Ace Attorney, a franchise revolving around murder mysteries and courtroom antics, may be best known for its name puns (“Oh really, Ms. Orly?”), shout-outs (“It’s only a flesh wound, Mr. Wright!”), and absurd gambits for catching murderers (“I would like to cross-examine the witness’s pet parrot!”). Yet the series still manages to deliver poignant commentary
Ace Attorney, a franchise revolving around murder mysteries and courtroom antics, may be best known for its name puns (“Oh really, Ms. Orly?”), shout-outs (“It’s only a flesh wound, Mr. Wright!”), and absurd gambits for catching murderers (“I would like to cross-examine the witness’s pet parrot!”). Yet the series still manages to deliver poignant commentary about the impact of death, particularly its effects on families. For some, death splinters their bonds, while for others it makes them even stronger, or forms connections that weren’t there before. There’s even one family that stays in touch from both sides of the grave. Whether it’s the homes characters are born into or the ones they create, the turnabout life starts with family…as does the turnabout death.
Spoiler Warning: Please note that this article spoils all five games in the main Ace Attorney series.
The Fey family, matriarchal leaders of Kurain Village, are famed for spirit channeling. Death is normal and accepted in their lives; in fact, it’s the basis of their livelihood. Connection to death establishes authority in Kurain society, particularly for the Feys; while the eldest daughter traditionally inherits leadership over the village, ultimately power determines power. The head of the Fey family at the beginning of the first game is Misty Fey, the younger but more spiritually skilled of two sisters; her elder sister, Morgan, begrudges her this talent and tries to have a daughter with stronger abilities than Misty’s to reclaim leadership. However, her twins Dahlia and Iris prove to have little power.
Misty’s elder daughter Mia, mentor to protagonist Phoenix Wright, recognizes the strain between her mother and aunt and doesn’t want to go through the same battle with her own sister Maya. This conflict influences Mia’s decision to leave Kurain Village and pursue a career in law despite being both the firstborn and more powerful daughter. The other deciding factor in her career path is also connected to death.
Fifteen years before the events of the first game, the police turned to Misty Fey to channel a murder victim, defense attorney Gregory Edgeworth, to determine his killer. But her involvement led to a false indictment. Misty disappeared after word of her involvement leaked, and both the police and Kurain channeling technique are publicly ridiculed.
Though Mia’s efforts to separate herself from the Fey legacy simplify matters in her relationship with little sister Maya, history repeats itself between Misty’s elder daughter and Morgan’s. Mia faces off against Dahlia in two murder trials at the beginning of her career in law. The first time is Mia’s introduction to the courtroom, and her client commits suicide via poison on the witness stand to protect guilty girlfriend Dahlia from indictment. Mia pursues Dahlia and finally finds her guilty in a second trial, where Mia’s client is none other than Phoenix Wright. Dahlia receives the death penalty by hanging.
While honing her skills as a defense attorney, Mia uses her spiritual power to find the parties responsible for exposing her mother’s involvement in the Edgeworth trial and tarnishing her family’s reputation. Her pursuit backfires when she becomes the victim of a homicide to keep her from publicizing their illegal activities, right after Phoenix’s first trial. Mia’s sister Maya becomes both the prime suspect and Phoenix’s client, and she channels Mia to give him guidance. From beyond the grave, Mia is able to overcome the force that ruined her mother; she also ensures that Phoenix isn’t alone as his career starts. After Maya is acquitted, she becomes Phoenix’s assistant and channels Mia at least once a case to help him in his first years in court.
In the second and third games, Phoenix and Maya also look after Maya’s little cousin, Pearl, Morgan Fey’s youngest daughter who is overflowing with spiritual power. Though Pearl is essentially a prodigy in channeling ability, she adores Maya and sees her as an older sister, and so Morgan’s attempts to usurp Kurain Village leadership again fall through. To rid herself of her niece, Misty’s heir, and set up Pearl to become the next in line, Morgan tries to frame Maya for a murder she orchestrates. The failed attempt sends Morgan to prison as an accomplice to homicide, dividing the Fey family once again.
Though Phoenix is the adult of the group, little Pearl and teenage Maya feel like the ones adopting him into their family. Misinterpreting Phoenix and Maya’s (admittedly undefined) relationship, Pearl gushes about their being one another’s “special someone.” Phoenix and Maya treat her as somewhere between a little sister and a daughter, taking her on trips and nice meals and doting on her.
The second game’s final trial, one of the most well-remembered in the series, is the only trial to date in which the player attorney must defend a guilty client. To ensure Phoenix’s best defense, his client’s hit-man kidnaps and threatens Maya, and the Fey cousins channel Mia back and forth so that she can communicate information that will help the police locate and rescue Maya. When she arrives safely, Maya is reunited with not only Phoenix and Pearl but, through Pearl’s channeling, Mia, the sister she lost more than a year before.
Morgan and Dahlia make one last effort to seek revenge on their family in the final trial of the third game; they orchestrate a plan for Dahlia’s spirit to be channeled to murder Maya. Maya survives thanks to the intervention of another who becomes their victim: a children’s book author, Elise Deauxnim, an alias for the long-disappeared Misty Fey whose final act is to protect her family. Being channeled by their relatives, Mia and Dahlia have one final face-off in court where Mia tells her cousin Dahlia will never defeat her, on either side of the afterlife. Dahlia is exorcised in the middle of the courtroom, and Mia departs knowing she leaves her family safe with Phoenix.
It is rather appropriate that Misty Fey is the last murder victim in the original trilogy, bringing the narrative full circle and leaving Maya to become the new leader of Kurain Village. Though Maya and Pearl’s relationship isn’t one that will break, their makeshift family with Phoenix does adjust to accommodate Maya’s new responsibilities; Maya has not appeared in the fourth or fifth games, and Pearl has only a cameo in Duel Destinies, now seventeen and largely unchanged as she gets after “Mr. Nick” for his messy office. Defense attorneys aren’t the only ones who experience families pieced together after death.
The Edgeworth-von Karma family undergoes a similarly convoluted experience through death. Miles Edgeworth, the first major prosecutor of the series proper and star of its Investigations spin-off, began his pursuit of law as a small child. Starry-eyed over his defense attorney father, Gregory, young Edgeworth hoped to one day become a defense attorney as well. However, after his father was killed while trapped in an elevator and the killer indicted by Misty Fey’s channeling was acquitted, Edgeworth’s faith in defense attornies crumbled, and he became a prosecutor instead. This career followed in the footsteps of his foster father, Manfred von Karma, the ruthless prosecutor whose perfect record held only one blemish: Gregory’s proving that he blackmailed an innocent man into confessing to murder. Von Karma was in fact Gregory’s killer, caught fifteen years later by Edgeworth and Phoenix’s combined efforts.
Gregory’s murder set off a domino effect in his son’s career and emotional state. Edgeworth spent fifteen years enduring nightmares of his father’s murder, a tragedy he convinced himself he was responsible for. He tuned out the possibility of false accusations or defense attorneys pursuing truth and abandoned his father’s noble pursuit of the law in favor of von Karma’s underhanded tricks (though retconned in the bonus case “Rise from the Ashes,” in the original games, Edgeworth knowingly submitted forged evidence to maintain a perfect record). Manfred von Karma raises Edgeworth not as his son, but out of spite for Gregory’s memory and antagonizes him as he grows up, showing him none of the warmth or encouragement a parent should.
To be fair, von Karma doesn’t show any particular warmth to his biological child either. Franziska von Karma, teen prodigy and the major prosecutor of the second game, shares her father’s obsession with perfection, arrogance in court, and dismissal of Edgeworth’s abilities as a prosecutor despite his sharing her status as undefeated (before Phoenix Wright came along). Franziska does, however, treat Edgeworth as a bratty younger sister would her older brother, both trying to boss him around or outdo him, and earn his recognition. At the end of the second game, Franziska even breaks down crying as she tells Edgeworth, “Don’t think I’m going to walk in your shadow forever,” and assures him she will surpass his skills one day.
Much of Franziska’s characterization parallels her father’s. She is obsessed with perfection and treats anyone who stands in her way as a “fool,” and she considers Edgeworth her greatest challenge to overcome in achieving a flawless professional record. While her father is accidentally shot in the shoulder and refuses to have the bullet removed out of pride and spite, Franziska is shot intentionally in the shoulder to keep her out of court and immediately undergoes surgery to return to investigating as quickly as possible. In the fourth trial of the first game, Manfred von Karma steals all except the one decisive piece of evidence from Phoenix and Maya before the final day of their trial to conceal his guilt; in the fourth trial of the second game, Franziska races to the courthouse with the one decisive piece of evidence necessary to convict the true killer. Franziska shares Edgeworth’s responsibility to prove herself better than their father, to take von Karma’s cold and calculated ways and turn them around into true skill as prosecutors.
Manfred von Karma is a murderer, after all, and both Edgeworth and Franziska must come to terms with that fact. Her father killed his in cold blood, and while no conversation between the siblings transpires on screen, Edgeworth and Franziska’s relationship seems vastly improved by the third game. They even briefly face off against one another in court, a favor Franziska pays her brother, and they both assist Phoenix in discovering the truth of the game’s final trial, examining the crime scene for clues and keeping an eye on his ailing health during his investigation.
Death severed both Edgeworth and Franziska from their biological families, or rather from their fathers; yet, it also brought them together as siblings and strengthened their relationship. Their personal connections to a convicted murderer, a father and teaching figure to both, also changes their outlook on their responsibilities as prosecutors. Over the course of the series, both begin viewing their position not as a crusader winning trials by outmaneuvering defense attorneys, but as proctors of justice committed to discovering the truth.
With the fourth installment of the Ace Attorney series came a time skip and new set of primary characters, as well as a much darker interpretation of the relationship between death and family. While the Feys and the Edgeworth-von Karma families broke some bonds and strengthened others through their experiences with death, the Gavin family includes all of the complications with none of the silver linings.
Krisoph Gavin, the elder brother and star defense attorney, believes fully that the ends justify the means and doesn’t flinch away from illegal paths to victory in court. Prosecutor and younger brother Klavier Gavin exudes relaxed confidence and follows an honest path to the truth in his trials. Yet the twisted brotherhood leaves both parties alone and with little closure.
Kristoph’s introduction is as new protagonist Apollo Justice’s mentor and Phoenix Wright’s friend, but by the end of the first trial, he is a convicted killer, and by the game’s end he serves as the big bad, having another body and attempted murder on his hands, as well as responsibility for Phoenix’s ruined career as a defense attorney. Klavier’s introduction is as the blindingly charming prosecutor who stripped Phoenix of his badge, yet he proves right away that his amicable nature isn’t for show and that he bears Phoenix’s disbarment like a cross, even taking a leave of absence from the court for seven years until his brother’s first conviction. One brother’s gentlemanly exterior and the other’s rock star persona are both facades; Kristoph expresses no regret for his crimes, viewing death as necessary means to achieve his goal of hiding his involvement in Phoenix’s disbarment and illegal courtroom tactis, while Klavier carries the weight of his inability to stand up to his brother until the very end.
Kristoph represents all that Edgeworth grew to despise on his path to prosecuting. His underhanded methods for winning not-guilty verdicts serve his own reputation regardless of his clients’ innocence, and with his view of the courtroom as a battle of wits and not the pursuit of truth, it’s likely that Kristoph arranged for a number of criminals to walk free. Death is not an emotional experience for Kristoph, nor does it appear to weigh on his mind or conscience. If forged evidence will get him a courtroom victory, he will forge evidence; if killing a witness keeps the court from hearing a testimony that will hurt Krisoph or his goals, then murder it is. Death is his livelihood, in a much colder way than it is to the Feys, and it is his self-preservation, not unlike it was to Manfred von Karma.
Kristoph exhibits two types of murder. The first the player experiences happens in a moment of panic, where he brute force bludgeons his victim’s head with a glass bottle. His victim was a former client who fired him in favor of Phoenix Wright, the action that led to Kristoph’s vendetta against Phoenix and his career. Kristoph justified this death as his only way of keeping his victim from revealing his involvement in Phoenix’s disbarment. Yet Kristoph’s other murder and attempted murder are premeditated, his preferred method being poisoning. Ironically, in the previous game, Phoenix noted that the two most unforgivable crimes to him were betrayal and poisoning, Kristoph’s sins of choice.
Klavier also chooses death, but in a less obvious way. In the final trial, he takes a stand against Kristoph, which is implied to be an infrequent or perhaps the first instance, and teams up with Apollo to uncover the truth. Previous games in the series establish that convicted murderers face the death penalty via hanging; Dahlia explicitly meets this fate, and Manfred von Karma is also implied to be dead in dialogue with Franziska. The path Klavier chooses, the truth, prioritizes justice over family, not only in terms of where his loyalty lies, but in terms of Kristoph’s life itself. In choosing to see the trial to its true, honest end, Klavier is also likely condemning his brother to the death penalty.
In some ways, Klavier’s choice could be seen as similar to Kristoph’s, death as a necessity, as the path to reach his desired end. Yet this can’t be a choice Klavier makes as lightly as Krisoph does, nor is it made to his own benefit. For Klavier to behave selfishly, he would have to reject the path that leads to death and instead embrace a false reality. Both Gavin brothers choose death in alignment with their sense of justice, yet one is consciously cruel and self-serving while the other is a repercussion of morality. Neither leads to a true victory; Kristoph’s choice signs his own death warrant, and Klavier’s destroys his own brother. There is no apology, no discussion, no closure that the player sees, and Kristoph is not mentioned directly in the fifth game though he is channelled hauntingly through former junior partner Apollo. For the Gavin family, death is no accident, no hurdle to overcome, and there is no opportunity to grow or learn from it. It is an active choice, and the deaths the brothers choose kills their family in the process.
Yet the newer Ace Attorney games are not entirely hopeless in their view of death’s impact on family. Just as Maya and Pearl all but adopted Phoenix into the Fey family in the original trilogy, Phoenix keeps the found family tradition of his office alive. He adopts his daughter Trucy after her father, the client who chose Phoenix over Kristoph, disappears; the implication that Trucy realizes that her biological father was the victim of Apollo’s first trial is blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and Apollo opts not to press the matter. Trucy accepts Phoenix as her father immediately and is, in his own words, the light that keeps him going during the darkest time of his life, the immediate aftermath of his disbarment. She also serves as his office manager and Apollo’s assistant, and is for quite some time the primary source of income for the Wright family due to her successful magic shows.
Trucy hails from the Gramarye family, a world-renowned magician troupe, and is the granddaughter of the troupe’s founder. She inherited the Gramarye family gift of hyper-awareness, being able to perceive people’s nervous habits and tricks, an ability she shares with Apollo. Though in the games themselves Apollo and Trucy remain unaware, they are actually half-siblings, both children of Thalassa Gramarye, who disappeared after a trick gone wrong on stage. Thalassa suffered memory loss from the trauma and spent some time in a fictional foreign country, Borginia, where she became a singer under the name Lamiroir. After she and Klavier meet through the industry, they write a song together, “The Guitar’s Serenade,” which becomes a key factor in Apollo’s third trial. Though he doesn’t know she is his mother, Apollo adores Lamiroir’s music, purchasing all of her albums and making “The Guitar’s Serenade” his ringtone. Trucy also doesn’t recognize her mother, though Phoenix does and makes an effort to reunite her with her kids off-screen.
Thalassa regains some of her memories and returns to the courtroom as a juror for Apollo’s final trial, a test of the jurist court system Phoenix orchestrated to convict Kristoph. He assures her that she isn’t considered a biased juror due to legal loopholes, and the game gives extra weight to Thalassa’s vote. Despite there not being enough hard evidence to put Kristoph away, the reveal that there is a jury allows the player to decide, as Thalassa, whether Apollo’s client is guilty or not. When Thalassa makes her choice, the player sees her hand, and the golden bangle she wears that matches her son’s.
How exactly Apollo was separated from his family still has not been explored in the games. Thalassa married a fellow performer when she was a teenager, had Apollo at eighteen, and returned to Troupe Gramarye a year later when her husband died. She married one of her father’s pupils and had Trucy years later. From there, details become fuzzy. Players’ parting scene with Thalassa is a conversation she has with Phoenix where she requests that he look after her children a little longer while she fully regains her memories and gets herself situated. She does not appear in the fifth game, but with the sixth game’s teasers promising Apollo’s reunion with someone from his past, it is possible fans will finally see the Gramarye family reunited in 2016.
Phoenix does serve as something of a father figure to Apollo, though the two do have a rift in their relationship. At the beginning of the fourth game, Apollo views Phoenix as a legend, someone who would never cheat or lie, and a wronged hero. By the end of the first trial, with Phoenix’s being a shady, unhelpful client using Apollo as a pawn to meet his own ends, that pedestal is obliterated. In the following cases Apollo tackles, Phoenix rarely gives his successor straightforward information and tells Apollo to his face that he has no faith in him, but also thanks him for helping his daughter and trusts him to take Trucy anywhere from concert venues to crime scenes. This trust likely ties into Phoenix’s efforts to reunite Apollo with his biological family, though Apollo remains unaware of this. Apollo expresses frustration and disillusionment with Phoenix as he appears in the fourth game, yet desperately seeks his approval the way a child does an older sibling or parent.
With the fifth game and Phoenix’s return to court, his relationship with Apollo appears to have improved, though Phoenix still criticizes Apollo more than he does his other employee Athena Cykes, whose family consisted of herself and her scientist mother until her mother fell victim to the big bad of the fifth game, the Phantom. Athena shares the boisterous nature of assistants Maya and Trucy in previous games but is a playable female character. Following the death of her mother and false indictment of prosecutor Simon Blackquill, Athena rushes to become an attorney and prove him innocent before his execution date. Athena and Phoenix’s relationship is reminiscent of Nick’s relationship with Mia, with the junior partner’s affection nickname for the senior partner (Athena’s “Boss” and Nick’s “Chief”); the junior seeing the senior as a distinguished, professional, and reliable mentor; and of course the found family element. Athena is adopted into the Wright Anything Agency and all its wacky adventures as easily as Nick was adopted into the Fey family, and with those developments comes a complete turnabout in the tones of their lives—for the better.
Phoenix’s taking in Trucy, Apollo, and Athena brings us to our last family, though it shares many surnames and circumstances: the Wright family. Players can easily argue that Maya and Pearl were the Wright family in the original trilogy, from their outings to the circus and Nick’s treating the Feys to meals, to the emotional support they give one another throughout the trials. Edgeworth and Franziska, Mia, and even Detective Gumshoe and the Judge can be considered extensions of this core family, the main cast members players come to know well. In the newer games, Phoenix has taken the next step in bringing family to the forefront of the series, legally adopting his daughter Trucy and taking orphans Apollo and Athena under his wing as well. Death may have separated these three from their biological families, but the Wright Anything Agency becomes a home that brings them back together, and they become one another’s family in the process.