenix Wright? Capcom Talks About About Gaming's Top Courtroom Drama

Phoenix Wright If you're played the "Phoenix Wright" Nintendo DS games you may have noticed that they're a little different.

Part throw-back to text-adventure games, part shining beacon of how funny games can still intentionally be.

Part rare video game coutroom drama, part case study in just how non-interactive a game can be.

Last week I e-mailed Capcom a bunch of questions about the series:

How do these games get made? How do they get so funny? Would they designers ever make a law game in which you only defend guilty people? What have lawyers said to you about these games? And so on...

I wrote up some of the answers in my MTV News GameFile column yesterday, but I found the interview so interesting that I'm posting the whole thing here. Some of the answers were quite brainy, much to my delight.

Two things jumped out at me in the interview. The first is series producer Minae Matsukawa's description of the relationship between the player and Phoenix Wright, the character they control.

We also wanted to betray the player’s feelings. The player may want Phoenix to do one thing, but he’ll do another, even after the player knows what’s really going on. Playing through an Ace Attorney game, you can see that Phoenix is one part the player, and one part his own character, Phoenix Wright. And when the player walks around, they solve the case both with and as Phoenix at the same time. In a way, this case set out to betray not only the player, but also the character Phoenix himself.

The other ties into a comment made by gamer Calvin Smith on a "Zelda" post I published yesterday. He lamented that "a lot of developers and gamers claim open-endedness as a virtue." When I asked Matsukawa about the common critique that the gameplay in "Phoenix Wright" is too linear, she said:

If we were to give players any more leeway ... the structure of the game would fundamentally change. 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 them 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.

Food for thought. The full interview is below.

Multiplayer: There are many TV shows and movies that are all about legal trials, but very few games. Why do you think that is? Do you think there should be more? Or does the genre have limited appeal as a video game?

Minae Matsukawa, Capcom producer: I think it’s because there is a certain level of difficulty in making a game based on court proceedings. Back in 2001 when we, Capcom, were making the first "Gyakuten Saiban" (which later became "Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney" overseas) game for GameBoy Advance (GBA), we were the only ones making a courtroom-based game. Now, the number of games in this genre is increasing, for example, the "Harvey Birdman" game being made overseas.

To be honest, though, I’m not sure the base idea of a law game is inherently interesting on its own to most people, although I really can’t speak for the rest of the team. I believe that more than wanting to create a courtroom game, 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 GBA "Gyakuten Saiban" ("Ace Attorney") game, and it was from that single gameplay concept that he realized the perfect setting would be in the courtroom, or so I’ve heard. If it wasn’t for this, we might not have ended up with that as our setting, and that would’ve been a shame since the "courtroom" is right there in the title. (The literal translation of the Japanese title, "Gyakuten Saiban," is "Comeback Court.") But in the end, I think with the increase in the number of trial-based games being made nowadays, the genre will become increasingly popular.

Multiplayer: The "Phoenix Wright" games are very funny, but as far as I know are not at all accurate to the way the legal system works. How did you decide upon the legal system in "Phoenix Wright"? Is it based on any real-world legal system? Or is it just designed to be one that simply works well as a game?

Matsukawa: Well, going back to how the game system was conceived, the team didn’t think of the court idea first, and instead was focused on the idea of uncovering lies and contradictions. Actually, what’s funny is when the Japanese press asks us about this same issue, they usually think we based the game’s system off of the American judicial system! But if we really had based the game off of a real court system, it might not be quite as interesting as a game, simply because court proceedings usually aren’t interesting, right? I think that more than the setting, the game itself has to be interesting. The system in the game is really, at its core, about chasing down witnesses and trying to catch them in the act of lying, so keeping this as the most important aspect of the game and gameplay in mind, we didn’t base the judicial system in "Ace Attorney" off of any real systems, but instead created something unique to the "Ace Attorney" world.

Multiplayer: Do you know if the series has any fans who work as lawyers or judges? If so, have you ever heard feedback from anyone in those professions? If so, can you tell me an anecdote about that?

Matsukawa: Sure! I remember when I made my first trip to [the San Diego] Comic-Con 2 years ago, before any of the "Ace Attorney" games had been released or was as well known as it is now, there was a young man, about 17 or 18 years old, and he told me that his father is a lawyer. Even now, I distinctly remember him telling me that he and his father were greatly anticipating this game, and that he hoped that we wouldn’t let him down. I remember being very happy to hear him say that since the game hadn’t even been released yet back then.

Fast forward to a few months ago in July. I went back to Comic-Con for the first time in 2 years, and this time, a gentleman came up to me and said that he was a professor at a law school! He told me that as an educator of lawyers-to-be, he highly recommended the "Ace Attorney" games to his students. We ended up talking for a little while as I signed his poster, and he told me such things as, "Americans really love all things law," and that he thought it was amazing that he could teach his students through a good video game, which was great to hear from a law professor. While he wasn’t trying to teach the law system in the game, since as I just mentioned, the game system is purely fictional, I think the basic ideas that a lawyer should trust their client, and to expose lies to find the truth – those are things that are pretty universal, and things we can all learn about.

I hope on my next visit, I can hear from even more fans, whether they’re related to the law or not. I’m really looking forward to hearing everyone’s stories.

[SKIP THE NEXT QUESTION TO AVOID A MILD SPOILER ABOUT THE SECOND "PHOENIX WRIGHT" GAME, "...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL"]

Multiplayer: There was a really interesting case in the second "Phoenix Wright" game, during which Phoenix is forced to defend a man he knows is actually guilty. I really liked this case, because it made me play the role of someone who knew he was doing something wrong. Very few video games have ever put me in that situation before. To what extent has the development team wanted to put players in unusual situations like that? Would you be interested in making a game like "Phoenix Wright" where you were always defending people who were guilty? It could be fascinating.

Matsukawa: One thing you often hear when you talk with the team is "we want to betray the player’s expectations," and that’s usually the starting point when they write the scenario. Now, by the time you get to that particular episode, it’s become pretty standard that whoever Phoenix defends is always innocent, so the player’s expectation will lead them to believe that their client this time will be innocent as well. And it was this expectation, this belief in the innocence of Phoenix’s client that the team set out to overturn by constructing the case in such a way that the true nature of your client and the truth behind the murder will only be revealed ever so slowly to the player.

We also wanted to betray the player’s feelings. The player may want Phoenix to do one thing, but he’ll do another, even after the player knows what’s really going on. Playing through an Ace Attorney game, you can see that Phoenix is one part the player, and one part his own character, Phoenix Wright. And when the player walks around, they solve the case both with and as Phoenix at the same time. In a way, this case set out to betray not only the player, but also the character Phoenix himself. The fact that we were able to put players in such an "unusual situation" is in itself praise enough for us that we were able to accomplish what we had set to do, and we are very grateful for this.

As for if we would be interested in making a game where the defendant was always guilty, if the demand is there, we will think about it. But knowing the team, I suspect that if the game was to be about always defending guilty clients, they would throw an innocent one in there somewhere in their attempt to betray the player’s expectations.

Multiplayer: I mentioned that the game is funny. Very few video games actually make me laugh, but the "PW" series does. How does your team go about making sure the game is funny? Is the game designed without humor first and then the jokes are added in? Is it funny right from the start?

Matsukawa: 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. After that, Mr. Takumi comes up with what kinds of characters should appear in the story, and the team works to bring each one to life. Then all of these various building blocks are brought together to create a rough draft of the scenario. "Ace Attorney" games are at their most basic, text dialogue pieces, so like any piece of writing, there are 3 phases, or "drafts" of any particular case – the outline, the rough draft, and the polished version. After the initial outline and rough draft, the team then sits down to really evaluate the pacing of the game, or how interesting a particular section is, or maybe what sections need more explanation. They write many, many drafts during this polishing phase to really bring the story together. The story is interesting right from the start, but sometimes, even though it looks good on paper, and this has happened to me before too, by the time it’s implemented in the game, you realize that maybe the timing or the pacing is not as good as you thought it would be. It’s a bit disappointing sometimes, but in order to give players a smooth, fun experience, these various interim steps where you are constantly adjusting and readjusting things, such as where to drop hints, must be taken. So even though the initial draft may have been interesting, it’s important that the end version is the best it can be in the game itself, and I think the team feels fortunate that they have been able to bring the variety of stories that they have to the fans.

As for when the humor is added, it’s there from the very beginning, but the majority of the humor is written into the scenario during the second phase when the characters are inserted into the skeleton of the story. When you see the characters and how they behave in the story, then you can do things with them and create situations and humorous lines that fit well within the context of the story.

Multiplayer: Some fans of the "Ace Attorney" games have said that they would like to have more flexibility in arguing court cases. The games currently only give you choices of when to press a witness for more information, when to yell "Objection" and when to present evidence. The player can't really make their own arguments. Has the development team considered giving players more abilities to argue the case as they wish?

Matsukawa: Ah, this is something we get asked a lot, but I have to say that the "Ace Attorney" games are, while on the one hand, interactive, they are also on the other, very heavily story oriented. If we were to give players any more leeway, I’m afraid the amount of text the team would have to write would increase by three, four, or even five times the amount they have to write now. That’s not to say we don’t want to, but the structure of the game would fundamentally change. 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 them 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.

If we were to give players a bit more freedom, we might have to hide the pieces a bit better, or make the contradictions even harder to find, and in the end, the cases might become too hard or even impossible for people to solve. But we are always open to ideas and suggestions.

Multiplayer: What's the most notable feature in "Phoenix Wright 3" that you would like players to appreciate?

Matsukawa: I think the one thing I hope players will enjoy is the ending itself. For those who have played the first and second games, I think they will find that the ending is even more involved and deeper than the previous. Also, the ending of "Trials and Tribulations" is the climax and culmination of the Phoenix arc, so it has even more mysteries and puzzles to figure out than its predecessors. There may be times when they 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.

It’s really hard to talk about the game, and especially the ending, without spoiling anything, but I sincerely hope everyone who plays "Trials and Tribulations" will be able to enjoy the ending, despite any frustrations they may encounter along the way.

Multiplayer: Finally, can you explain your role on the game and let us know how many people worked on it?

Matsukawa: The original team that created the game was around 10 or so people, and there were about another 10 people who worked on the localization, so in the end, a little over 20 people worked in total on this game. As for myself, my role is to keep everyone on track, arrange the production schedule, watch out for the production costs, and of course, my main job, to manage the promotion of the "Ace Attorney" games, which includes attending events, such as Comic-Con back in July, where I hand-signed over 2,000 posters! I was really moved to see all those people waiting sometimes over an hour and a half at the Capcom booth just to see the new "Ace Attorney" game. When I compare that to what I experienced two years ago where I was handing out postcards to passer-bys and trying to promote the game in my limited English, I am in awe of how much the series has grown in two short years, and am extremely grateful for the support and love the North American fans have shown the Ace Attorney series. I hope everyone will continue to support the franchise and will look forward to upcoming games in the series. Thank you very much.