Phoenix Wright: Beauty of the flaw

Recently, there has been a funny strip in the webcomic VGCats about the Nintendo DS game Phoenix Wright. It mocks the reoccurring large female breasts throughout the game. Bizarrely, because of the convoluted story one character gets big breasts every time there is a crisis.

A character in Phoenix Wright is a spirit medium able to channel the spirit of her dead sister. Her breasts become large in the process. So if you consider plastical surgery, you might want to try mediumship instead.

Phoenix Wright generally features large animated images of characters. Because of economical reasons, each character has only a limited set of animations. The whole game is arrangement of repetitive, cheesy poses, exaggerated expressions, and wacky characters which are just perfect for this kind of mockery – for example in the Phoenix Wrong videos. In such videos and comics, the flaws of the games are exposed. Today, I would like to explain why this is not dismissive criticism bit why it can be understood as a kind of praise and approval. Even more, it is an integral part of what a game is and an even expression of a form of beauty.

Some time ago, we were discussing “beauty” in a seminar at KISD. It seems like a futile attempt but it is not. Although such sayings as “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggest that beauty is a subjective and inherently undefinable quality, the mere existence of such saying proves that there are myths and rules associated with beauty. So even if there might be no objective definition of beauty, its social and cultural status can very well be the object of scientific research and open discussion. This, as I always insist, generally applies to all subjective terms, especially “feelings” – a term which is too often left undiscussed.

The particular aspect of “beauty” I researched was the beauty of the flaw. There seems to be a contradiction. Perfection is often associated with beauty. At the same time, there is the German term “Schönheitsfehler” (”beauty-flaw”) which refers to a flaw which enhances the beauty of an object instead of diminishing it, as one might expect. Cindy Crawford comes to mind. In fact, we found out that almost every Hollywood star had some kind of facial features which clearly set him/her apart from a beauty ideal. 


At some point we considered that it might be even part of a sort of styling/branding. After all, adding deliberate flaws is common practices in the fashion industry. We are used to jeans with fabricated holes, stains and other forms of intentional damage. Based on this observation, one could establish a typology of flaws. On the one hand, there would be unintentional flaws like the real holes in my jogging shoes, which were caused by their usage. On the other hand, there would be intentional “Schönheitsfehler”, deliberately placed by the designer of a product as a feature of the product. The mentioned jeans are an example.

And then there would be the exciting gray area in between. Sometimes aspects of products initially considered flaws are later accepted as features (”It’s not a bug, it’s a feature”). This can happen on the side of the manufacturer of a product, like the libido-enhancing function of Viagra, which was considered a side-effect back when Viagra was used to treat high blood pressure. But it can also happen on the side of the customer as well, for example in the cult of B-Movies where plot-holes, cheesy dialog and cheap special-effects are considered vital for the quality of a product.

This gray area puts us into this strange world where the following could happen: some Diesel shoes are sold with a small note which assures it’s customers that all damages on the shoe are intentional and part of the product. What happens if there is a genuine mistake during the production and the shoe comes out severely misconfigured – for example, the sole would be missing completely. The notice would incorrectly assure its pitiful/lucky customer that the product is not faulty. Like the naked emperor, he might proudly exhibit the abomination in public, possibly even triggering a new fashion trend (but more realistically just having a bad case of Tetanus).

Diesel Shoes come with a tag which turns EVERY fault into a feature – even the unintentional ones.

It is difficult to judge the morality of this eventuality and it was a subject of an intriguing but extensive debate in the seminar. What I would rather like to discuss instead is the reason why faulty and perfect objects can both be considered beautiful at the same time.

Friedrich Nietzsche distinguished between two distinct types of beauty. The Apollonian Beauty and the Dionysian Beauty. The first one is the calm, flawless and eternal beauty. It is to be consumed in peace, dignity and from afar. Nietzsche traced this concept of beauty back to ancient Greece (where else?). More specifically, he mentioned Greek statues of gods as an example. Although they were physical objects, it was forbidden to touch them. When exhibited, the audience was supposed to remain silent and take their time to slowly and analytically examine and absorb the statue’s perfection in awe. In fact, this habit was carried over to our contemporary understanding of how art exhibitions are to be consumed.

Apollo: You can look but you can’t touch.

The other kind of beauty is quite the opposite of that. The Dionysian Beauty is the overwhelming, dynamic beauty of excess. It is the beauty of music and dance. A short-lived beauty which has to be consumed by total immersion. It addresses all senses and works by putting the consumer in various emotional states.

The beauty of the flaw seems to be neither of the two, but it shares features of both, the Apollonian beauty as well as the the Dionysian beauty. The flaw in a beautiful object breaks the aura of Apollonian perfection for the observer. The observer is thus no longer obliged to simply watch from afar. The flaw allows him to approach the object of beauty. The object itself is lowered from its god-like status on the same level as the observer or even below the observer. This “ice-breaking” quality of the flaw allows a much more intimate relationship with the object of beauty, which is the idea behind the Dionysian beauty after all.

As good example, the clerks at clothing stores are often advised not to stack the clothes too neatly. If the clothes are arranged in a perfect manner, customers will be less inclined to disturb that perfection and actually try the clothes. If the top-most piece in a stack of shirts is just a little crumpled, people will have less trouble approaching it, trying it and possibly even buying it. The shirt might then become part of the everyday life of the customer and in the end, might even end up as his/her favorite piece of clothing.

So the beauty of the flaw is an intimate, lived beauty. It works because the audience is allowed and encouraged to learn the object in detail and to establish an emotional bond with it. It is not the beauty of distant worship, it is the beauty of living together and knowing each other well. This also explains how we can call our actual partners “beautiful” even though the media are bombarding us with images of models and Hollywood stars clearly more beautiful then any living person on earth. That’s why I can say, without lying, that my girlfriend is the most beautiful girl in the world (she is!).

A tangent: Why does it have to be the “most beautiful girl in the wolrd”. Being “most beautiful in the room” is something too, you know.

What does it have to do with games? Although games try to feature characters, they mostly fail at simulating human beings correctly. They have a much harder job then movies and books. Because the audience of books and moves is passive, the characters there use the Apollonian strategy to appear convincing. This is apparent in the way we worship Hollywood stars as ideals. Games allow direct interaction between characters and the audience. It is during this interaction where the artificiality of the characters is immediately exposed. Characters give repetitive responses, fail to understand our questions or to navigate spaces. In order to generate dynamic characters, visual systems are being used which also clearly expose the artificiality of the characters – one of such problems was recently called “the uncanny valley” (it has also been applied to behavior). The various failures to produce believable characters result in bizarre situations and invite users to public mockery. The group Mega64 is especially known for systematically addressing the kafkaesque situations and peculiarities of games by contrasting them with real-life situations.

Mega64 exposes the limits of video games by contrasting their bizzare features with real life situations.

This might lead to the conclusion that games are doomed to be forever the nerdy clown in the classroom of media – always pursuing high goals, always failing, being mocked and never taken seriously by others. But there is also a different perspective. Although we mock the stiff, repetitive animations of our game characters, this mockery is at the same time a kind affection. We love our games especially because they produce these bizarre situations. They expose games as what they are and allow us to actually play them and live with them. The beauty of games is the beauty of the flaw.

I always cringe when some expert mentions “immersion” as a goal worthy to pursue in games. Imagine what would happen if games would be, even at careful scrutiny, no longer distinguishable from real-life situations. They wouldn’t be playable anymore. For example: how could you ever kill an in-game character if you weren’t 100% sure that he is not a real person?

So instead of following Apollonian ideals of perfect characters, I believe games would be much more successful if they would openly embrace the beauty of the flaw. Phoenix Wright is a good example. The goofy poses of the characters and the over-the-top situations have become a trademark of the series. The game designers don’t even try to hide the repetitiveness of the animation. In a recent installment, one character constantly drinks coffee which is openly addressed in the dialog of the game. There is even merchandise like the Phoenix Wright stylus which takes upon this topic.

The Phoenix Wright stylus mimicks the cheesy pointing signature pose of the main character. The everyday usage of the system becomes a non-stop quotation of that pose.

And not all games have to be comedy if they want to embrace the flaw. There is another game, which I already mentioned and which shows how this concept can work with different connotations. The game Hotel Dusk features a very distinct visual style for the characters, reminiscent of rotoscoped, roughly sketched characters. This in itself is already a deliberate usage of the flaw as a style element. On top of that, the characters have their repetitive animations – just like in Phoenix Wright. The repetitive animations become charismatic and lovable signature features of the characters themselves. Every time Kyle, the main character, pulls out his slightly sarcastic smile you cannot avoid smiling with him.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

2 responses to “Phoenix Wright: Beauty of the flaw”

  1. Gryffin

    I completely agree. It seems to me that games are diverging into two paths. One path, as you mentioned, is the immersive, realistic, seamless “experience.” BioShock is the perfect example. Dead Space and Alone in the Dark also seem to go down this route. And then there are games that know they are games. RPGs, particularly, rely on numbers and stats and information, which can only be expressed in a video game. I’ve played only the first Phoenix Wright so far, but it is my favorite DS title next to Trauma Center. The animations are absolutely key to the enjoyment of that game, same goes for Trauma Center actually, “Let’s Start the Operation!” Another game that comes to mind using a similar system is Face Breaker, which is clearly a very “gamey” game, and intentionally so. The animations are used to remind players of the artificial, fun feeling the game is trying to evoke. Towards stats, the ATV game Pure uses numbers as a fundamental aspect of gameplay. Players build up a trick meter for a boost by performing various other tricks. This isn’t real. But thats what makes allows the game to be fun. I think games can take either path, immersive or more towards the fourth wall, but the goal should be to identify which path better evokes the feelings your trying to portray, which is more effective as making players feel how you want them to feel.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Thanks for the elaborate comment! Trauma Center is a good example. It is also a favorite of mine. I just love the over-the-tip drama. I think this Newground Clip sums it up quite nicely:

    And there is even an enhanced Version with more win:

    However, I’m not sure if there are really two paths games can go. I think there are game designers who realize that games work inherently different than movies and those who don’t. The latter will inevitably fail – more or less severely. But then again – I don’t own a “next gen” System yet and I haven’t played Bioshock yet. I heard Call of Duty is supposed to be a remarkable experience, too. So I might not have all the parts of the puzzle yet.


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


follow Krystian on Twitter
follow Yu-Chung on Twitter
follow Daniel on Twitter