Video games are a wonderful tool for simulating just about any kind of activity imaginable. Flying a plane? Playing a professional sport? Being a cop? Putting together jigsaw puzzles? Yes, there’s a game for all of those. However, the legal profession doesn’t generally get a whole lot of run, probably because it’s kinda hard to make an intriguing game about a career that seems to revolve largely around talking and paperwork. Granted, there were attempts in the past to recreate the tension of high-stakes legal drama, and the Phoenix Wright series has had a good run more recently, but those relied on either the star power of the setting or some other quirks to get people in the door. This time around, though, we’re gonna take a look at a game that doesn’t bank on a hot IP or a clever hook to get you into the courtroom, In the 1st Degree, released by Broderbund in 1995.
In the 1st Degree opens up with the news that prominent San Francisco gallery owner Zachary Barnes has been murdered. There’s not really much in the way of mystery here, there is only one subject, artist James Tobin, and he claims self-defense. You come in as prosecutor Sterling Granger, and with the assistance of a female police inspector, your job is to untangle the web of fraud, romance, jealousy, and violence between the accused, the deceased, and a handful of third parties who may or may not be tangentially related to the crimes. After meeting with your police contact, the game begins in earnest, where you can begin sorting through quite a hefty stack of information and conduct some follow-ups of your own.
The whole game is effectively a point-and-click adventure, although here, there will be no pixel hunting or real puzzle-solving, instead, it’s more of a giant dialogue tree stretched out over the length of an entire game. The first place you should probably begin is reviewing the handful of documents you’re given, such as a diagram of the crime scene and a letter from the wife of the deceased (who just happens to be a bigwig in the Mayor’s office, just to add another layer of intrigue). You can also review interviews conducted by your inspector friend, which is useful to get some background information and get a better handle on the witnesses and the circumstances surrounding the murder.
After that, your next stop will be conducting interviews with the witnesses themselves, well, except Tobin himself, for obvious reasons. Now, here’s where things get particularly sticky. While you do have to conduct these interviews with the witnesses to fill in the gaps left in the tapes and to help people jog their memory a bit in the hopes of building a stronger case to present when you get to trial, this isn’t quite the foolproof process you might be expecting. You’re faced with multiple dialogue options at each step, and you can check each one to see how the actual question will be worded to the witness before actually saying it to them.
Why does this matter? Because say the wrong thing, suggest the wrong motive, or push too hard, and the witnesses will cease being cooperative, leaving you without important information that you need to firm up your argument, and you don’t get any second chances. Worse yet, the first couple of times you attempt to play through this, you might not even know that you’ve actually boned yourself out of that extra intel, so what you think was a good interview might very well have been an abject failure.When you’re ready to take it to trial, the same rules apply; you’re looking to navigate the sea of possible answers and hope that you’re picking the right ones. After each day in the trial, you’re shown a quick news clip suggesting whether or not you’re doing things correctly, and depending on strong of a case you have, there are a number of possible endings, from the case being thrown out entirely to Tobin being found guilty of manslaughter, second-degree murder, or the whole enchilada.
I know that’s a very bland, rote description of the gameplay, but that’s because there’s effectively no actual gameplay, just clicking on questions or watching clips of the characters talking. That’s it. This is very much in the interactive movie vein, but that said, that doesn’t mean that it can’t still be a somewhat thrilling ride while it lasts. Since most people’s enjoyment of this one is going to be dictated almost entirety by the performances within, I’m happy to say that they’re actually not bad. The acting is surprisingly competent, there aren’t a lot of poorly-delivered lines or actors trying too hard, they’re all mostly believable performances, given that they’re being done before a green screen, and that’s a challenge even for more established actors. Speaking of the green screen, there are more than a couple of times when you are absolutely, 100% aware that you are looking at some very low-budget, mid-’90s CGI, but to be fair, this WAS low-budget, mid-’90s CGI, so that’s to be expected, and while nobody’s going to mistake this for Jurassic Park, it’s certainly better than what you’d get out of Sega CD around the same time. The writing here is also pretty solid, assisted by a former San Francisco district attorney, as it turns out, so nothing strikes out as particularly implausible in the story, which does add to the sense of realism. One major downside, though, is that the background music is some EXTREMELY grating MIDI fare that kinda eats away at some of the immersion, as it doesn’t actually help when there’s supposed to be a dramatic reveal in the courtroom and its being accompanied by bleepy-bloopy muzak.
If you’re still interested in giving In the 1st Degree a go, there are a couple of things you should be aware of. First of all, running this on any newer version of Windows past 98 is going to be an absolute crapshoot. Windows 10, in fact, will laugh in your face if you attempt to run this on it, even in Compatability Mode, and I wouldn’t like your odds on Vista or 7 unless there’s some magic workaround hidden in the deepest valleys of the internet. There was a Macintosh release of this game, also, so if that’s easier to wrangle for you, that might be the way to go. Secondly, this game stretches across two discs, and as of the time of this writing, it’s not available on any service like Steam or GoG, so you’ll have to track down an actual physical copy on Amazon or eBay, and seeing as that there’s no real replay value after you win a first-degree conviction, you’ll have to decide whether or not that headache is worth it.
Rudimentary gameplay and issues of functionality aside, In the 1st Degree is a pretty solid legal title. There’s only one case, so what you see is what you get, but the case itself is involved enough that getting the best outcome is going to take some serious doing, even if you don’t realize it your first few attempts. It’s surprisingly well-acted and written, and the story is grounded in enough realism that it doesn’t feel like you’re trying the most far-fetched case ever brought into a courtroom. This one probably won’t appeal to everyone, and even getting your hands on a copy is enough of a challenge, but if you’re into the idea of a PC game version of a legal procedural, you could do a lot worse than this one.
Quality acting and story, multiple endings give you something to build to as you learn your mistakes.
Atrocious MIDI music kinda takes away from the atmosphere, good luck both finding a copy of this and getting it to run.