The Phoenix Wright–starring Ace Attorney series of video games are linear visual novels with bizarre puzzles that may or may not actually test your logic skills. You investigate crime scenes and interact with ludicrously dressed characters while wading through idealized interpretations of the Japanese court system. You attempt to pick evidence that coincides with the prosecutors' questions, or that will absolutely grill a lying, sack-of-shit witness—though this sometimes goes horribly awry.
As Capcom's series proceeds, you deal with psychic powers and leagues of prosecutors. It's not much of a "game," as you don't have a whole lot of agency, but it's all so perfectly charming. And it proved especially enchanting for someone as isolated as I felt when I picked up the first game in the series, 2001's Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
I had always been a bit of a shut-in during high school, with two or three others making up a rather socially inept and depressingly small circle of friends. My interests were slim. Like any aimless high-schooler in the 2000s, my activities were pretty much limited to smoking weed, binge-watching pirated movies and TV, and droning through MMOs and old video games. Sometimes I skillfully combined them. Maybe I would add some Instant Messenger to the mix. I wasn't an unpopular kid, necessarily, but I probably spoke more to randos on Star Wars Galaxies or Counter-Strike than to any living, breathing soul.
Therefore, when my parents got a house in Colorado and convinced me to leave our Miami lair and join them there for the summer before senior year, I figured I wouldn't miss my social life all that much. In fact, I had this stereotypical preconception of Colorado kids as these open, super-chill stoners who would invite me out to all their campfires and we would smoke and talk about nature and movies and I would meet hippie girls who were down for anything and it would be relationship easy street. "Fuck Miami," I deludedly thought. "Those people are so stuck up. That's why I'm not meeting anyone."
That fantasy never really congealed into anything. Whenever I approached people my age, I always bumbled the conversation into some truncated, awkward netherworld of pointless banter. I went to my summer internship, walked around town aimlessly, and received no invitations to anything. Instead of exploring the Colorado vistas surrounding me, I spent more and more time in the house on the internet, browsing forums endlessly between watching episodes of Twin Peaks and whatever bullshit anime I was into. I would obsessively try to seek out the most bizarre content I could find to fill my brain with. I always had to have more content. I had a Nintendo DS, and had already ordered a few niche games for it that I'd read about online. I saw descriptions of an anime-like lawyer game, and the potential existence of such a thing blew my mind. I immediately ordered a copy of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
When I initially dove into the game's walls of text, I was in adventure game culture shock. I was unfamiliar with the concept of playing through a "visual novel." When the fuck is the game going to start? Why are the characters are all a bunch of glorified animated GIFs with no legs? But after an hour or two of navigating the curious caricature of Japan's legal system, I was hooked. Every character was so beautifully and idiosyncratically animated and matched to their text. You start to create voices in your head for each character and anticipating the next animation.
More importantly, the main characters—Phoenix Wright, Maya Fey, and Detective Gumshoe—all stood for something. Their relentless optimism through so many lies and so much strife filled a hole in my psyche—and perhaps my heart. I lacked direction. Furthermore, I was missing out on the trials and tribulations of a romantic or social life. But Phoenix trusted people and wanted to help them. He would stop at nothing. He had faith that his friend Larry Butz could not possibly be guilty, and he stuck with him right the way until he could prove his innocence.
Then, after the 15th or 20th time seeing Phoenix sweat because he thinks the prosecutor, Miles Edgeworth, has bested him, it starts to make you tense up. You feel elation when you begin hammering down the path of truth by providing the correct evidence. And, finally, ecstasy when you finger the culprit and the villain wigs out. More than anything, the Phoenix Wright group is just so charming and honest that you want to hang out with them through the next case. Phoenix isn't the most shrewd or cunning lawyer, Maya is a naive teenager, and Gumshoe is a dipshit detective, but they value truth and kindness over everything else.
The main villain in the game is mendacity itself. Your clients are all inherently good, kind people. Therefore, the game submits, they couldn't have committed the crimes they are accused of. Or if they did, it was in self-defense. That is usually Phoenix's logic. He's so fucking trustworthy. And likable. And I wished I could be more like him and have more people like him around me. Through the 20-hour game, you watch these characters endlessly swim through these rivers of shit—falsified evidence, an easily manipulated judge, convoluted motivations, and crime scenes—because they know they can help someone. It's one of the rare games where the heroes aren't amazing at all, and they aren't trying to save the world. They're just taking things one step at a time.
After the last case, Phoenix convenes with his friends who helped him out and they all say "thank you" and "holy shit we almost lost that case" and then make a bunch of jokes and talk about going out for burgers and whatnot. Once the game was over, I felt a blue-suited, immaculate-haired vacancy in my soul. I wished I could have friends that I could work through important shit with, and form bonds with, rather than just sitting around smoking weed with them all day. I wished I had something I could care about as much as Phoenix did. I decided I needed a change. Or, I could just wait around for Phoenix Wright: Justice for All to come out.
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