Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Forming a Better Lawyer Game

I once got asked by someone what I thought of the Phoenix Wright games since I’m a practicing lawyer. Truthfully the series never clicked for me despite being a solid adventure game. The way it depicted law and how a lawyer works bothered me immensely. At the time I said it was because it communicated the idea that all I have to do in a lawsuit is click on things and just puzzle it all together. That there was always some way the lawyer could magically fix everything when in reality my job can involve making bad situations just less bad. The design felt wrong to me and it spoiled the rest of the game.

This idea was refreshed in my mind when I saw a great post by Simon Ferrari on Channel 4’s Sweatshop Game. Modeled after the tower defense genre, you put workers on a conveyor belt and try to win the gold medal. The content matches the theme, but the design works to help one appreciate the struggle of sweatshop labor because you realize that it’s always cheaper and easier to just use child labor. Simon Parkin, the game’s designer/writer/producer, explains, “It was one of those rare cases where the mechanics and the message seemed to align neatly, and once we began speaking to experts in the field of sweatshop labor it became clear that there was a huge amount of relevant content that we could bake into the game mechanics.” Ferrari goes on to point out that this is an example of what Ian Bogost calls “tight coupling” between design and content. The two compliment and conform to one another.

This brings us back to the concept of form, which I went on about in Gamification and Law - 3 and I’m going give a more concrete example here. To repeat a few ideas: form = content/design and because of this you identify form by its ‘family resemblance’ to other forms. There is no one specific thing that makes something an FPS, a game like Portal 2 is still an FPS while at the same it’s a puzzler and it’s a story about a woman escaping a giant lab. Alternatively a game like Amnesia is a survival horror game even though it’s nothing like Resident Evil. The concept of a ‘family resemblance’ comes into play because there are just certain things in varying combination that must be there for a game to be like something. At the same time it’s not a concrete list either, new and different combinations can still fall into a familiar form. The form is just that unspecificed, abstract idea of what something is based on its resemblance to other things.

Now when I say something like form = content, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about a multitude of relationships interconnecting. It's a kind of system but instead of working around economics or game design it's abstracted out to any topic. Consider a great post by Matthew Gallant on the dramatic pace of the game Jamestown. Like a play or movie or book, games have dramatic arcs that are traced by the tension of the player. Gallant comments, “If we acknowledge that game mechanics have inherent dramatic arcs that superimpose the authored content, then we can begin to analyze mechanics in terms of their storytelling potential.” The idea being the dramatic bits of the story ought to coincide with the tension in the design, like the final boss also being the villain of the story, etc. It’s taking the conflict of one medium and finding a similar conflict in another, here a visual narrative coupled with the mechanical designs. You’re matching them based on their similarity in form.

Going back to the Phoenix Wright point I began with, the strong reaction I had to the game comes from the disconnect between the design form and the form of practicing law in real life. Consider the trial room mechanics. You read what a witness is saying and spot when they’re lying based on prior detective work. This happens all the time when practicing law. In this regard the narrative of the game is fine and even does a great job of paying homage to a trial. The problem is that there is always a solution to the witnesses in the game. As in, if you just object and say the right things you’ll eventually resolve the case. You’re never trapped. The same is true for the detective work, I just have to find the right clues and everything will be alright. The game design isn’t really creating the same sort of form as the actual practice of law because it has different sorts of conflicts and characteristics.

A game that more accurately represents what it’s like being a lawyer is Magic: The Gathering. Like a real case, you don’t really have a lot of say in what my initial hand is like. You just get whatever problems the client is having that day. If you have shit cards and get land-starved then there’s not a lot you can do to turn the tide. Alternatively if you do well in discovery and the law is on your side then you can make a lot of progress and deliver good results. There’s a stronger element of chance that captures the perspective of being a lawyer while at the same time still retaining enough emphasis on skill. Games of Magic are won or lost on tiny decisions and mistakes. Screw up the timing of a counter and it’ll be too late to play it. Fail to attack one turn and you’ll have lost the opportunity when you can’t quite make the killing blow. Bluff your way into having the player block your creature and you can use a giant growth to finish off their monster.

The problem with Phoenix Wright is that there is nothing left to chance. It’s linear, one need only discern puzzles and you can progress. The form of the design does not really mimic the form of the real thing. As a consequence the form and content don’t really equal out and thus don’t tightly couple.

The final point I’d make is that none of these criticism are really going to matter to anyone except another lawyer. The Phoenix Wright games have a huge fan base and I’m pretty sure if I hadn’t made the horrid mistake of going to law school I’d like the game a lot more. The linear form the game employs may not mimic the real thing, but it does mimic the popular public perception of the lawyer. In fact, if you were to make a lawyer game like Magic: The Gathering, it would probably sell horribly because of how technical it would get. So I’ll conclude by saying that as important as form may be for supporting a game’s content, the perceptions of form need not always derive from the real thing.


Matthew Burns said...

Have you taken a look at Objection?


My uncle introduced me to this game when I was young.

L.B. Jeffries said...

Hahaha, that was awesome. I need to see if I can find that on DOSbox. I've done a few legal simulations before that were similar. It's hard because there's sooooo much crap going on in any given case. Most people limit it to the courtroom just for the sake of keeping it reasonable.

Zach said...

there's an excellent pun to be had about magic's tendency towards arguing over minutiae of the exact inter-workings of the rules as well, but perhaps "rules lawyer" is a bit obvious.

anyway I'm not a lawyer and I was also frustrated by Phoenix Wright's tendency towards linearity. It meant that when I got stuck, I got stuck on something hugely artificial (not objecting or presenting the exactly correct piece of evidence at the exactly correct time). instead of something interesting happening (like doing worse in the case or opening up new paths) I either could spam saves in hopes of getting the right answer eventually or just play with a guide to move forward. It also leads to an unfortunate phenomenon, where even if you-as-player figure out the case hours before your avatar you are still carefully walked through the entire script before your avatar gets it taking any tension out of playing your hand too soon or too late.