No Longer Subject to Judicial Review

Games about current events are rarely good, because they’re about as subtle as a political attack ad. A platformer with a politican’s face pasted on the main character is the equivalent of a 1940’s propaganda cartoon, with half the subtlety.

Some games, like Kettle, are starting to get it right, however. Judicial Review manages to walk that tightrope between subtlety and relevance well. The game is set in a world where the British Prime Minister has instituted reforms to the judicial system to ensure that those who are “clearly guilty” don’t get off scot-free. This comes in the form of trial-by-media. You are given a series of news articles about a case and asked to render a guilty verdict, which will be legally binding. You render this verdict by scanning through articles and collecting bits of text as evidence, then making your choice between the suspects that appear in the text.

The writing of the articles feels very authentic, with some authors straining to provide some modicum of objectivity while others clearly have an ax to grind. Anyone who appears in the articles can be a suspect, and in order to get the whole story you have to convict some of the minor players as a “what-if” scenario to see their ending.

The endings are what really set it apart, the articles themselves feel very mundane, but the endings are where the author’s intent really shines. It’s clear there’s consequences for how you choose to read the news articles.

Talking Points: What does this say about the modern media? The judicial process? Is this a good critique of the news media? Is this a game that anybody who reads the news would understand?

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Comments

I get the idea that there's no "right" judgment, though some seem fairly obviously wrong.

Yes, I think it's actually hinted at in one of the more obscure endings that there's actually a serial killer at work here but you can never find him.

This looks really cool! Thanks for the heads up on it.

Hmmmm. I'm not sure what to think here. I want there to be an actual conclusion that I know is correct and that my deduction worked properly (or improperly, as the case may be). But we'll never know for sure, will we? I suppose that's kind of the point ...

To me, it's less a critique of the news (well, that's obvious, but it's fish-in-a-barrel with English tabloids) and more the justice system. Many endings involves how terrible the prison system is or police wrongdoing.

I still found it interesting if slightly unsatisfying (but that might be part of the point too).

I do wonder what to make of the Mark Rider ending. Given that he is the "obvious" choice based on media portrayal in a game that is ostensibly a media critique, it's the one ending that most clearly suggests it's a good thing to have him locked away (whether innocent or not). Are they slyly saying that, well, sometimes the damning tabloids do actually get it right?

I do wonder what to make of the Mark Rider ending. Given that he is the "obvious" choice based on media portrayal in a game that is ostensibly a media critique, it's the one ending that most clearly suggests it's a good thing to have him locked away (whether innocent or not). Are they slyly saying that, well, sometimes the damning tabloids do actually get it right?

I took it as kinda like "well, he's pretty f*cked up, but we don't know if he did it". Because other endings suggest he didn't do it. So then, it's not justice, but still he needs to be locked up?

I took it as "If we wasn't a murderer before, he is now."

I'm not really sure what to think of this one. I think that they're trying to make a point, but did such a poor job of it that I don't even know what that point is.

What does this say about the modern media?

Nothing.

The judicial process?

Even less.

Is this a good critique of the news media?

No.

Is this a game that anybody who reads the news would understand?

Maybe?

There's a basic disconnect here between two possible things that (I think) the developer(s) could be trying to say. On the one hand, you can look at it from the angle of the generic townie following a sensational trial. They know nothing beyond what they see in the newspaper, and form their opinions based upon that. On the other hand, the judiciary — the ones actually making the decision as to who (if anyone) gets locked up — has to decide the case based on some sort of evidence. The game presents itself from the spectator POV, but tries to somehow make you feel implicit in the decision process as if you were a judge. That doesn't make any sense. I feel like there might be a point here, but it's narrated by a person who just took a giant bite of peanut butter crackers.

As to the point of the media, though it was clear a couple had an axe to grind, I have a very difficult time thinking anyone in the justice department could call a news organization "one of the country's most highly-respected" and then turn in an obvious smear article that uses ALL CAPS to describe how DESPICABLE the ACCUSED was.

Spoiler:

My first ending I chose the guy who discovered the body, because I noticed a glaring discrepancy between his accounts in the first and last newspaper article, and a couple other tiny issues...but frankly, it's only because there was no "convict no one due to insubstantial evidence" button. Hearing about the serial killer and then learning it wasn't him was an even bigger let-down. The other endings felt even less connected. Again, it's like they're trying to make you feel some sort of sympathy or something for the fate of this person after conviction, but you aren't implicit in the action.

I dunno, this one was just plain bad, IMO.

The game presents itself from the spectator POV, but tries to somehow make you feel implicit in the decision process as if you were a judge. That doesn't make any sense.

You don't really read alot of the sensationalist news surrounding a high profile trial, do you? Or talked to anybody about Casey Anthony?

I disagree that it's the game's fault on this one. I think you missed the surrounding context.

I've seen it. But I haven't seen much editorializing of her (certainly not to that extent) in places like USA Today or the NYT.

I also don't think the people who are going to get caught up in that sort of thing are the same as those who are going to play this game. Kind of like giving a lecture on the use of "a lot" versus "alot" to a group of grammarians.

Minarchist wrote:

I've seen it. But I haven't seen much editorializing of her (certainly not to that extent) in places like USA Today or the NYT.

The articles where they're talking about the PSYCHO and whatnot are not going to be USA Today or NYT. The game probably applies more to Britain than the US, as Britain's papers are much closer to tabloids than what we're use to and people take it seriously.

Fair enough. I still think there's a basic disconnect between being tried in the court of public opinion and the actual fates of the accused. They felt far too disparate to me; though I realize I could be an outlier here. The idea of giving consequences to trying someone in the court of public opinion just didn't work here.

Minarchist wrote:

Fair enough. I still think there's a basic disconnect between being tried in the court of public opinion and the actual fates of the accused. They felt far too disparate to me; though I realize I could be an outlier here. The idea of giving consequences to trying someone in the court of public opinion just didn't work here.

I think that's the point.

Right, but...oh, never mind. I'm not doing a good job of explaining myself at all.

Sometimes, Minarchist, I like to think of you as the junta leader who usurped Mr. Tusks for control of Tiny Towne.

This is unrelated to the game.

........

I'll back Minarchist up on this one. The game is clearly trying to say something, but its message is muddled.

The usual criticism leveled at the court of public opinion is that it muddies the waters of justice by condemning people based on hearsay and the appearance of guilt rather than on facts and evidence. The press, and by extension the people, zero in on a person as being guilty and treats them as such whether the courts find them to be innocent or not. This is hardly a new or novel complaint; I can name three major 20th century novels off the top of my head that explore this territory (To Kill a Mockingbird, Intruder in the Dust, The Stranger), and it doubtless goes further back than that (the story of the crucifixion brushes up against similar themes).

If this game were simply restating that position in a novel way, it wouldn't be particularly remarkable, but it would at least be coherent. Looking at the articles that make up the story, and the fates of the accused, it's difficult to discern any consistent themes to the story. (Spoilers ahead, by the by.)

If you convict the woman's father, he hangs himself after the prison guards fail to place him on a suicide watch. The story mentions that he's been depressed since his conviction and had been appealing the decision. Since depression and appeals are short-hand for innoncence in crime dramas, it's safe to assume that this is clearly meant as a condemnation of the court of public opinion. Likewise, the woman's mother is killed by her crazy cellmate in prisons that have become over-crowded as a result of the recent judicial reforms. If everyone who appeared guilty was guilty, the game suggests, we'd have genuinely crazy people knifing the innoncent in the over-crowded hellholes our prisons would become.

So far, so good. However, if you convict the man who found the body, his article details the evidence of a local serial killer, but then goes out of its way to say that he couldn't have possibly been the perpetrator for all those other murderers, suggesting that he wasn't responsible for this one, either. Yet again, the court of public opinion has locked up the wrong man, and even, perhaps, prevented a bonafide psychopath from being caught by focusing attention elsewhere. But the fisherman's two accounts of finding the victim's body clearly don't line up, and it's possible that he could have committed this crime even if he didn't commit all the others. Now the theme is becoming unclear, as this ending is fairly open to interpretation.

Likewise, if you convict the woman's boyfriend, he comes out of prison and promptly murders someone. This could imply, as wordsmythe suggested, that prison made him a murderer whether he was one before or not, but an ironic interpretation like that only works if there's sufficient knowledge on hand that he wasn't actually a murder before going to jail. In this case, the boyfriend's history and behavior before and after the crime certainly leaves open the possibility that he was the killer, and his apparently murdering someone shortly after his release back that up. This would suggest the opposite interpretation from the father's and mother's convictions: that the court of opinion got this one right, therefore there is some value to it.

But it isn't as clear as that. The majority of the information we have about the victim's boyfriend is second-hand or from obviously biased sources. While his medical history is reported as fact, the description of his movie collection and screenplays as torture porn comes second-hand from one of the police investigators, and the accounts of his assault of a man just after the crime and just after being released from prison come from a source obviously biased against him. This suggests that we can't trust the media, and would lend weight to the standard argument against the court of public opinion, except that even then the boyfriend's innoncence isn't really clear.

What you're left with from these endings is more an impression that you, as a spectator, simply cannot know the facts. You cannot trust the media to report information accurately, but neither can you say that the men in question are innocent. The court of public opinion here isn't a wrong, as the first two endings would imply, but a fantastic waste of time. You don't know. You cannot know. So why try?

And then you get to the last endings: the police investigator. Accused of corruption and of being part of some cover-up for a gangster, the police investigator is locked up but eventually absolved of all wrongdoing. The story is presented unironically, from an ostensibly objective news source, but we've been trained by the game to expect the ending to reveal some sort of ironic insight into the relationship between the media, the people, and the courts, so we look for clues that the investigator might have been guilty afterall, but there are none. The story is presented at face value, and we're asked to trust that the facts presented lead us to an accurate conclusion. Isn't that a bit at odds with a game that has so far suggested that we shouldn't trust the obvious conclusions we'd draw from reading the papers? And if we do trust that the investigator was innocent all along, then the court of public opinion might have been wrong, but the court system corrected for this. In other words, the wrongfully convicted will be freed, given time, which would be the mark of a system that works in some way.

That you can draw three very different conclusions based on which ending you get (public opinion is wrong, public opinion could be right but we can't know, or public opinion could be wrong but it's not a big deal) makes the game's overall message murky. What's it trying to say other than "mumble mumble court of public opinion something something"?

ClockworkHouse wrote:

What's it trying to say other than "mumble mumble court of public opinion something something"?

The whole tl;dr is what I was trying to say (much less eloquently), but this sentence is it in a nutshell.

Should a creative work be held to the same expectation of a clear thesis to which we'd hold an essay?

wordsmythe wrote:

Should a creative work be held to the same expectation of a clear thesis to which we'd hold an essay?

If a creative work very clearly intends to convey an intellectual or moral message, as I feel this one does, then we should expect that message to be clearly distinguishable within the creative elements that make up the work. I don't expect a clearly worded thesis sentence, but I should be able to say, in the end, that the author clearly wanted me to understand this or that thing.

What you're left with from these endings is more an impression that you, as a spectator, simply cannot know the facts. You cannot trust the media to report information accurately, but neither can you say that the men in question are innocent. The court of public opinion here isn't a wrong, as the first two endings would imply, but a fantastic waste of time. You don't know. You cannot know. So why try?

I think you've hit on the actual purpose of the game right here. You're straining to see this game as a standard "To Kill a Mockingbird" scenario where public opinion is clearly locking up an innocent man. But it's more than that. It's about the reader, not the public or media or some other institution. After reading the article the very act of rendering judgement prohibits the truth from ever being known. Do we know if Casey Anthony killed her kid? No, and we'll never find out, because the court proceedings became a circus. There will be no appeal possible with an unbiased jury, at least in the US. Because almost everyone has either read the paper and rendered judgement, or talked to someone who has. It becomes social branding, whether or not you think she's guilty.

And the police investigator ending fed into this. Was he guilty? No idea. He was a cop, and he got off. What was the evidence quoted in the ending that he was innocent? None. Also, I never got the impression that he was locked up in that ending. He was put on probation then "investigated" then cleared. By choosing him, you've prevented any actual investigation from happening.

Since this is in game form, you have to look at this as being about choice. The point of the game is that your choice to judge based on a news article precludes any semblance of justice. It's not about "public opinion" or what all those other people do when they read the news. It's about what you, the player, chooses to do with the news article you've just read.