Thursday, 8 February 2018

L.A. Law: The Computer Game – Case #1: The Wrathful Race

by Alex


In the comments to my first L.A. Law post, reader Lugh expressed his or her feelings about this game’s technical qualities:

“20. It's a Capstone game, so I'll be shocked if it even works.”

Well, the game worked, after a fashion, in that it loaded and I could choose my character—in this case, Victor Sifuentes as portrayed by Jimmy Smits—and get started at my first day at the prestigious firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak!

As chosen by YOU, The Adventure Game readers!

Problem was, every time I tried to call someone on the damn phone, the game would freeze as I waited for the person on the other line to pick up. And since most of this game involves making phone calls, you can see how this could be a problem.

Imagine this . . . forever!

After futzing around with different versions of DOSBox, I hit upon the solution of just turning the sound off in the game’s option menu. Without the boops and beeps of the phone, I’m stuck with the one bit of looping music. I probably should have turned that off too, but the deadening silence would have been a bit too close to an actual attorney’s job.

Anyway, I actually got the game running, messed around with Attorney Sifuentes’ first case, and I think I’ve got a handle on how the flow of the game. As this is the first gameplay post, I’ll go over the interface, game environment, and locations before delving deeper into the case at hand and how I handled it.

Interface


The game begins kind of like most episodes of the show, with the firm’s attorneys sitting around the conference table, talking about the day’s cases. Victor’s given a manslaughter case to defend, the kicker being most of his colleagues think it’s a loser and he should just take the deal from the District Attorney—five years for Victor’s client, Timothy Murdock.

After the intro, all told via digitized stills from the show, we’re plopped in Victor’s office. On his desk is a folder and a phone. You’ll also notice a time in the screen’s upper-left. I learned that this was the countdown to trial.


That’s right: The new associate is given a case nine hours before trial. That’s . . . not really how it works being a lawyer. For a criminal matter like this, between arrest, arraignment, bail hearings, trial prep, impaneling a jury, and the actual trial, you’re probably talking weeks, or at least days. Not mere hours. But it’s a computer game, so they have to simulate the wild and exciting world of law firm life any way they can.

Every action you take makes the timer tick down a bit; too much if you ask me. Each phone call shaves off a bit more time than is really plausible, but that’s a minor gripe (so far).


Clicking on the folder opens up the case file, giving a rundown of the story thus far. This includes police reports, witness statements, and Victor’s notes in the back. Simply clicking pages goes on to the next one. Confusingly, clicking the “Continue” button in the lower-right portion of the screen just shuts the folder.


Finally, Victor’s office has a phone that operates as you’d expect: click the buttons to dial a number included in the game’s manual—or readme file—and away you go!


Clicking on the door brings Victor to the main offices of McKenzie, Brackman. There are two office screens: Victor starts out on the right-hand side. Clicking left scrolls the screen over to the rest of the office. Behind the doors are Victor’s colleagues:
  • Leland McKenzie
  • Douglas Brackman
  • Stuart Markowitz
  • Grace Van Owen
  • Arnold Becker
  • Tom Mullaney

Yep. We’re simulating working in a law firm, folks. Doesn’t this kind of life look fun?!

You pop in and ask them for advice, which they may or may not give. I’m sure that, depending on the type of case (criminal, civil) and the subject matter (murder, white collar crime, taxes, contracts, personal injury), the quality of advice will depend on the attorney.

There’s also the firm’s law library where you can do legal research.



Good Lord, games are supposed to be fun. They’re not supposed to give you flashbacks to law school.

I’m sorry, what’s that? You didn’t go to law school? Well la-dee-dah, aren’t you the smart one?!

Actually, you are. Life Lesson Number One, boys and girls: don’t go to law school.

Making this even more horrifying is that this is in the pre-Internet days, where instead of having Westlaw or Lexis online, you’d have to go through all the case and statute books by hand. Kill me now.

You and me both, Larry.

Anyway, that’s the game world . . . or so I thought. More on this later.

Game Flow

From what I gather, the game has you (a) get assigned a case; (b) gather the facts; (c) prepare for trial; and (d) try the case. Yes, it’s a law simulator. Each day reminds me of my prior job as a civil litigator. For that, I can only say: Thanks, The Adventure Gamer administrators, for assigning this game to me. I actually volunteered to play it, but I’m having misgivings and I need to take them out on someone.

But I digress.

The Case

Victor’s first case has him defending Timothy Murdock against, accused of running Edward Bennett off the road after engaging in a drag race, against a manslaughter charge. Seems the two men were at a bar arguing about something, got into their cars, and sped off. The Defendant claims that Mr. Bennett swerved into his car and then drove off the road and over the cliff. But the D.A. ain’t buying it.


Trial Prep

The last page of Victor’s notes tell me that Tom Mullaney recommended Joe Spanozi as a P.I. to check things out. “Manslaughter,” for those of you who aren’t familiar with the American legal system, is broadly defined as killing another person without any “malice aforethought”—this is the key phrase. Some States in the U.S. call it “2nd degree murder” as opposed to “1st degree murder,” which is killing with malice aforethought. In a state that calls the unintentional or negligent killing of another “manslaughter,” “1st degree murder” is just called “murder.”

Manslaughter is also where “crimes of passion” fall into play: sure, you murdered that guy you caught abusing your child, but you didn’t sit there and plan it out.

Anyway, in criminal law generally and murder cases in particular, cases hinge on the mens rea of the defendant, their mental state. So for a manslaughter charge, the D.A. clearly thinks it has enough evidence to convict Mr. Murdock of killing Mr. Bennett, but not that Mr. Murdock planned out the murder.

The prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt every element of the crime. The “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard can be roughly thought of as “the jury is 95% certain that the defendant is guilty.” This is higher than the civil standard, “a preponderance of the evidence,” which can be thought of as “51% certain.” The idea is that, in cases where the State is about to deprive a citizen of their life, liberty, or property, there has to be a higher burden of proof.

So as the defense attorney, I don’t have to poke holes in every element of the crime. I only have to poke enough holes in enough elements to provide reasonable doubt as to whether my client did it. In a case like this, I have to prove that Mr. Murdock neither voluntarily (“crime of passion”) nor involuntarily (“negligent”) ran Mr. Bennett off the road. Another angle to attack this would be that maybe Mr. Bennett was the one driving dangerously and that Mr. Murdock bears no blame for Mr. Bennett’s death. I can do this in several ways: witnesses that testify to a different story as to the one put forth by the prosecution, impeaching the credibility of the prosecution’s witnesses, introducing evidence to show that Mr. Bennett acted in a way that caused his own death, and so on.

Welcome to your first day at The Adventure Gamer School of Law!

Whew! This is supposed to be a game, people! Let’s get back to the gameplay, shall we?

Having no other leads, I give good ol’ Joe a call using the phone numbers that serve as the game’s copy protection. Apparently, dialing a seven-digit phone number can take eighteen minutes.

Are they all, like, talking really really slowly or something?

I can ask Joe to look into Edward Bennett, Christine Bennett (presumably his wife), and my own client. I have him check out all three, at a time cost of fifteen minutes per request, and get on my way to see what I can find out before Joe calls me back.


Poking around the office, I decide to ask a few colleagues for some advice. I also failed to see Christine Bennett listed in the phone directory until after the trial because I’m an idiot, but whatever. I talk to Arnold Brackman first because he was played by Corbin Bernsen and, come on, it’s Corbin Bernsen!

Also known as Shawn’s dad on Psych!

Arnold is helpful, suggesting I take a look at the deceased’s wife—whom I totally should have called but didn’t—as well as mentioning the life insurance angle. You cynical bastard, Arnold! That’s why we love you!


As an aside, this aspect of L.A. Law: The Computer Game is a pretty accurate portrayal of law firm life. Lawyers are going to each other for advice all the time, mainly because in practice, nothing is certain and experience matters more than what’s in the books. So if you ever wanted to be a lawyer, play this game, I guess. Or don’t. It’s up to you.

I go back to my office then, and get a return call from Joe. He gives me the rather unhelpful skinny about all three people he looked into. Now, though, I have the opportunity to have him look into Mr. Bennett’s insurance policy.

The plot thickens . . .

While I’m waiting, I go to my other colleagues. Other than telling me to bugger off (McKenzie), that they can’t help me (Markowitz), and to take the deal (Brackman, Van Owen), the only one who’s useful is Mullaney, advising Victor to check the medical examiner’s report to see if the deceased had been drinking.


I check with Brackman again, but he says the same old thing about the wife and the insurance. At this point, I think it’s kind of weird that the D.A. doesn’t pick up their phone, because unlike civil cases where the parties exchange discovery requests (requests for the production of documents, interrogatories (written questions), and requests for admissions) to get information, in criminal cases the State is supposed to provide the defense with all exculpatory evidence—anything that might prove their innocence—and the parties are supposed to exchange all documentation as a matter of course. There are also depositions, which I don’t know if this game allows for. So much for being an accurate legal simulation!

Although it gets this boring part down right.

I also find it weird I can’t talk to the D.A. at all, or visit my client. I chalk it up to the limitations of the game’s interface and continue doing the best I can to build my case. Not knowing what else to do, I return to Victor’s office, intending to call someone, anyone, to get this medical examiner’s report.

Instead, when I get back, I’m informed that Joe is on the line. I don’t understand the timing on when he calls back, but the information he has is pretty interesting.


It seems like his wife stands to get double if Mr. Bennett checks out via accident, which includes homicide. So did his wife set him up to die? Or did Mr. Bennett cause the accident on purpose? If so, why?

Anyway, the medical examiner doesn’t pick up his phone, but for some reason the medical examiner’s report is now in Victor’s file.


Mr. Bennett had very little alcohol in his blood, no drugs, but an “[a]bnormally high white cell count indicating infection or blood disorder.” Was he suicidal?

I call Joe back, figuring that since he’s the only useful person I can call, he might be able to look into this as well. Instead, the game gives me the option to ask about Mr. Murdock and Mrs. Bennett as a couple.


Where this came from, I don’t know. It’s a good angle to look at, perhaps anticipating the prosecution’s case: Maybe they’ll argue that Mr. Murdock offed Mr. Bennett in order to be with his wife. Or maybe Mr. Bennett was so upset about an affair, real or imagined, that he tried to run my client off the road.


I do some pointless research, and then Joe calls me back again with the juicy tidbits.



Seems like Mr. Murdock and Mrs. Bennett were having an affair! In retrospect, I wish I noticed Mrs. Bennett’s number in the directory at this point; maybe she would’ve had something useful to say. Oh well, some mysteries are destined to remain mysteries I suppose.

So now we’re getting close to trial and I really don’t know what to do or where to go or whom to call. I go back into the office screen and click around and what do I find?

Screenshot from a later moment (note the time—when I found this menu the first time, I had about 30 minutes until trial.

If you click on the extreme right side of the screen, you get a menu letting you choose to go to trial, visit opposing counsel, or go to the police station. Note that there is no similar option on the extreme left of the office—I checked multiple times.

The District Attorney.

The Trial

It sure would have been useful to know this before. So yeah, trial begins and I’m woefully unprepared. And this game is L.A. LAW, not L.A. MALPRACTICE. A quick restart will do the trick!

I’d like to request a continuance, Judge, to . . . nine hours ago.

Yeah. Some lawyer, right? But I’m going to do the only honorable thing here and blame the interface of a twenty-four-year-old game and not my own legal acumen.

Ahem, where were we?

Trial Prep, Redux

Armed with my knowledge of the future, i.e., how the game works, I set out to help Victor build his defense. As an aside, I wonder if this game is all defense, or if you get to sue anyone.

Anyway, armed with the magical power of hindsight, I ask Arnold and Tom their take, call Joe, and decide to check out the world outside of McKenzie and Brackman’s offices.


The D.A. gives me a bunch of reports: two from witnesses and one from the medical examiner. I want to ask her all of the questions on the menu, but after two Victor decides he’s had enough of this “lawyering” thing and just splits. Weird and annoying, and a weird design choice given the game’s time limit.

Anyway, I go to the jail next and ask to speak with my client. Mr. Murdock’s not too helpful, but he does consistently profess his innocence. I decide to see if I can talk to the detective working the case, a Detective Saleno, but he’s not in. How convenient . . .


Back at the offices, I get the expected call back from Joe. I also take the time to check out the witness statements, one from a Sandra Michaels, a bartender at the place Mr. Bennett’s wife worked, and a guy named Joe Flandry who saw the accident from his house, as well as the Medical Examiner’s report.

A quick call to the medical examiner confirms that Mr. Bennett wasn’t drunk or on any drugs. All he has to say about Mr. Bennett’s abnormally high white blood cell count was that he could have been ill.

I decide to call the witnesses instead. Both of their numbers are listed in the game’s copy protection—I mean telephone directory.


Mr. Flandry isn’t in, but Ms. Michaels is, and agrees to come to Victor’s office for an interview. She saw Mr. Murdock and Mr. Bennett argue, but didn’t hear either of them say they wanted to kill the other.



I suppose this helps my client, though I don’t know how strong that evidence is. But every little bit helps, I guess.

As with the D.A., I can’t ask Ms. Michaels every question on the menu. I have to mention again that this is a feature I most emphatically do not appreciate in games of this type. Or any game with a time limit.

At a bit of an impasse, I call Joe again. This time, I can ask him to look into Mr. Bennett’s doctor and medical records. Wasn’t HIPPA a thing back in 1994?!

I got a message telling me I was due in court as I waited for Joe’s call. Joe called right after with a bit of a bombshell.

Wow, this got dark fast.

Whoa. Eddie Bennett was dying of AIDS and some sort of cancer. I try to process this when the game whisks me away to court.

The Trial, Redux


This time, I’m ready! Sure, I didn’t subpoena any witnesses, nor engage in any discovery nor take any depositions, but I’m Victor Sifuentes! I’m from McKenzie, Brackman, bitches! There’s nothing I can’t do!

So anyway, the trial proceeds like a real trial: The Prosecution makes its opening statement, the Defense makes theirs; the Prosecution calls its witnesses, the Defense cross-examines them; the Defense calls its witnesses and the Prosecution cross-examines them; the Defense makes its closing arguments, the Prosecution makes its closing arguments, the jury does its thing, the end.

Whew!


You see that stop sign icon with the exclamation point in it? Yeah, that opens up another menu.

Oh, the fun we can have with this one.

But first, I have to make my opening arguments. Here goes:


Yeah, it’s scummy, but this is a computer game based on a TV show about lawyers, so I pick the AIDS one. It actually is the one that makes the most sense to poke holes in the Prosecution’s case, as (a) I have evidence for it and not for blaming his wife or that he was simply negligent, and (b) it undercuts my client’s motive for wanting him dead. It’s a weak argument given the serious dearth of evidence I have, but it’s better than the other two.

And you know what . . . it worked! I won’t bore you with how the rest of the trial went, since my witnesses—my client and Ms. Michaels, and Mr. Bennett’s doctor—were pretty useless save for the doctor, who corroborated Mr. Bennett’s sickness. The D.A. really didn’t cross-examine either one, but I guess my defense was enough for the jury to find the Defendant not guilty. It was also interesting that Ms. Bennett testified that she didn’t know her husband was sick.

“Great!” he says, so nonchalantly. You’d think ol’ Timmy would be a little more excited that he just beat a manslaughter charge.

The next day, the rest of McKenzie, Brackman is very pleased with Victor’s performance, that they give him another case that involves . . .

. . . wait for it . . .


That’s right! Labor relations! Can you just feel the excitement?!

I’ll be with you next time for the case of . . . “The Blown Whistler.”

Session Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Total Play Time: 1 hour, 10 minutes
Record: 1-0

This game is REALLY DRY. In the future, I don’t think I’m going to give a complete blow-by-blow for every single case; they’re not that fun to write, and I have a sneaking suspicion they wouldn’t be that fun to read. Let me know in the comments what you think about this proposal, and if you’re playing along with me, first, I’m sorry, and second, WHY?!

23 comments:

  1. The graphics reminded me of Amazon guardians of eden, another game from 1992 I think or 1993, which also tried to compensate its design quality with realistic graphics and actors.

    Please please please, go now and play (or watch) Capstone 1995 zorro, It has the most difficult first screen in any videogame, impossible first level, just have a laugh

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    1. Well, with a recommendation like that, how can I NOT give it a whirl?

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    2. I looked up that game Alex, saw a LP. “Yikes” doesn’t begin to describe my reaction.

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  2. I actually find the minutiae of litigation fascinating, particularly when related by one trained in the craft. :)

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    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it! I was afraid I’d bore you all to tears.

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  3. The obvious question is do you think this game could be used for teaching law students, just like Police Quest has been used in teaching police officers?

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    1. That's why Ace Attorney and Harvey Birdman games exist =D

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    2. @Ilmari

      Well it is the most GRIPPING, PULSE-POUNDING training simulation I’ve ever encountered...

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  4. Alex, it turns out that you are the PERFECT person to review these games. I like this level of detail too, or at least the color commentary on how a real trial would work. This game actually feels similar to the "Consulting Detective" series with its episodic mysteries and having to look up names in a directory.

    So, one of my hobbies is that I do some evening teaching at Harvard and it just happens that I park at the Law School and have to walk through their lounges every week. And, I have to say, they really make me want to become a lawyer! Pool tables, leather couches, fireplaces, really much nicer than any lounge where I went to school. I keep thinking that I should go to law school so I could have a nice life like that... are you trying to tell me that is a lie?

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    1. Uh...no Joe, that’s exactly what it’s like! Even if you *didn’t* go to Harvard...

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  5. I found the blow-by-blow fun to read and am very glad we forced you with your specialised knowledge to pick up this game!

    A few notes:

    If my freedom is on the line I NEVER want "Make a cursory search - 15 min" to even be an option. I don't want you finding proof of my innocence behind a filing cabinet 6 months later.

    And as someone who's been on the receiving end of a solicitor charging in 15 minute increments for things that clearly took less than 15 minutes, I just assumed that taking 15 minutes for a phone call was standard practice in the law fraternity. :)

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    1. Ah! Billables! I didn’t even think of that. Believe it or not, I’ve never worked at a firm that billed by the hour. It’s falling into disfavor.

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  6. I just wanted to join in on the comments to echo everyone else and say how much I enjoyed all the play-by-play commentary on the trial and investigation, especially from an expert's point of view. As long as you don't find it too soul crushing, please don't hesitate to keep all the 'boring' details!

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    1. Hey sure. I’ll try to keep the posts to a reasonable length though.

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  7. "Victor’s given a manslaughter case to defend, the kicker being most of his colleagues think it’s a loser"

    So, is it common to give the rookie of the company the losing cases? I can understand that routine cases (as the boss calls it) are given to newbies, but it surely seems a sour way to start your career in a law firm with a case you apparently cannot win. Or are the more experienced lawyers just trying to keep their record clean of failures?

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    1. From my understanding point of view, it's about earning more money. Experienced lawyers make the most of easy simple cases (tons of them), that can be solved in parallel and require little extra research, going to court, etc.

      Lawyers charge their client, but if they also win the case or make a good deal for the client, they also charge the opposing party for their expenses, so it's always a plus to have easy cases.

      This is at least in my country, cannot speak for the rest of the world (which btw, is not Russia, and I sent it as a bio through email =)

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    2. Alex R: We have your bio scheduled for the nearby future - might even be next week =)

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    3. You’re both right. New associates usually get the “losers,” both so they can cut their teeth, and so the partners can work on more lucrative cases.

      I never experienced that myself, but now when dealing with opposing counsel, we chuckle when big, prestigious DC firms rep a protestor on really bad cases. Nine times out of 10, they send the new kid.

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  8. Do we know how the character selection impacts the game? Are there certain witnesses that one character is able to get more out of than another? Is one of the characters a superhero who can defeat difficult judges using the power of hypnotic suggestion?

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    1. Continuing what I got a shout out for, I'm going to assume that it amounts to a palette swap, since this is Capstone we're talking about here.

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    2. Late to this one gents, but choice of character affects nothing. All is meaningless...

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  9. I agree with Pranevich. You are one of the best ‘not the best ever’ games reviewer I’ve encountered in my search of game blogs. Also, I was in Humanities. But I can already feel the headaches of someone doing a law degree :s

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    1. LOL! My specialty is bad games. It’s good to have a “thing” I guess.

      Thanks for reading!

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