Major spoilers for Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney below!
Two silhouettes stand in a boat floating on a foggy lake. One of them pulls a gun on the other.
“Merry Christmas,” he says, and squeezes the trigger.
Appropriately enough, the final case in Capcom’s original Ace Attorney video game opens the same way it ends—with a bang. Almost fifteen years after the game’s release, the famed “DL-6 incident” still holds up as an undisputed fan favorite (and in my memory) amidst the franchise’s four dozen cases.
“Don’t forget DL-6,” I am told in-game, the cryptic message laden with vengeance. And I don’t.
By the time I have guided Phoenix Wright, titular character and rookie defense attorney, through three prior cases, I’ve become overly familiar with courtroom rival, Miles Edgeworth—a merciless, condescending prosecutor whose willingness to falsify evidence and witnesses alike has granted him a perfect winning streak and fitting nickname, “demon.”
Ironically, when Edgeworth is found alone on the foggy lake, holding the smoking barrel of a revolver and accused of murder, Phoenix hears about the incident on TV and jumps to Edgeworth’s defense as his attorney, though I hardly know why. Perhaps it’s because the defamed prosecutor is the first of Phoenix’s clients to have a death wish; he doesn’t want to be saved from judgement any more than I want to forgive him for the untold innocents he’s sent to guilty verdicts. When Edgeworth calls himself a lost cause and refuses to speak to Phoenix about the incident, I am curious, certainly, though not particularly empathetic.
Yet, something about Edgeworth’s plight pulls me in by the heartstrings. Over the course of the story, I witness his death glare crack under pressure. I see him start to doubt his convictions. By the time he’s literally cowering in the face of childhood trauma, reliving the long-ago December day of his father’s murder, I finally realize that Edgeworth is, in fact, human.
In tackling Edgeworth’s case, Phoenix directly opens another that’s almost fifteen years-old and at the statute of limitation’s door—an unsolved case wherein Edgeworth’s own father was murdered. That’s when the truth hits me: I’m fighting for more than a “not guilty” verdict or even the mere truth—I’m fighting for that little glimmer of humanity and redemption that I know exists somewhere deep down in Edgeworth. In that sense, DL-6 is as much about character development as it is about solving the case.
Unsurprisingly, Phoenix holds high stakes here. His childhood friendship with Edgeworth is revealed to be the motivation behind his entire defense career—a way to cross paths with and discover the dark truths about the estranged boy who once defended him from a false accusation in the classroom… and then disappeared without warning, returning several years later, unrecognizable, as a condemner of the accused.
These interwoven histories startle me, the player, because they disrupt my identity within the game. Up until this point, I have been in Phoenix’s head, dictating his thoughts, making his decisions. With the advent of the final case, though, Phoenix betrays that identity by establishing that he has a separate consciousness from the player, expressing information I should omnisciently know about him (but don’t), even making decisions against my better judgement.
But rather than alienate me, this creates a new dynamic where I become Phoenix’s intimate confidant, aiding his decisions and sweating alongside him, channeled by him without ever actually becoming him. It brings me closer to the rookie attorney’s soul and serves to make the mystery of DL-6 a narrative thrill-ride. I feel Phoenix’s desperation as he fights against the impending, three-day limitation placed on the case. Because he’s suddenly more like an old friend who needs my assistance, I want to prove him right—about the truth, about the details of the case, about the fact that Edgeworth can still be saved from his haunted past. It’s that hope of salvation that drives the narrative forward.
Script writer and Ace Attorney developer, Shu Takumi, initially envisioned Edgeworth as an irredeemable villain who would continuously clash with Phoenix throughout the franchise, but as the disgruntled prosecutor took on more human qualities during development, Takumi had to change the story—in his own words, make Edgeworth “likeable” and transform him from a detestable character into someone players could empathize with.
In having DL-6 fall so near to Christmas, a day synonymous with hope (especially for Christians) that links the old year to the new, I believe Takumi may have been making a statement about Edgeworth’s metaphorical rebirth—one that goes beyond a mere change in his courtroom ethics. For fifteen years, Edgeworth has been shackled to the moment of his father’s death, with reoccurring nightmares ensuring that he never forgets the sound of the gunshot and the scream that signaled the end of his father’s life. December 25th, a day considered “the most wonderful time of the year” by most, instead serves as a milestone near this grim anniversary—the day Edgeworth buried the justice-loving, seven-year-old boy beneath the cold and sophisticated persona of the “demon prosecutor.”
That notion—that a memory is powerful enough to hold an entire day captive for the rest of our lives—is horrifying, especially when the day in question is one that the rest of the world celebrates. And while it’s not overtly mentioned during the case, I think Edgeworth’s self-vs-world mentality was only further ingrained with each passing Christmas, when the world’s joy seemed to rub salt in his wounds.
It’s said that “time heals all wounds.” Time plays a role, true, but I believe it’s transformation of the mind that truly heals. Old, painful memories have to be replaced with newer ones—hopeful ones, just as a scar left by time can only be replaced by the growth of new tissue.
Edgeworth’s transformation comes at the precipice of despair, as he admits he may have unintentionally pulled the trigger on his own father. It takes all of Phoenix’s desperation (plus a metal detector, a parrot cross-examination, and a Tazing) to wake Edgeworth from the living nightmare and convince him that he deserves the right that he stripped from so many others: the right to choose life.
By the time the truth is brought to light, Edgeworth still has a long journey of self-discovery ahead of him—one plenteous enough to thread the remaining narrative of the Ace Attorney trilogy—but hope has transformed his M.O. from a mission of condemnation into a mission of truth—one that the memory of his father now emboldens rather than cripples.
“Don’t forget DL-6,” once a mantra of vengeance against him, becomes Edgeworth’s battle cry.
This article is re-published with permission from Geekdom House’s Area of Effect.