Is it ironic that the first article I write after leaving a job at a law firm is about a video game where the main character is a lawyer?
Maybe? I'll have to consult the Book of Alanis Morissette Ironies, but until I do let's just go with a happy coincidence as far as the timing goes. Anyway, this game is much more enjoyable to think about and engage with despite how fast and loose it plays with the legal system, crime scene investigations...logic.
Of course, I'm talking about Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, the first in the franchise of Ace Attorney visual novel games, published by Capcom and released in Japan in 2001 for the Game Boy Advance, that would eventually see adaptations in live-action film, anime, manga, and stage plays. In fact, the Ace Attorney series is credited with popularizing visual novels in the West as well as reinvigorating interest in point-and-click adventure games. The combination of game mechanics and storytelling elements in the Ace Attorney games created the blueprint by which other games of its ilk, like the Danganronpa franchise, would further popularize the medium.
But before we dive into the relationship between Phoenix Wright and the archives, there are some caveats, provisos, and so forth we need to cover.
The Ace Attorney games are not reflective of the American Justice System. Hot take, I know, but I've seen people act as if the localization of a game originally created and set in Japan means we can apply Law & Order levels of comparisons and criticism.
The Ace Attorney games are not entirely critiquing the Japanese Justice System. It comes down to ones interpretation of how much writer/director Shu Takumi factored in his personal understanding of Japan's legal system - especially with the first game - versus making things up for the sake of storytelling, but I did find an article from 2016 where the author does a thorough job contextualizing the Ace Attorney games within the Japanese legal system while providing more background on how laws and the courts in Japan function in the real world. It's not my place to say given that I'm American and have no idea how anything works in Japan, but the discourse surrounding the games and their relationship to the real world is fascinating.
I'm not going to be able to effectively summarize everything that happens in the game as there are five cases and each are fairly long with plenty of twists and turns and leaps in logic. If you want a full summary, I'd advise you to go on one of the fan wikis. I'll try to provide as much relevant information as it pertains to the scenes involving the archives, which means I can't avoid spoiling some stuff. Be warned!
Okay, I think that covers the larger issues. Let's get on to the game!
Oh, one more thing! All screen captures come courtesy of the vods from Barry Kramer's YouTube channel, BarryWasStreaming.
Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney follows the cases of newly badged defense attorney, Phoenix "Nick" Wright in Japan/Los Angeles...Japanangeles. While there is a tremendous cast of characters we meet along the way, the core supporting cast consists of Phoenix's teenage assistant and spirit medium-in-training Maya Fey, affably loyal himbo Detective Gumshoe, and rival/much speculated love interest for the prosecution Miles Edgeworth.
Yes, I know, spirits and ghosts exist in this game about court room drama. Phoenix also cross examines a bird at one point, so just go with it.
Anyway, we're going to skip on over to Case Four, "Turnabout Goodbyes," where we get our first look at the Records Room in the police department.
What you need to know about this case before we enter the Records Room: Miles Edgeworth has been accused of murder. The victim? Robert Hammond, a defense attorney who, 15 years ago, defended the man widely believed to be the murderer of Miles' father, Gregory Edgeworth, in what was labeled the DL-6 case. Phoenix convinces Miles that he can defend him in court, going up against Miles' mentor, the ruthless prosecuting attorney with an almost spotless record of guilty verdicts, Manfred von Karma. You also need to know that DL-6 is just about to reach the end of its statute of limitations, meaning once the 15-year time limit runs out, the case is officially over and can never be revisited or retried again.
Let's put a pin in the statute of limitations portion for later.
So, Phoenix and Maya, having acquired a letter sent to Yanni Yogi - the man who supposedly killed Edgeworth's father - telling him to get his revenge on Edgeworth and Hammond, return to the police headquarters to compare the handwriting of the instigating letter to von Karma's as they suspect he's far more involved in not only the case against Miles, but also DL-6. Hoping to get Detective Gumshoe to let them in, they're instead granted permission to enter the records room when one of the police officers says von Karma is already in there, so it's probably fine.
Another thing to note is how co-dependent the police are on the prosecuting attorneys in this game. Edgeworth and von Karma are almost universally revered and practically allowed to do whatever they want. It's heavily implied that the prosecuting attorneys office has a hand in determining police salaries as well. Hence, von Karma in the records room on his own without police supervision. This is even more upsetting when von Karma uses a taser gun on Phoenix and Maya and steals the letter. And it's never brought up in the game! He just gets away with it!
Upon arriving in the records room, we're immediately shown art of what looks like a fairly clean, mostly organized space complete with boxes, files, and evidence lockers. The first bits of dialogue, however, tell us how dusty the place is, which feels like a bit of cognitive dissonance, but how else are they going to get across to the player that the records room is a place of inactivity?
The next bit of conversation concerns the amount of unsolved cases there are gathering dust in the records room. We're only seeing this one portion of the space, but Phoenix comments that it's like a graveyard, further indicating to the audience the size and scope the backlog must be to deserve the type of morbid language often associated with archives and records.
There was a Society of American Archivists conference a while back, I unfortunately can't recall the year or where the conference took place, where a panelist talked about police evidence rooms as archives. It's something that's stuck with me ever since because when you look at the makeup of evidence rooms, you have files created as part of evidence gathering, objects collected from victims and the surrounding area, as well as forensics reports on blood, ballistics, etc. These materials reveal the nature of a crime committed or a person's final moments, but they are still telling a story, which archivists and records managers recognize for the constructed narrative it is.
From a records management point-of-view, evidence rooms follow a similar lifecycle of information with the ideal situation being that evidence is correctly processed, serves its purpose within the legal system, is retained for a period of time in case of new evidence or a retrial, and then destroyed. But the idealized version rarely occurs in reality. One quick Google search shows that backlogs plague many police evidence rooms due to lack of time, labor, funding, and interest from higher-ups. Now the funding part I could solve in seconds: divert funds from arming police with military-grade weaponry and equipment, promote and emphasize de-escalation, hold the police accountable for their actions, stop shooting black people, and hire experts in archives and records management to actually apply their trade to the records that desperately need it.
Oh look, solving the funding part helps with the time and labor aspects as well! Neat!
And in case you need it spelled out for you: Black Lives Matter, Trans Rights are Human Rights, Abortion is Healthcare, and ACAB. I hope that clears some things up for you!
What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, Phoenix Wright! The scene in the records room is brief, but it still manages to root the messaging in real world issues related to unsolved cases and mounting backlogs. And this game was released prior to the digital boom of smart phones and more advanced devices that made policies on born-digital records necessary as they applied to evidence collection and retention. Another quick Google search will find that the digital backlog of evidence has eclipsed the physical materials in some cities because people either aren't trained or lack the time to properly catalog and preserve digital files. I don't know if future Ace Attorney games deal more extensively with digital files or digitization, so let me know if they do and I'll check them out!
But let's go back to our statute of limitations pin from earlier. A key piece of information the game hammers into the player's head is that the statute of limitations on DL-6 ends on what will essentially be the last day of Edgeworth's trial. The files have been whiling away the time in police evidence for 15 years since the acquittal of Yanni Yogi left no other suspects for Gregory Edgeworth's murder, making the case unsolved.
Now, for those who don't know, the term statute of limitations applies to the maximum amount of time in which parties can initiate legal proceedings. In the records management world, we refer to the time in which records are held as a retention period and while the terms aren't interchangeable, I've heard and have used both to describe the same scenario. The retention period can be determined by different sources as well. For example, when I worked for an architectural design firm, all records pertaining to a project were kept based on the American Institute of Architect's (AIA's) standards, which were in turn sourced from each state's policies. If a project was done in Virginia, we'd only keep the materials for six years after the project closeout date, but if we did a project in Pennsylvania, then we'd keep the materials for 12 years after the closeout date. Records kept by law firms also have retention periods, typically determined by their state's bar association. Once a case is closed, client files might be held for seven years if you're in Washington state or Oregon while Idaho only recommends a two-year retention.
A 15-year retention on an unsolved murder case might seem unrealistic and wildly irresponsible from an American point-of-view. How can you put any limitations on when a murder case can be solved before the governing body washes their hands of it? But, according to the article I referenced earlier, apparently Japan did have a statute of limitations on murder cases until it was removed in 2010. So it's not as if Shu Takumi had to stretch the suspension of disbelief too far for Japanese players. Again, I don't know the context of why Japan would have a statute of limitations on murder cases, so it's not my place to speculate. If anyone reading this is an expert on Japanese crime rates and court systems, please reach out and let me know!
Okay, I think that's enough about Case Four, let's take a look at Case Five, "Rise from the Ashes". Fun fact: "Rise from the Ashes" was a new addition to the game when Phoenix Wright was released on the Nintendo DS in 2005 and introduced the English language option for North America and Europe. The story uses a lot of foreshadowing for the next game in the series with the knowledge that English-speaking audiences wouldn't get the localized version for several years. It's also the first break in the "Turnabout" naming convention for cases.
What you need to know about the case: Phoenix has been hired by teen science enthusiast, and Maya look-a-like, Ema Skye, to defend her sister Lana. Lana Skye has been accused of murdering Detective Bruce Goodman in the prosecuting attorney's parking lot even though he also appears to have been murdered in the police evidence room at the same time. Oh, and Lana is the Chief Prosecutor. All of this takes place around the evidence transferal of the SL-9 case, which involved several disgraced detectives and resulted in the promotion of Lana to Chief Prosecutor alongside the promotion of Damon Gant to Chief of Police.
We learn fairly early that the evidence room in which Detective Goodman was murdered isn't the same as the records room seen in the previous case. Firstly, there's actually a guard station complete with security monitors and an ID Card Reader. Nevermind that the guard in charge of looking after the evidence room, Officer Marshall, has a very Old West aesthetic and can't be bothered to really care about the technological aspects of his job, it's still a step up from the unsupervised open door policy of the records room.
After acquiring an ID Card to enter the room, Phoenix and Ema also have to "bribe" Marshall with a Salisbury steak bento box to get him to reveal information about how evidence transferals work. Marshall explains that this evidence room is only for solved cases. The evidence kept inside are stored for two years under the supervision of the presiding detective in case any mistakes are made and the case needs to be reopened. Once those two years pass without incident, the evidence is then transferred to the police station's underground vault. Or, as Marshall puts it, the evidence "goes to sleep forever". According to him, the evidence transferal is nothing more than a "funeral for cases".
So, this case reinforces the language of death in association with the permanent storage of evidence. Like the previously seen records room, even the materials connected to a solved case have an air of morbidity, as if the evidence is the only thing keeping a case "alive," so to speak. It is worth noting that this dour outlook from Marshall is due to later revealed information about what actually happened with SL-9, so it would be interesting to see how a typical solved case is viewed when evidence transferal occurs. Regardless, evidence is treated as the lifeblood of a case. To lose access to that evidence means it's well and truly dead.
Evidence transferal is also a reskin of the statute of limitations/retention period I talked about earlier. As applied to solved cases, only two years of retention is required before the materials are locked away permanently in opposition to the 15 years given to unsolved cases. And I guess evidence in unsolved cases is just flat out destroyed instead of permanently stored in the underground vault? They never touch on that in the game, which again seems irresponsible since even an unsolved case deserves a permanent record of its existence. The disparity in retention periods makes sense given that there wouldn't be any reason to hold evidence for such an extended period of time when a resolution was reached, but I think two years might be too short. I don't know if other Ace Attorney games ever deal with a situation in which an old case is "resurrected" from the vault, but a longer retention period for evidence in solved cases would allow for more leeway in making sure all avenues of transparency and accountability have been covered.
Then again, the Ace Attorney reality hinges on the police, prosecuting attorney's office, and the defense attorneys investigating, solving, and trying a case in less than a week, so what do I know? At the very least, we're seeing consistency in police procedures. However, this underground vault business makes it seem as though the police department has yet another archives on their hands that I can only assume is a vast network of acid free containers stored in a hermetically sealed and temperature/humidity controlled space under constant supervision.
It probably looks like the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse, doesn't it?
Also, what's the budget for this police department? They have an underground vault?! Does every police department in Japanangeles have an underground vault because I don't think the literal foundations of the earth and the rising sea levels could handle that much storage. The application of technology shifts significantly from Case Four to Case Five as we see more obvious security measures on display and story elements that rely on circumnavigating or exploiting those features for the twists yet to come.
Upon entering the evidence room, Phoenix and Ema find a grim counterpart to the records room in "Turnabout Goodbyes".
While the records room at least had a warmth to its coloring, despite the contradiction of dust and doom, the evidence room is cold and foreboding. Ema refers to it as a graveyard - immediately reinforcing Officer Marshall's descriptions of death and funerals in association with evidence transferals - but Phoenix more accurately calls the room exactly what it looks like, a morgue.
But at least it's a technologically updated morgue! As Detective Gumshoe helpfully points out - he joins them soon after this exchange - each evidence locker is assigned to one detective and can only be accessed with the correct fingerprints of said detective. Which, I don't know, seems like a really bad idea. Those lockers don't look very big, unless they're about as long as actual morgue body coolers, so what happens if a detective has multiple solved cases that overlap? What if their fingerprints are forged or altered? What if a detective is injured or killed? Is there an override system in place so their locker can be accessed? Because it really seems like most of the people tasked with operating the tech don't really understand how it works and actively ignore it when they can.
I also can't ignore the fact that even with the leap in tech, the evidence room is treated like an average storage room. There's just a car door with the handcuffs still attached in the background as well as a fishing pole and, if you pan over to the other side of the room, the player will find buckets of paint and a handsaw from Gumshoe's efforts to create the monstrous Blue Badger mascot.
No, don't look at it for too long. The human mind wasn't made to understand such things!
But why is Gumshoe doing any arts and crafts in a secured evidence room? That seems like a real bad idea considering cases can get thrown out or declared a mistrial for storing items improperly or not following procedures to the letter. Buddy, save the pet project for the fleeting hours of alone time you have at home!
Obviously, the Ace Attorney games are first and foremost entertainment. They're not intended to be critiques on real world systems of justice even if they happen to touch on or reference those topics. And we can see, whether intended or not, the recurring themes of morbid language associated with archives alongside evidence backlogs and statutes of limitations acting as the ticking clock to move the stories forward.
Perhaps it might be worth it to investigate the other Ace Attorney games for comparison.