My father is a judge, presiding in the Ontario Court of Justice. Growing up as a kid, I used to hear stories around the dinner table of recent or unusual cases – stuff like arson, assault, or theft. But none of them holds a candle to the most unusual cases he’s recently set his mind to – trials involving extreme plastic surgery, psychic mediums, amnesia, assassins, and ghosts.
My parents used to joke that they were once told the jobs their children would one day have were yet to be invented, and I guess that was right. I had no interest in following my dad’s footsteps, and never wanted to be a judge. Instead, I write about videogames for the internet. It might seem like a bit of a leap at first, but there are certain similarities in our vocations. We both work at a desk – though his is a little nicer than mine. And we both wear a robe to work – only, mine normally rests on a little hook outside the bathroom.
The Honorable Justice Dad views games as a waste of time. This is not conjecture. It’s straight from the horse’s mouth. A million years ago, I used to write about comic books, and one day I made a joke to him about their relative unseriousness in the grand scheme of things – ranking somewhere below Proust, and somewhere above funny pictures of cats on the internet. Well, he said. It could be worse. I could be writing about videogames. We both laughed at that: Him a deep, earnest chuckle, me an emaciated, weaselly “heh heh…” all the while I’m thinking “Good. Great. I better get started on that pseudonym.”
They say adulthood truly hits you in that moment when you realize you’ve turned into your father. In my case, it hit me when I realized I was something my father thinks is kind of dumb.
The Honorable Justice Dad is not someone with any need for a videogames critic. Until recently, Dad had played about a dozen games in his life. This is a testament not to his casual nature, but rather to his single-minded devotion and perseverance. He used to flip on Dr. Mario on the NES on the hardest setting, music set to “Chill,” and methodically empty out that jarful of viruses pill by pill without breaking a sweat. Chill, indeed. Later, I would turn on Mario Kart on the SNES to find he had beaten all my time trial scores, and I’d labor to reclaim them one after another. I still remember coming home from University, year after year, to help him sort through various epics and set pieces looted from Mephisto Hell runs for his Diablo 2 characters, to optimize this or that spec. The conversations would begin the same way. “Brendan. Come have a look at my goodies.” And then he’d open a chest to sift through a list of runes, set items and epics. He may be the only man on Earth to refer to videogame loot as “goodies,” but, you know, it makes sense. You kill baddies, you get goodies.
Recently he bought a Nintendo DS, and asked me to recommend a few games. Finally, I thought, I’d have a chance to do my thing. I wouldn’t be a critic, after all, if I didn’t take a deep satisfaction in urging people towards the things I enjoy; so, even just this once, I had a chance to show off. I set him up with the works – platformers and puzzle games, shooters, racing titles, all sorts of stuff. And then, on top of all of that, I decided to have a little fun with the guy, and added one more game to the stack. I got him Phoenix Wright, Ace Attorney.
Phoenix Wright is a series of games unlike most. The main character is not a dashing adventurer or treasure hunter, but a hotshot lawyer who struggles to win a series of complicated or convoluted cases, and win his clients’ freedom. They play as puzzle games that take place inside and outside a courtroom – you poke through crime scenes and gather evidence, grill witnesses for hidden details, and prepare your case. These situations range from the freakishly improbable to the frankly impossible, relying on mistaken identities, dark secrets, betrayals, and inevitable “turnabouts” – those moments in the trial when accusations are tossed back and forth like hot potatoes. Trials are won through a combination of questioning contradictory statements, producing relevant evidence at crucial moments, choosing the best possible argument that suits the situation, and yelling. Mostly yelling, though. Each case is a tug-of-war of full-throated legal grandstanding. “Take That!” “Gotcha!” “Objection!”
It’s a very specific sort of game, and not for everybody. Truth be told, I didn’t recommend Phoenix Wright out of some misplaced notion that my father was craving a wacky simulation of his salad days as a defense attorney. Nor did I think that there was something essential about the game that would appeal to him specifically. The decision, rather, was selfish and a bit sadistic – there was something deeply hilarious to me about picturing him puzzling through Phoenix Wright‘s hyperlegal pageantry, trying to apply his own keen sense of court procedure to this bizarre pastiche. I pictured him playing it with his lip curled, soured by the disdain that experts feel towards pale imitations of their craft – the way “real” musicians sniff at Rock Band‘s plastic plunking, or how fastidious gun nuts turn up their noses at the weapons in this or that shooter. Simply put: In my inestimable experience as a games critic, I expected him to hate it. And in my inestimable experience as a games critic it turns out I was right.
The Honorable Justice Dad listed his objections.
“It’s stupid. The dialog is terrible. They all say the dumbest things.”
Yeah, they do, I said.
“The cases don’t make sense. It’s always the strangest stuff.”
Yup, it is.
“Court doesn’t operate anything like that. If a real lawyer tried to do anything like that, they’d stop him in an instant.”
Well, maybe that’s how the court system works in Japan.
“Everybody is always yelling.”
Well, I said. Maybe everybody is always yelling in Japan, too.
Every time I talked to him about Phoenix Wright, he groused about this or that case, and the latest indignities he’d suffered in grinding through “that godawful game.” There was the direct implication that this waste-of-time game was wasting his time, and that somehow I’d forced him to suffer through it. As if I’d forced his hand, somehow, with this cursed gift. As if this was all some ludicrous favor to me. I played dumb, and listened to his trials and tribulations with this or that case. The one with the bloody statue. The one with the steel samurai. The one where you cross-examine a parrot. I listened as he talked them through, and in a strange way, it resembled nothing so much as listening to those tableside accounts I sat through as a kid; just more convoluted, and infinitely weirder.
Interestingly, almost all of his complaints were procedural. Why would Wright only take on innocent defendants, if it’s his duty to do his job regardless or innocence or guilt? Why does he get away with badgering pretty much any witness he comes across, when the Judge could instantly put a stop to it with a bang of his gavel? Dad levels no metaphysical complaints, like why a world full of psychics would even need lawyers, aside from the odd lawyer joke, or why condemn murderers to the death penalty, if they’re just going to return as evil spirits bent on revenge? I took this as a good sign – that, for all its supposed godawfulness, on some level, he had bought into Phoenix Wright‘s strange little world.
Because for all his continued protestations, I began to notice something. In his accounts of how bad the game truly is, it was always new stories, and new cases. He was making steady progress, despite himself. And one day, using his computer to check my email, I quickly flipped through his open tabs, and saw a different sort of “evidence” – page after page of faqs and walkthroughs. He had bookmarked them all, and had been consulting them, case by case, making sure to scavenge every last piece of evidence, making sure that his witnesses were examined just right.
At some point, he had taken to the idiosyncrasies of Phoenix Wright like no other game I had lent him. And those hours of extensive litigious brilliance came to pay off. One day, during a visit home, he approached me in the kitchen. “You know that stupid lawyer game?” he said.
Did I ever.
“Well, I finally beat it the other night.”
There was a silence. Mostly, I was surprised he stuck through it, but I didn’t say that. In a prickly, unexplainable way, I was proud of him – but you better believe I didn’t say that, either.
Instead, I thought for a second, and said, “You know, there’s a sequel … ?”
He sighed deeply, as if pressed into an onerous chore. Another favor. Another waste of time.
“Well,” he said. “Might as well.”
Months passed, and we went back and forth like that. Every trip back home, I would look forward to hearing of his progress, how he had managed to work his way through cases of murderous acrobats and vengeful face-swapping nurses and evil psychics back from the beyond. Until one day, I got a call from my mom about a very real sort of courtroom drama: That day, while presiding over his courtroom, my dad’s heart had stopped.
Not an attack – it just up and quit on him for a few seconds. And then it did it again. The episode landed him in the hospital, waiting for his condition to be addressed. My family, my brothers and sister, dropped what they were doing and came to visit, from all across Ontario. By the time we arrived, he was fairly sound and settled in. The emergency had passed, and now he was simply on strict observation, with the procedure to install a pacemaker scheduled for a few days’ time. We walked the empty halls of the hospital, sat and talked in a sterile pastel waiting room. He was comfortable, he explained, and in no pain. The worst part of it was the wait.
The next day, we came bearing gifts. My family brought flowers and cards and books and magazines and Sudoku puzzles, and all sorts of things you’re supposed to bring to people in hospitals. I brought his DS case, his small stack of games, and a few new ones to boot.
I said, “Hey, dad, I know you’re working through the sequel to that stupid lawyer game. Well, did you know that it has a sequel? And that that game has a sequel? And that that game has a sequel?” I placed them beside him in a neat pile. He complained how stupid they are, how boneheaded and random, how they’re next to impossible without an faq. Then he put the next one in, and turned it on, and I left him be.
It’s funny. Up until then, I had assumed that I was foisting these games on him as some sort of malicious prank – an inside joke without a punchline. But it was more than that. They were a way of pointing out the vast, unspannable expanse between him and me: Him the federal judge, and me content to “play one on TV.” But at certain times, in certain moments, we are more alike than different. I am no justice – but every now and then, I get a chance to be just.
I left the hospital with the surety that I haven’t heard the last of my dad’s criticisms about Phoenix Wright – I’ll be listening to him complain about stupid games for years and years. It’s only fair, after all. If I can play an attorney, he should get a chance to play a games critic as well. A small stack of games he loves to hate – in a weird way, I was happy to do him that little service. A waste-of-time game for a little bit of time worth wasting.
No objections here.
Brendan Main fought the law, and the law won. He needs a better lawyer.