Crispy Gamer

Expert Testimony: Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney

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Folks from all walks of life play videogames. But most people who pick up an Xbox 360 controller aren't ever going to be in an off-planet firefight against an extraterrestrial coalition -- like Halo's Master Chief. The lives of gaming's iconic characters don't resemble everyday reality. But every so often, a game uses a real-life profession as a jumping-off point for its adventures. I've decided to ask people to weigh in on these pixilated interpretations of their professions.


When it released in the U.S. in 2005, Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney became a hit on the Nintendo DS. The quirky characters and tense courtroom scenarios won over a good-sized chunk of people. Sue Hong wasn't one of those people, though. Though she owns a DS, Hong was too busy earning her keep as a lawyer after passing the New York and New Jersey bar exams in 2002.

She's not a criminal attorney like Phoenix Wright, but Hong does log a fair amount of time in the courtroom. I gave Hong a cart of the first Phoenix Wright game and, after she played it for about a week, asked her how it measured up to her own legal experiences.
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Evan Narcisse: I know you play a lot of DS games. What are your favorites?

Sue Hong: I like Clubhouse Games [published by Nintendo] because it's got Koi-Koi, which is a Japanese card game. I first bought my DS for Nintendogs, and I'd raised a beautiful Chocolate Lab named Boomer. Lately, I've been hooked on Diner Dash.

Narcisse: Did you know about the Phoenix Wright games before you started playing Ace Attorney?

Hong: No, I didn't. My reaction was, "A lawyer videogame? Are you serious?! How fun could that be?" It's similar to how I feel when I read a John Grisham novel. I'm reading it because it's a thriller, not to see how accurately they portray the lawyer-y stuff.

Narcisse: Do you think that using courtroom dynamics for gameplay was a good idea?

Hong: Yes. because there is a kind of gamesmanship to litigation. But it all happens before trial. Both defense and prosecution are obligated to share what they find during discovery, so by the time you get to trial you basically know what's going to be said. So, the kinds of surprise courtroom revelations that happen in the Phoenix Wright trials actually only occur very rarely. Even when they do, you have to approach the bench and explain to the judge why any kind of smoking-gun evidence didn't come up in discovery. The trial really is for the jury, so you can present your strategy and argument for them to render a decision.

Narcisse: What else sticks out to you?

Hong: My biggest beef with the game is that it makes the prosecutor stupid. If Phoenix Wright is able to see the contradiction in a witness testimony, why couldn't the prosecutor? How dumb are they to not "see" that the electricity was out from 12 noon to 4 p.m., and the witness says "the TV was on and it was 1 p.m."?

Narcisse: They never show a jury in the game. Did that strike you as odd?

Hong: No, I really didn't think about it. The game could have injected the drama of choosing a jury. Certain jury pools are better than others. They can wind up being a part of your overall strategy in a case.

Narcisse: Mia says, "Lies always beget more lies." Did that strike you as particularly true, in terms of courtroom testimony?

Hong: Everyone says they want their day in court. But many, many lose their nerve. Being in a courtroom -- with video or a court reporter recording everything, the jury staring, the judge staring, lawyers flipping documents and asking pointed questions, -- it's nervewracking for most people. Heck, it's nervewracking for the lawyers. When a person is nervous, they say all sorts of things.

Before any case goes before a judge, there is a phase called "discovery." Remember "My Cousin Vinnie," when Joe Pesci was studying "evidence"? All the statements from the witnesses and/or the party are taken prior to trial. Each side gets to examine this. That's the part that I found too unreal in Phoenix Wright.

Narcisse: To that point, the game seems like it takes a lot of liberties with legal procedures, like evidence control and contact between representatives and clients. Would your license be at risk if you ever acted this way?

Hong: In criminal law, "chain of custody" is very important and needs to be established before a jury. Very clearly. If the lawyer can't establish this, it can mean not having the document/object admitted as evidence. As for contacts, in a civil matter, once a person is represented by counsel, you can no longer have any direct contact with that person. And yes, license can be at risk. I assume that the game takes liberties with the procedure because otherwise, it'd make for a very boring game.


Narcisse: One of the things that Phoenix Wright sets up is the sense of rivalry between defense and prosecution in the courtroom. Phoenix's opponent is Miles Edgeworth, a smug prosecutor. Have you ever had a Miles Edgeworth?

Hong: Generally speaking, lawyers are civil, because we get taught to be that way. You can get disciplined for poor behavior. But, you do get to not liking people because they play dirty. I have one guy with whom I don't even try to be civil, if I ever run across him. In situations like that, the judge has to play parent and make us play nice.

Narcisse: The game's full of melodrama. Is there this much drama in estate law?

Hong: Estate planning is different from probate. One is before death and the other after. The planning part can be very dramatic depending on the situation. My office is located in a very affluent neighborhood in New Jersey. No huge drama. That is, until there is a death and the spouse/children/grandchildren start fighting over money.

You can see the drama in probate. You hear about this often. Michael Jackson, for example. It all starts with a fight over money and who's getting more. It all ends with "I don't care how much money I end up with as long as so-and-so doesn't get a penny." Do you think they'll ever be a family again? Doubtful.

Narcisse: Would you play the other Phoenix Wright games?

Hong: Yeah, I would. But I'd go into them with an "As if…" attitude. Finding a way to include the choosing and swaying of a jury would be really key. When you're going into court, the only unknown factor is the jury. The game's fine as an entertainment experience, but don't play it and think about being a lawyer. Still, it shouldn't try to be like real life. There'd be a ton of reading and it'd be boring.

Narcisse: Phoenix says he became a lawyer because someone has to look out for the people with no one on their side.

Hong: That is such an idealist answer. I will not say that there aren't lawyers like that out there, but please let me know if you find one.

Narcisse: Well, do you feel like the cynical attitude people have about lawyers is justified, then?

Hong: To a certain extent, yes. But I know where it comes from. Even in criminal cases, where a loss in the courtroom means a person goes to jail, you still don't have anything tangible to show for all the money that's spent. That kind of thing feeds resentment. It's unfair, though, because we do work for it.