The platonic ideal of a fandom-breeding piece of canon is a story that’s full of massive holes which, 1) nonetheless do not damage the story’s emotional structure, and, 2) could be filled in without making it collapse under its own weight.
That is an excellent description of Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney.
This game has two of those particularly large holes. One is the one I mentioned before: that, though the game generally acts as though it is not aware of this, Phoenix Wright is a deeply unethical, self-absorbed, and, when unguarded, really creepy individual. He steals most of the evidence he uses in court, or else lies to or manipulates people to get it. He is capable of empathy, but rarely exercises it willingly or comfortably – whenever he is forced into some insight into another character’s inner life, he breaks a sweat, grimaces, and makes smart remarks to himself.
He’s apparently only really comfortable with dealing with other people’s feelings as weapons – that is, “motives.” In general, only when he’s accusing someone of a crime or a lie is he entirely comfortable in engaging their humanity.
What makes this more dramatic is the way he behaves towards the single character for whom he does willingly and consistently exercise empathy. Here, I shall cut for spoilers for episode 4 and up.
That being Edgeworth. Here, still, Wright uses Edgeworth’s feeling to manipulate him – just in a slightly different way.
It becomes obvious in the fourth episode that Edgeworth is mess. He’s convinced he killed his father and dreams about it every night. He for years trusted and admired unconditionally the actual killer, who despises and betrays him. He still appears to harbor affection for von Karma during the period in which von Karma is prosecuting him mercilessly for murder. He apparently has no other friends aside from Detective Gumshoe, whom he does not trust or respect, and whose relationship to him thus mirrors his own to von Karma. He attempts suicide. Then he apologizes to Wright for it.
Wright’s mental comments on Edgeworth’s emotional state are less sarcastic and more thoughtful than what usually goes through his head when someone shows weakness. His actions where Edgeworth is concerned are also different. When Maya grieves for her dead family, he only mentions the subject when it has some bearing on the case at hand, talks about it in purely practical terms, and backs off quickly when it comes up by accident.
Edgeworth, he picks at.
* Hey, Edgeworth. Why did you become a prosecutor, anyway? You used to look up to your dad… You said you wanted to be a defense attorney, right? (“You know. Your dead dad?”)
* What’s your relationship with von Karma? (“How are things with you and your adored mentor who is utterly committed to getting you the death penalty, as you have already explained to us?”)
* You look as grim as always. (“Being on trial for a murder apparently intimately connected to your father’s murder, like you are.”)
* I think you changed too much, Edgeworth. (“Hey, remember when we were kids and your self-image wasn’t like totally defined by a single moment of abject terror?”)
Though he is to all appearances convinced that Edgeworth is “incapable” of murder, he repeatedly asks him during episode four if he’s sure he didn’t kill anyone, knowing it’s going to throw him into another round of self-loathing. He does the same again in episode five, knowing that Edgeworth has spent the last fifteen years convinced he killed his father. He asks other people trivial questions about Edgeworth, trying to dig up more of what hurts him – “Hey, did you know he has panic attacks during earthquakes? What’s with that?”
And he is possessive of Edgeworth’s pain: “If I was a defense attorney, I knew he’d have to meet me whether he wanted to or not. In court. […] He’s in pain… And no one’s on his side. I’m the only one who knows the real Edgeworth. I’m the only one who can help him.”
He is unfazed by the suicide attempt. While everyone else is standing around in shock, asking Edgeworth what he thought he was doing pleading guilty, Wright is quietly going over his documents, secure in his conviction that he understands Edgeworth better than Edgeworth himself does.
He is also certain that he can “fix” this self-destructive impulse by proving Edgeworth innocent – he does not here, nor ever does, attempt to comfort him. His calm assertion that, “I don’t believe it. It’s just a dream. It’s not real,” is not helpful to a person who has shaped his entire life around said dream. It is an assertion of ownership over an intimate and, until the previous day, completely private aspect of that person’s life.
And for the most part, the other characters and, structurally, the game itself, act like they have no idea any of this is going on. It’s only little things that suggest everyone’s not tone-deaf to Wright’s issues. When Edgeworth, in jail, insults his competence, and Wright, totally self-confident where Edgeworth’s angst is concerned, doesn’t react, Maya demands, “Why am I always the one who was to get mad?!” This doesn’t get answered.
After Edgeworth’s trial, Wright doesn’t take any other cases for two months, saying, “I’ve had offers… But none I took.” and “Why do I come here to the office every day? It’s not like I want to work…” No one ever asks him what was going on there. He only takes Ema’s case because her fear for her sister reminds him viscerally of Maya’s vulnerability following Mia’s murder. So we start the last episode with the strong implication that – having won the case he’d become a lawyer to try – he had a two-month bout of depression and refused to talk to any prospective clients who didn’t immediately engage him on a personal level.
Things like this just sit there. That no one ever explains them away is what I meant by my lovely architectural metaphor way up there: because the story brings up the possibility of Wright’s total messed-up-ness, but never explicitly tries to prove or disprove it, the player has room to take it or leave it. Things flow and conclude satisfactorily enough even if you don’t feel like thinking too hard about this guy’s characterization, but when issues like this are left open, there’s a feeling that there’s space left within the story. There’s the idea that there’s more going on than we’ve seen, and that it’s in some way accessible to the player/reader/viewer/let’s say “end user.” And thus fanfic, and thus me sitting here spending several hours typing up this analysis. The space gives a kind of permission to the end user – even those of us who don’t see why we need permission – and fandom happens when the end users decide to use it.
I was going to talk about this second Big Thing, but it’s past midnight and I haven’t eaten since lunch. So I’m going to go do that and come back to this later.
* This may be an issue with the localization – I don’t think I have the linguistic fortitude to play the game in Japanese. However, here I’m looking at the final effect of the English-language game, rather than at the writers’ intentions.