Review: Twelve Absent Men
November 15, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Fault Lines’ resident TV critic, Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin, does a wonderful job pointing out the flaws shows like “The Night Of” and “Conviction” in their depictions of the criminal justice system. Television is a medium prone to sensationalism and doesn’t always get the law right. Can video games like the recently released “Twelve Absent Men” do a better job?
Unfortunately, Atreyu Games and designer Josh Krook botch the criminal justice system with video games as badly, if not worse, than television.
“Twelve Absent Men” is a game with nods to various film, pop culture, and video games that play at the criminal justice system. It’s styled in the form of Capcom’s “Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney” series, where you play a criminal defense lawyer representing a client accused of a horrendous offense. The name is a play on the excellent film, “Twelve Angry Men,” and a fitting one at that since there is no jury present in the game’s first degree murder trial.
You play a lawyer named “Mr. Knight,” ostensibly the named partner of “Knight and Associates.” With the help of your trusted intern, “Intern,” you are charged with defending Sandra Lane, accused by the State of murdering her wealthy uncle Todd Lane, during his birthday party. Each interaction involves a series of A/B choices while you keep an eye out for clues that will help you prove your client’s guilt or innocence. Do you offer to pay “Intern” a living wage? Do you defend yourself when the prosecutor, DA Sun, accuses you of incompetence? These are the choices you must make during a play through of the game.
From the start of the trial, one questions whether the game designer ever set foot in a courtroom or viewed an actual trial, much less an episode of “Law and Order.” The judge is an African-America woman wearing a powdered wig who is shocked after you make the first objection, exclaiming “No one objects in my courtroom!” From that point forward you must keep yourself in the jurist’s good graces with timely, relevant objections and questions that are to the point. This is illustrated by a bar at the top of the screen ranging from red to green. If the bar falls into the red, you run the risk of being thrown out of court. Lawyers are sanctioned for terrible conduct in the courtroom, but simply botching an objection or asking a bad question doesn’t normally warrant courtroom sanctions.
The actual trial isn’t much better. The State’s first witness is the defendant, Sandra Lane. It’s obvious the designers meant this as a Perry Mason move, a “swerve” to surprise the player, but it’s utter bullshit. First, the player isn’t given the ability to object and the client doesn’t even blink about waiving her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. Second, “Judge” doesn’t even find this improper during the State’s case-in-chief, never once advising Sandra Lane of her right to remain silent. Finally, “Mr. Knight” raises no objections to this stunt whatsoever. We’ve just started the trial and the game botches basic elements of criminal law to the point the player is ready to abandon the game and find counsel for video game malpractice.
Even the structure of the trial doesn’t resemble reality. Here’s a quick tip to any video game designers with dreams of creating trial video game simulations. Learn the structure of an actual trial and incorporate it into your game. They don’t proceed like “Twelve Absent Men,” where the prosecutor calls the first witness, asks questions, and the defense attorneys pick the remaining witnesses off a list. The State puts on its case, then rests, and the defense does the same. There are more objections than “leading question,” “hearsay,” “badgering the witness,” and “expert witness.” And finally, “past indiscretions” leading all the way back to law school don’t usually come up in the middle of trial.
The witnesses are all tropes, better suited to a game of “Clue” than an actual trial. First, there’s the deceased’s paramour, who enjoyed their “torrid” affair. Another is the family physician, who “diagnoses” everyone in the courtroom’s psychological issues. There’s a clinically insane gardener who thinks the year is 1796 and “grows green things” with aliens at the mansion. A Wall Street tycoon who shows up at the party to collect on an eight million dollar debt makes an appearance. Finally, there’s the defendant’s “estranged” friend who came to the party as the tycoon’s date.
Perhaps the one moment actually resembling the real life practice of law is the summation phase. After the prosecutor delivers his closing statement, the game crashes, rendering the player unable to do the same. It’s in this moment one experiences the frustration of the State’s ability to expend unlimited resources in pursuing a conviction, albeit metaphorically. That moment allows everyone, including the layperson, to experience the resource disparity trial lawyers face every time they defend a person charged with a crime.
If you’re hoping to see any semblance of a “smarter” law experience in video game form, don’t turn to “Twelve Absent Men.” The game’s price tag, while small, is better spent finding and viewing a copy of “Twelve Angry Men.” Meanwhile, video games, movies, and television continue one unifying trend regarding criminal justice: they make people dumber.