Monday, 4 June 2007

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorny

The stench of death fell over me like a wave. Well, it would have, if a wave could fall out of a closet, with blood all over that cute little white number that she was wearing last time I met her. McCain was scum, with means and a motive. But no matter how down and dirty he was, that didn't stop him from being a two bit microwave-chip bootlegging sap. And no sap could have done this to my Cindy. Something screamed 'set-up'. And it wasn't just McCain, who certainly screamed 'set-up' as I left him in his cell downtown. No, there was more to this, and I was gonna get to the bottom, as sure as oil in salad dressing. French style vinaigrette dressing. Not Cesar's, or that mayonnaise based stuff.

Why am I indulging in my favorite pastime of stretching metaphors long past the point where they lose their elasticity, like a pair of well-loved old boxers, stretched around a beer belly that you can not acknowledge by throwing them away, and stained with the confusion of a hundred readers? I'm celebrating something that the video games has been missing since Max Payne; the simile-slinging, hard-punning underdog detective.

Do you remember the nineties? Because I don't, grandad. They were over by the time I was fifteen. Ha! However, I do remember buying loads of outdated nineties games to play on my awful home-made PC. There was a whole army of point and click noir-styled detective games referencing everything noir from Raymond Chandler to Bladerunner.

The Phoenix Wright series is something of a spiritual successor to those detective games, having the same clue gathering, witness grilling, wisecracking set-up at its heart. However, this time, you do not just catch the bad guy, you get to drag him through the courts, and pound him with the evidence you have gathered.

This style of game can hardly be described as a 'game' - it is a very closed system, with 'right' answers at every step, and you have to achieve this steps in a prescribed order. (Japanese-made 'point-and-clicks' are known to be even more firmly 'on rails' than western ones) It works a little like a choose your own adventure. What it is that drags the the player into an incredibly immersing experience then, is the brilliant writing.

Each character is beautifully realised, with their own quirks of speech and behaviour, and their own emotions; even a side-character in Ace Attorney is more fully written than the average modern computer game hero. The rival lawyers you love to hate slowly become sympathetic as the game progresses, and the criminals, even if they can not be forgiven, can always be understood. The dialogue is genuinely witty, and often had me laughing out loud.

You may have read my previous whinging, and remember that these days, I rarely complete games. However, I completed the second game in the Phoenix Wright series in two weeks, even though it was my exam revision period. Now, for a hardcore gamer like me to chose Phoenix Wright over anything else when my gaming time was so limited, must mean something. Basically, it exemplifies the power of good writing in games. I kept playing to see what would happen next, and to hear (read) more of my favourite characters' amusing vergiberations. Now I am not a particular advocate of 'nu-casual-gaming'; I would prefer to see the games market expanding in every direction, without losing anything we have come to love already. However, a game like Phoenix Wright has a very far reaching lesson. If good writing can do so much for a game, why do we accept less? Why is it okay for developers to hire uninterested hacks to populate our games with uninteresting two-dimensional characters (Hell, we can see them in 3D!) and wooden dialogue?

Writing like that found in Phoenix Wright should not just be found in 'story games' - most games purport to have a story of some form or other, and I think it is no longer satisfactory for that story to be poorly written. I remember how the creators of Fahrenheit made such a fuss over the idea that a game's plot could take influence from cinema. It is a pity that particular game took its influence from awful cheesy Hollywood thrillers. While it was commendable that the game makers wanted to show that a game could inspire the emotions of a film, it is sad that those emotions were the standard array of boredom and embarrassment inspired by the cliches of Hollywood. The fact is, there is a wide world full of writing out there, and it is about time games considered themselves part of that world.