Recently, while revisiting L.A. Noire during its recent re-release, I lamented the state of detective stories in videogames, asking why, in light of such a visible and interesting game, new titles inspired by its mechanics had not be born in its wake. By opening up the conversation I was introduced to a few detective-style games that had flew under my radar the past several years that I’d somehow missed, proving that yes, they do in fact exist. And strangely, that has come full circle with A Case of Distrust, a narrative-driven mystery game set during the Roaring 20’s.
In A Case of Distrust, Phyllis Malone is a single young woman making ends meet (or not so much) as a detective in bustling San Francisco. Approached by a local bootlegger who claims someone is out to kill him, Malone is thrust into a dramatic back and forth in the aftermath of a murder at the local speakeasy. Is it the wife, her lover, or a rival gangster? Malone races all over town, tracking down and interrogating suspects and challenging their lies and misdirection until ultimately she comes to find out the truth.
I first wrote about
A Case of Distrust following its appearance at the Indiecade booth during E3 2017, and spoke with its creator and sole developer Ben Wander about his unique, if not outright peculiar, decision to make a game about women’s rights. Phyllis Malone (inspired by Alice Stebbins Wells, the first American policewoman) isn’t just a detective, she’s the first woman to ever make the force, and that dynamic informs much of the interactions between her and other characters as she investigates various leads and interviews witnesses. The dialogue (particularly the vignettes where Malone is talking to her cab driver) leaves lots of opportunity to inform on certain events of the times, social issues and world events touching on everything from suffrage, sports, the burgeoning animation industry, and even, briefly, the theft of cultural artifacts. In that sense, the game acts almost as an historical, educational piece, offering a glimpse into what life was like during this particular era.
Wander cites a number of sources of inspiration for the game, including the visual style of Saul Bass, the novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the mechanics of Phoenix Wright and 80 Days, and the boardgame Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. However, I’m not particularly familiar with any of these (outside of Bass’ magnificent posters), so for me, the gameplay itself reminded me mostly of L.A. Noire, at least in the sense of its procedural structure. Anyone who has played the game will be familiar with the rundown of A Case of Distrust: interview witnesses, ask them questions based on statements or clues found during the course of the investigation, then make an accusation based on the accumulated evidence. It’s not exactly the same, of course; A Case of Distrust doesn’t have the interrogation system, and neither does the player have to discern a suspect’s guilt or innocence from their body language. But generally the gist is very easy to pick up, whether or not you’ve played the game’s peers. The connection between the clues in each environment and their role in later opening up new lines of questioning is intuitive and I found myself engaging on a more proactive level than in many other puzzle-type games I’ve played.
Formatting-wise, the game is immensely charming. Wander did a superb job of coming up with an eclectic aesthetic on such limited resources. While the game is more or less like reading a book, the restrained use of a few slick animations keep the visuals interesting. Not a single page stagnates or feels stale. The music, a light noir-style jazz, supports the simple but stylish presentation, accentuating its minimalist appeal.
Normally when I review a game I might not criticize some of the finer points of the writing, but with A Case of Distrust, the content is more or less a novel, which I feel justifies some of the reservations I have about the text. There are some moments of Malone’s internal monologue that could be refined and improved upon, little areas that might have been written differently if Ben Wander had been raised as a woman. I think Malone shows a certain hyperawareness of her gender and its associated inequalities in a way that perhaps even the most socially conscious women rarely do. For example, in one scene, she observes a superior at the police station, and wonders to herself when women might ever get the opportunity to be in such a position. Speaking as a highly visible feminist woman in a male dominated field, I confess that thought rarely passes through my head in that particularly direct format. A better way to write that moment might have been to display the stark contrast between the skills and capabilities of Malone, compared to the mediocrity or ineptitude of her male peers, and let the reader realize, for themselves, that she is more than suitable to serve in a position of authority among or above her colleagues. To borrow an old literary cliche, it boils down to show vs. tell. There are better ways to illustrate the inner conflict of a person of marginalized identity as they navigate their struggles.
But while the effort is not flawless, it is honest, and enjoyable, not to mention a bit refreshing. As a fellow history junkie (Wander cites a passion for early American history as a source of inspiration for the game), I enjoyed having the opportunity to see details about the era laid out in a context illustrating the deft social ecosystem of what daily life would be like in 1924. It’s very effective at reinforcing the material and committing the facts to memory. The game is a bit too short (the big reveal is never given a chance to really build to its full effect), and I feel it ended a bit abruptly, but after the credits as the events came to a close, I was intrigued by the hint at a later installment. In A Case of Distrust, the verdict is in: guilty of being an enjoyable game.
A Case of Distrust was developed by The Wandering Ben and published by Serenity Forge. Our review is based on the PC version. It is available on Steam.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.