The Symbology of Phoenix Wright

image provided by

image provided by

Like most people, I have a “to read” pile of books, but unlike most people, I’ve saddled myself with a “to Play” pile. This makes me perpetually late to the party on most video game crazes, but it also keeps me from wasting my time and money on launch day hype. If a game has the kind of quality to still be generating buzz six months after release, I consider it worthy of my attention. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney is one such game.

In the game, you play the role of Phoenix Wright, a young defense lawyer. The goal of the game is similar to the “Perry Mason” novel series and television show, where you would prove the client innocent by proving the guilt of one of the witnesses. Each case would start out with an investigation section, where you would question witnesses and search crime scenes for clues. Later, the action would shift to the courtroom, where you would cross-examine witness testimony and present evidence to defend your client. The story is told via animated cut-scenes and text dialogue. In terms of technological power, the game is pretty primitive. The style of gameplay is similar to point and click graphic adventures that haven’t been popular in years. The story is also a little campy, taking fantastic liberties with the way the justice system works. They use character names like “Wendy Oldbag” and “Dick Gumshoe”.  “Professor Plum” from the board game “Clue” wouldn’t be out of place here. That didn’t stop Phoenix Wright from becoming a cult hit.

Phoenix Wright has spawned 3 sequels and a spinoff to be released later this year. The first game, “Ace Attorney”, is next to impossible to find on North American store shelves due to  excessive demand. Even Capcom, the game’s publisher, didn’t expect that kind of reception. There is even a Phoenix Wright Musical produced by the all-female Takarazuka Revue that recently opened in Japan. Top it all off with the legions of cosplayers, fanzines, and even fan-developed spinoff games, Phoenix Wright is nothing less than a minor phenomenon. Why was this point-and-click adventure game succeeding where so many others have failed?

It would be easy to write of the art style as the main attraction to the game. The game is filled with clean lines, dynamic poses, and attractive characters. However, there are many games that have superior art that don’t quite make it to the level of recognition that Phoenix Wright has. What about the gameplay? Well, Bejeweled has great gameplay. You don’t see anybody cosplaying as that. Yet. That leaves us the story and characters, which people seemed to have latched on to, but the question still remains, why these characters? Other character-based games, like Leisure Suit Larry, are having a terrible time regaining any kind of stature on the sales charts. What is it about Phoenix Wright and his friends that make them so special?

For the answer, you have to look at Phoenix Wright himself. He is chock full of symbology. His last name is an obvious pun (“That’s right, Mr. Wright”) and his first name refers to his ability to turn around cases that seem hopeless, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. His hair and facial features make him look like some stalwart bird of justice, and the arm that he points out has he gives an objection is foreshortened so it looks like a giant wing. Every part of Phoenix’s character is designed to make obvious who he is and what he does, along with every other character in the series.

Now what other characters are created this way? Check out all of the people the Phoenix Wright cosplayers are hanging out with. Every major media property has characters that are easily recognizable and have symbology. Star Wars, Harry Potter, and even James Joyce’s Ulysses are all guilty of this. When it comes to American comic books, character names just cross into the blatantly literal with names like Superman, Batman, and Wolverine.

People sometimes criticize works for being obvious or unsubtle with symbology. Others say we should be free of symbols and try to create something that is truly original.  Subtlety is fine, but it shouldn’t be an enemy of clear communication. People gravitate to the easy symbology because it leaves them free to appreciate other aspects of the story. If you want something that’s truly original and free of symbols, you will be disappointed. What is a symbol but a communication of a thing that exists? We can’t create new symbols from nothing, because we’ll eventually find a way to associate the new symbols to the old and we’re back to a symbol that’s inspired by something instead of nothing.

If you are trying to be creative and vexxed by the pressure to be original, remember that you can’t create anything new, you can only make new combinations of things that already exist. If you try to be truly original, you break the rules that govern the human experience, and you end up with something incomprehensible. Don’t try and make your poem, painting, or novel into something by Jackson Pollack or Walter Creeley. Deconstructionism is a failed experiment of 20th century art movements. Let’s pick up the old tools like structure, perspective, and rhyming couplet to create something that future generations will actually be able to understand.