Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Redemption and Grace

This post contains SPOILERS for the first two Phoenix Wright Games, Ace Attorney and Justice for All. You have been warned.

The first thing you have to understand about the setting of the Phoenix Wright games is that it is completely insane. The first game establishes that there is a sort of eternal war between "lawyers" (that is, defense attorneys) and prosecuting attorneys. Furthermore, due to a dramatic increase in criminal cases, the law has been amended: trials may only last up to three days, after which, if no conclusion is reached, the defendant is ruled guilty. This may also explain the very poor grasp of logic and court protocol exhibited throughout the series - and when I say very poor, I mean ridiculously abysmal - though the character of the judge, who presides over every trial in the two games mentioned, may also be partially at fault. His name is Judge Judge, if I recall correctly, and while he is lovable, he is both not that clever and terrible at keeping the courtroom under control.

So: The premise of the series is that you play the role of a young defense lawyer, the eponymous Phoenix Wright - "Nick" for short, oddly. Following in the fine tradition of legal dramas (Law and Order, Boston Legal, etc.) which have their characters, no matter their ostensible profession, participate in all stages of the legal process, Phoenix collects evidence and interrogates witnesses in and out of court in a desperate, flailing, very confused effort to keep his clients from a conviction - FOR MURDER! Then he, invariably, finds the real murderer, the Judge declares your client "NOT GUILTY", and confetti falls from the court ceiling as an audience cheers. It's all very lighthearted, with many 'zany' characters and a rotating 'sidekick' - that role usually being filled by Maya Fey, who we may speak more of later - which makes it all the stranger when you, as Phoenix Wright, must utterly break a woman's spirit to prove her guilty of a crime which - you find a little later - she did not actually commit.

Stepping back for a moment, to add context: You are informed that this woman, Adrian Andrews, who seemed very self-sufficient and competent when you met her earlier, is actually perpetually dependent on others, and tried to commit suicide when her last mentor died some years ago. You already know (from such reliable sources as a tabloids and an old woman who follows them) that Ms. Andrews seems to be romantically involved with the murder victim of the case - who was also connected to Ms. Andrews' old mentor, it's a bit complicated - but Ms. Andrews won't say a word to you on the matter. So, armed with this new information, you go to Ms. Andrews and force her to confess that she's not really self-dependent and is just a weak, spineless woman deep inside. By the end, she's nearly in tears - and for all this you get the information that she was involved with the murder victim to try to retrieve her mentor's suicide note. Information tangential to the case, not even complete information (there's a lot more discovered later)... but by the time of the first day of the trial, a little while later, it seems clear that Ms. Andrews is actually the murderer! It's okay to abuse and practically (I shrink at using the word, but here it seems justified) rape the spirit of a murderer, right? Phoenix Wright seems to think so, because when the trial comes around, he does it again, in collaboration with the prosecuting attorney (who we will certainly attend to later) - wrecking her utterly with threats of public disclosure of all her secrets, suggesting that she should try suicide again, pressing her to the point of tears - only to find, at the end of the day, that she is clearly and entirely innocent of murder. (She did try to frame your client, but it was pretty justified.)

When I, playing the game, had to press through the dialogue where you first break Ms. Andrews' spirit, it disgusted me. (The games are completely linear - you always have to talk to everyone and get all evidence and so forth before you can continue. There's no choice in the matter). I stopped playing for a time. Then, when I resumed, the game revealed that she was the murderer - and the protagonist's actions almost seemed justified. Until it reversed itself again.

If you believe that there is nothing wrong with breaking an innocent woman's spirit utterly for sake of minor, tangential testimony - and note here, the main character never expresses regret for his actions - then there is something deeply wrong with you. (Yes, you, Mr. Zhang.)

I was deeply sickened by the game, and had little enjoyment pressing through the next sections of gameplay. I considered abandoning it. But my persistence paid off - for, slowly, I realized that there was a reason you must perpetuate such an abomination as I rail against, above. It's a strange reason, and not one that's ever stated overtly - so it's the reason this essay of a blog post exists, to explain it.

To give it all away - or explain my thesis, as the English-man might - the abomination exists for purpose of redemption. It shows how low you, Phoenix Wright, have sunk; how much like those you condemn you have become. The dirty tricks the prosecutors play are a common theme of the series, even a central part of one trial. Even some of the noble race of defense lawyers seem to act so - there are hints to improprietries in the court of law in the history of Gregory Edgeworth, defense lawyer, mentioned earlier in the series. Phoenix judges them (appropriately), almost even mocks them - for he fights for justice, never with any filthy tricks! But now he is sunk low; as he must be, if he is to be redeemed.

Miles Edgeworth, the aformentioned Gregory's son, is a prosecution lawyer. He has a long and complicated history with Phoenix Wright, and spars with him twice in the first game. But between the first and second games, he leaves. This is repeatedly mentioned - brought up by one character or another, it becomes clear that Edgeworth has left, Maya Fey (your assistant/ward, mentioned earlier) doesn't know why, and Wright is very reluctant to say anything about Edgeworth or his departure. M. E.'s absence a reoccuring point in the game - he left, M. F. doesn't know why, P. W. v. reluctant to talk about it. Eventually, upon sufficient prodding, he confesses to this: Edgeworth was very depressed by, first, his own defeats and Wright's hands, and second, Wright's defense of him against charges of murder. (More complicated than it's worth to explain, though one might note that this is where the elder Edgeworth is described). Edgewroth then left the county while Maya was on a sabbatical of sorts, leaving a note that he, Miles Edgeworth, "chose death". Wright surmises that this is because Edgeworth's perfect win record was ruined by Wright. (Also important in the plot is one Franciska von Karma, who appears in the middle two cases, just as Edgeworth did, has a perfect win record initially, just as Edgeworth did, and loses to Wright, just as Edgeworth did. Also, she whips people, in court and out. Including the judge. Painfully.)

After his year-long absence, Miles Edgeworth returns at the beginning of the fourth trial (the one discussed) in a dramatic scene, and immediately begins manipulating events. Franciska von Karma is assigned the prosecutorial role for the trial, yet Edgeworth, despite the eternal war between defense lawyers and prosecuting attorneys, gives the player help and advice! This includes, notably, the information about Adrian Andrews' attempted suicide and personal failings. Later, he takes up the prosecutorial position after von Karma is rendered unable to do so (not due to Edgeworth's manipulations, it should be noted - she's just shot with a gun, that's all). Edgeworth then collaborates with the player on several occasions, including the court-based brutalizing of Ms. Andrews - despite Wright and Edgeworth's conflicting interests! He hints that he has discovered something on his year's odyssey - his true goal as an attorney, not as "perfect win record" - and encourages the player to think about this for themself. It's not initially clear what's different about him - he wears the same ridiculous, ruffle-covered suit, he has the same enigmatic mannerisms - but he has changed.

Most of the cases in the games are fairly simple in structure. They're all 'turnabouts' - you defend a client against a charge of murder, and must not only prove that they are innocent, but prove the real murderer guilty. (Again demonstrating the complete ignorance/disregard for anything resembling real-life law that makes the games what they are.) This may take in-game days and many cross-examinations and out-of-court interrogations - but you come through in the end. It's simple, morally unambiguous, and entertaining.

But the last trial isn't like that. You're compelled to take the case - your ward is kidnapped, and held ransom for the acquittal of the defendant. You must interrogate those around him - leading to the deeply twisted situation described at the beginning of the piece. And then, eventually, you discover the truth - not only is Adrian Andrews not the murderer, but your client is.

And a moral dilemna arises - even more for your character than yourself. Do you continue to defend your client - even though you know he's guilty? Or do you let him take the fall - and abandon your ward to likely death, your duty as a defense attorney, and your 'perfect win record'?

For a while, you can (and must) delay the choice. Police search for the abductor, and the player must delay and stall, collaborating with the prosecution to use ever-flimsier pretexts to buy time. In the end, though the abductor is never caught, evidence stolen from his lair in a police raid is enough to convince him to turn traitor and sell out his employer, allowing the player to end the trial without endangering the ward.

And you, as a defense lawyer, argue for a guilty verdict.

As a character, the protagonist had never really been forced to decide what his duty as a defense lawyer really was - to defend his client, or find the truth. In his first however-many trials (between seven and eight - a 'bonus' trial in the first game is of questionable canonicity), P. W. just muddled along as best he could, stalling and bluffing and managing to pull out victories for his clients however he could. The truth was always on his side. When it wasn't, he showed how low he could sink, in the incident with Adrian Andrews.

But when it counts - after days of arguing and discussions with Miles Edgeworth and worry for your ward - at the end of the trial, you choose truth. You choose to condemn your client to his just fate. And Adrian Andrews thanks you tearfully.

The world of Phoenix Wright is a strange place - a place in which prosecuting and defense lawyers are locked in an eternal war, battling with whatever tools are at hand to win victory. It is a world in which truth can be established unequivocally, and villains always admit their guilt at the end. In this world, Phoenix Wright and Miles Edgeworth are something truly new - attorneys who have unlearned what they were taught about the nature of law, helping each-other along the path to redemption of sorts. They set Franciska von Karkma, too, on that path - she flees at the end of the trial, following Miles Edgeworth's path exactly. There is something new in the air of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney. Justice for All.

No comments: