“He still feels the pain now, you can see it in his eyes.”
-Detective Gumshoe, GS1
Gumshoe may have been talking about Miles Edgeworth in this quote, but now those same words could apply to a certain former attorney. Anyone who has played GS4 can instantly confirm that Phoenix Wright is not the same person he was in the previous games. So what was responsible for this “turnabout” in character? Or did he really change that much at all? To begin answering this question, let’s start by taking a look at the past.
The previous titles in the series give us a solid and consistent idea of Phoenix’s personality. Indeed, we know him better than any other character in the series so far. (Not surprising, considering he’s been the protagonist for three games in a row.) In court, he’s headstrong and determined, shifting between confidence and despair as the case at hand twists and turns. As a person, he’s a down-to-earth realist surrounded by slightly eccentric friends (Maya, Gumshoe, Larry) and really eccentric acquaintances (Ron DeLite, Wendy Oldbag, almost any character in the entire series). Above all, though, he is an optimist at heart who believes in others, even when they ultimately don’t deserve his good faith (Matt Engarde). This general framework of his character stays mostly the same for the first three games. However, between GS3 and GS4, seven years pass, and a lot can happen in that time.
When GS4 starts, Phoenix is being tried for murder for the third time. This detail, though, is probably the last thing that would occur to someone who has known Phoenix in years past. Most likely, the first thing the player will notice is his appearance. Gone are his trim blue suit and red tie, and his characteristic spiky hair is well-covered by the beanie atop his head. Instead, a loose gray hoodie and dark pants greet the player; sandals cover his feet and a layer of stubble is clearly visible upon his face. His lowered eye-lids and lazy smile alone are probably enough to disturb series veterans, but his appearance is barely comparable to his behavior. He is on trial for his life, but he seems largely unconcerned about his predicament. What’s more, he even seems to be enjoying himself throughout the proceedings. Furthermore, he never betrays any sign of worry, fear or uncertainty. Ultimately, Phoenix is acquitted, but the player is left still wondering: “What on earth happened to this man, this character I once knew and loved?!” A good illustration of this feeling occurs when Phoenix tells Apollo that he forged the playing card that convicted Kristoph Gavin.
Apollo: But…But you can’t do something like that and call yourself an attorney!
Phoenix: Who’s calling themselves an attorney, Apollo?
Apollo: So it’s true… The rumor is true! Seven years ago…
Phoenix: …None of that matters much now, does it?
Phoenix knows full well he is innocent of the forgery from seven years ago, and he could tell Apollo so, too. Yet he chooses not to. He just lets Apollo think what we will. He also takes Apollo’s subsequent upper-cut without demur. His apparent lack of emotion—it could even be called apathy—is truly shocking to those who knew him before. “Did he really just say that? How could he have changed so much, how could he be so insouciant?!” The explanation behind it is arguably both predictable and unexpected.
The obvious cause behind Phoenix’s apparent personality overhaul is the outcome of the Zak Gramarye trial, his last trial. He was given forged evidence to use, completely unaware of its illegality. After presenting it in court, he was disgracefully stripped of his attorney’s badge at the hands of a malicious colleague—Kristoph Gavin—whose sole motivation behind his actions was foolish pride and personal contempt. The circumstances behind this spiteful act were definitely a crushing blow to Phoenix and his general faith in people. At first glance, it seems he could still be suffering acute emotional damage. However, though he is undoubtedly still affected by his personal tragedy, a key piece of insight may tell us another part of the story.
It’s harder to analyze a character when you can’t read his thoughts (the majority of GS4 is played from Apollo’s perspective, of course). Accordingly, the portion of the game involving the MASON System is that much more valuable, as it allows us to know how Phoenix really thinks and feels during the time frame of the fourth game, not just what we can observe from a third-person perspective. As it turns out, the overall tone and substance of Phoenix’s words and thoughts are not notably different from those of previous games. Two great examples of this can be seen when Phoenix visits Drew Studios after Drew Misham’s murder. First, upon examining the miniature human model:
…I just have to do that when I see this pose.
I can’t believe it’s been seven years…
…I have to stop torturing myself with these things!
I know! I’ll just pretend it’s saying something else.
“The post office? Why, it’s right over there! Good day, sir!”
Second, when talking to Spark Brushel:
Brushel: People and events all get tangled together and get biggerer and biggerer…
Phoenix: (I was too busy wondering about “biggerer” to listen to what you were saying.)
Now that sounds much more like the wryly sarcastic Phoenix we know. A sign of his familiar spirit can also be seen throughout the game when he occasionally opens his eyes completely and smiles, as opposed to when his eye-lids are lowered. So how can the cool exterior he frequently puts on be explained? I believe he simply became more confident in himself and learned how to better mask his uncertainty in the face of adversity. As for why he didn’t immediately tell Apollo the truth about the Zak Gramarye trial, he could have just felt the time was not yet right.
Regarding Phoenix’s transition from a somewhat perturbable guy to someone who is more collected, a similar process can be observed in another character, Mia Fey, though in her case the order we see it in is reversed. For two games we become accustomed to thinking of Mia as the unshakable pillar, the steady-minded mentor who never caves in to pressure or seemingly hopeless situations. Even during case 2-4, when hope is at a nadir, she continues to urge Phoenix on and encourage him. In the third game, though, we see she wasn’t always so cool and calm. Before each of her first two trials she shows similar, if not greater, levels of stress than Phoenix did before his own first trial.
With this comparison in mind, it could be said that Phoenix has reached a point where he must be a pillar for other people (Trucy in particular and perhaps Apollo as well), so he switches between being more stoic and being more open as necessary. So did Phoenix really change? Maybe not as much as it seems.