04 January 2021
Your honor, the prosecution seeks to prove here today that those in a position of authority are uniquely empowered to form and define their own truths. It will demonstrate that the law is neither purely logical, nor neutral, and that it can never be impartially enforced. Evaluation of right and wrong is inherently inseparable from our personal biases.
Let us call Paradise Killer to the witness stand; an open-world locked-room murder mystery which codifies via play the filters that are inevitably applied by those in power when passing judgement upon others.
Paradise Killer is a damn stylish whodunnit released last September by Kaizen Game Works. It’s got a sultry aesthetic, a diverse cast, and a vaporwave-inspired soundtrack full of solid bops. If you’ve ever wondered how an open-world Phoenix Wright would play, well, congratulations, you weirdo; someone made a game specifically for all five of you.
It goes without saying that I’m about to spoil the ever-loving shit out of this game, and discovery is basically the point of detective fiction. So, if it sounds up your alley, then you are hereby recused from jury duty.
Finally, we’ll be talking about some real-world subject matter which may be triggering for some people. Content warnings for: racial inequality, police brutality.
This is the kind of story that throws you directly into the deep end, and assumes you’ll figure it out as you go. Personally, I love this kind of thing. The setting can be overwhelming in the beginning, but it is internally consistent and, frankly, fascinating. 1
The broad strokes are that protagonist Lady Love Dies has been exiled from Paradise for the last 8,000 years after making some bad decisions. The council which runs it has been murdered, in a space that only they can access.
“This island is a thousand little tragedies waiting to be discovered.” - Carmelina Silence
Island Sequence 24 is falling apart around you, and the perfect perpetrator has already been served on a silver platter. A speedy “guilty” verdict and summary execution is in everyone’s best interests, but it all seems too easy. Too convenient.
Due to her exile and reputation as the island’s “Investigation Freak”, Love Dies is the last hope for cracking this locked-room mystery. Fail, and the killer gets to join society in the next iteration of the island, which hopefully contains less murder than this one did.
How far will you go to find your truth? And will you still want to share it, when you do?
The world of Paradise Killer is visually vibrant, but rotten at its core.
As it happens, this is actually the twenty-fourth iteration of Paradise. You’ll learn that each Island Sequence is sustained by compulsory worship. The ruling class, called the “Syndicate”, kidnaps and essentially enslaves a working class of citizens from other worlds. The citizens are provided with a “safe, perfect” society in exchange for blood and prayers. They have no say in the construction of laws, placement of buildings, or speaking broadly, their own autonomy. If a sequence is deemed tainted, the Syndicate creates a new one, sacrifices all of the current citizens, and begins anew.
Each of the 24 Island Sequences has been flawed in some fatal way. In most cases, civil unrest and unhappy citizens invite demonic corruption from beyond the stars and necessitate its destruction. But this next one, y’all, it’s definitely going to be the perfect one. You’ll see.
Over the course of your adventure, you will question witnesses, explore the crumbling island, and probably sleep with an unethical number of your suspects. I mean it when I say the investigation is completely unstructured. You interview who you want, whenever you want, and follow up on what’s interesting to you. Or don’t. You can begin the trial whenever you feel like it, whether you’re honestly ready for it or not.
You are given the authority and autonomy to conduct the investigation however you please, and in the end, your word is quite literally law.
There are initially nine suspects to interrogate, each with unique motivations and alibis to confirm or shatter. Though your case begins as an open-and-shut sort of kangaroo court to indict demonic possession victim Henry Division, your search will invariably widen to include such colorful personalities as an ex-assassin skeleton bartender, and a professional model with a goat for a head and a seedy side-hustle. 2
Some of them lie. Some of them are just mistaken. Every single one them has a plausible motive. One character presses you for a swift guilty verdict with an urgency that’s out of place even for a murder case on a doomed island. Another is openly critical of the late council’s behavior and has recently begun to advocate for a change in power. And then there’s your resident god, who’s missing a chunk of his flesh and is reasonably upset about it.
It quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on here than you were led to believe, and that everyone would very much appreciate it if you’d please look the other way. It’s a tempting ask, too; by the end you’ll probably find you really like these people. You’ll want to find the true killer, to exonerate them. Even the rude ones! 3
The trick of it all, is that everyone is guilty.
I mean it. Every single one of these lovable little shits did something stupid, which may have resulted (intentionally or unintentionally) in the deaths of the council.
And learning that is really only half of the game.
When you’re satisfied with your investigation, Love Dies asks Judge to begin the trial, who assembles the suspects. But not before returning Lady Love Dies her service weapon. In this trial, the player serves as prosecution, defense, and ultimately, executioner. Broken laws in Paradise have only one punishment.
What the game doesn’t tell you, is that whoever you accuse is going to be found guilty of that crime. Only claims made without supporting evidence are discarded. Your power is absolute.
Given your potentially exhaustive list of facts, you have the ability to make a compelling argument against almost anyone. That two players with the same facts can convince the judge that responsibility for a given crime lies with different people without either player being incorrect is a demonstration of the partiality of our real-world legal system.
The structure of this trial serves to highlight the bias inherent to interpreting and enforcing law. Paradise Killer argues that the speaker’s bias is applied in the way the knowledge-holder chooses what is or is not relevant to investigate. It’s in the timing with which evidence is presented, and the degree of emphasis provided to those different pieces of information.
By way of example: that Sam and Lydia Daybreak smuggled a demon into the council’s chamber is, on its own, a fact. There’s some comfort to the finality of that. But that fact becomes an individual’s truth the moment they provide that information in response to a specific accusation, such as “Who killed the council?”.
If you’ve chosen to emphasize this instead of the (also perfectly true) fact that Witness to the End did not tell them what was in the box, or that he was the one to open it remotely, then you have made a decision about what is true or important, haven’t you? Isn’t it exactly as accurate to say the demon killed the council, regardless of how the box got there? You’ve applied your own filter, multiple times over, to something allegedly impartial. You’ve made it about you, but veiled it as “justice”.
“Is this a fact, or a truth?” - Lady Love Dies
Even if you, as a person in absolute power, resolve to review every fact at least once, it is still necessary to prioritize which facts are presented in response to which question, and in what order. By placing two facts in proximity to each other, you are telling a story. It is impossible to evaluate events without making decisions about what is important to you, or your audience. Those decisions have dire consequences which disproportionately affect the disenfranchised.
Maybe the story that Yuri Night participated in the murder is particularly cathartic or appealing to you for some reason. Maybe you don’t like his perfect abs, or his stupid smirk, or I don’t know just randomly picking something here, the color of his skin? Apropos of nothing occurring in the real world, of course. :)
For an IRL example of this, let’s talk about the language we use to describe riots.
On some level, what constitutes a riot is defined by law (see 18 U.S. Code § 2102). So you would think it would be easy to consistently classify. Yet two events which both meet those criteria will find themselves labeled differently depending on the power of the aggrieved party.
After generations of violent oppression, residents of Manhattan fought back against police violence and targeted anti-gay legislation following a raid of queer haven Stonewall Inn in 1969. The subsequent demonstrations were fierce, spontaneous, and yeah, violent, lasting approximately five days and making headlines in national papers. When we say that Stonewall was a riot, it’s both a matter of fact, as well as a matter of truth for members of the queer community who wish to reclaim that narrative, or remind themselves of their own power and agency in the face of widespread discrimination. The aggrieved party, law enforcement agencies, had a vested interest in defining it this way. Let us use the standards applied to Stonewall as a baseline to evaluate other events which could be considered riots.
Stock photography database, you have failed me today. This is not what I wanted.
Consider that in 2017, white supremacists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia to “Unite the Right”. Their stated purpose was to protest the removal of confederate statues; in practice, protesters arrived armed, marched with lit torches through the streets while chanting racist and anti-semitic bile. The following day, James Fields drove a vehicle into counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and wounding 19 other people. The demonstration was public, contained greater than three people, with explicit violence and threats of violence communicated well in advance, was declared unlawful, and some responders literally donned riot gear. Approximately four individuals were charged with conspiracy to riot, and the event was directly organized by multiple, known hate groups with the intent to intimidate. Yet, the demonstration itself is considered a rally. 5
In 2020, an overwhelming number of demonstrators filled the streets in protest of rampant police brutality, a movement reignited in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and many, many other Black Americans. Even non-violent civilian protests were at risk of being treated as riots when convenient. By October, Bellingcat and Forensic Architecture had catalogued over 1,000 incidents of police violence against Black Lives Matter protestors. Unarmed, peaceful demonstrators have been intimidated, beaten, subjected to improper use of chemical weapons, and run into with vehicles. Riot responses teams absolutely gather in numbers of three or greater. They both threaten, and follow through with threats of, violence. They represent a clear ideology in the pre-emptive display of heavy weaponry. A few are successfully convicted of violent crimes as individuals, but by my research no gathering of law enforcement has ever been declared a riot, despite meeting all of the criteria. Who would even do such a thing? The police?
In the end, what causes these events to be evaluated differently isn’t scale, method, or ideology. I would argue it’s the interests of the person empowered to define it, or write its history. In order for this imbalance to manifest, one does not need to declare the Unite the Right rally an exception to the rule, or explicitly endorse police violence. All that needs to be done is for the investigating party to be accountable to only itself, and to choose to spend more energy on one event than another.
That state-sanctioned violence is not classified as a riot using the same standards applied to civilian demonstrations6 is a lie of omission; the very sort that Paradise Killer encourages you to embody.
If you write, interpret, or enforce law, you have an incredible amount of power. You get to choose what to prosecute, what to ignore, and when.
Through Lady Love Dies, the player is encouraged to selectively enforce the law in precisely the same way that modern police do. You have the power to carefully weave a narrative which excludes your friends, or people who were cooperative during the investigation. You don’t have to tell any lies to do this, you just have to decide to spend your time somewhere else.
“Maybe wolves did it… Yeah. Wolves are crazy. They tear all sorts of stuff up.” - Shinji
As a deputized member of the Syndicate, Love Dies investigates no less than 12 separate crimes over the course of the game, in pursuit of a grand conspiracy. Notably absent from that list is the greater crime of kidnapping, subjugating, and sacrificing thousands of citizens. The leaders of Paradise are uniquely empowered to decide what gets investigated, and this one doesn’t make the cut. It’s literally not illegal in this universe, because someone powerful benefits from it. And there is no vehicle by which a citizen can change this.
Though you can choose dialogue options which imply Love Dies is aware of the Syndicate’s cruelty, and can even take a moment to sympathize with the scapegoated Harry Division before he dies, there is no combination of accusations which will spare him from sacrifice at the end of the sequence or improve the lives of future citizens. You can choose to execute him now, or let him die alone a few minutes later if you think that’s more merciful. Those are your only two options, and this is by design. Because as a space cop, protecting citizens ultimately isn’t your job. Maintaining order, as defined by the Syndicate, is.
You’re so close, LD. And yet…
Despite the existence of supernatural forces and the universal application of capital punishment, the world of Paradise Killer ends up looking surprisingly similar to our own. It is a world where an elite, ruling class above most forms of oversight profits from the exploitation of those without access to the same rights or information. The only way that they will face judgement is if that same group chooses to allow it, which it is disincentivized to do. The status quo is maintained because it benefits the very people charged with evaluating it.
The philosophical question proposed by this game was at its most difficult midway through the trial. I was trying to decide whether it was more moral to implicate the obviously manipulated Daybreaks in the conspiracy, or look the other way. They were kind, they didn’t want to hurt anyone, and I had a personal connection to them. But from a certain perspective, the facts said they were guilty. They did, by letter of the law, participate. I’ve thought about my ending for a while, even though I’ve long since finished the game, and I think I recognize now that wasn’t a fact, it was a truth. My truth, in the moment.
I think I was wrong.
And maybe a little drug addled. ↩
They all have incredible names, too, like “Dr. Doom Jazz” and “One Last Kiss”. This game has STYLE. ↩
Which is most of them. ↩
Did you see what I did there? I put two ideas together and it implies a story. Are you proud of me now daddy? Please, can I come back inside? It’s cold and I’m hungry. ↩
In a truly the underwhelming response, an official report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police and office of the Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security calls the event “a challenging day for the City of Charlottesville”. Its conclusion finds that “everyone was doing what they thought was the absolute best in preparing and planning for the event”, and that it falls on policymakers to challenge their assumptions about demonstration response. Odd how when you ask someone to evaluate their own performance, the results tend to be favorable. ↩
The Associated Press revised its style guide in September of last year to discourage use of the word “riot” when describing violent protests, noting that “…focusing on rioting and property destruction rather than underlying grievance has been used in the past to stigmatize broad swaths of people protesting against lynching, police brutality or for racial justice, going back to the urban uprisings of the 1960s”. This unfortunately won’t increase accountability for police violence, but will hopefully make coverage of these events more thoughtful in the long-term. ↩