From Tex Murphy to Grim Fandango and L.A. Noire to Her Story, detective fiction is a genre that video games have long—but infrequently—explored, with varying degrees of success. The intricacies of real detective work—of different personalities, each with their own lives, backgrounds, and motives—makes the genre a laborious task for developers to explore in any comprehensive manner. With A Case of Distrust, former Visceral Games developer Ben Wander has undertaken that task, and the result is an intricate and eloquent narrative experience, flawed by the limits of the medium.
Players control Phyllis Cadence Malone, a private investigator and former San Francisco Police Department officer following in the footsteps of her late uncle, a famed officer in the department. Approached regarding a threatening and suspicious letter, Malone is forced to use her expertise to discover the truth behind the letter and, in doing so, enters the startling and multifaceted crime world of San Francisco. While the characters often fall into stereotypes of the 1920s, ranging from friendly bartenders to humourless criminals, they are typically well-written and provide great insight into the game’s universe. The character of Malone—a strong and determined woman stuck in a man’s world—often touches on the inequitable conditions of the time without allowing gender issues to overpower the narrative, instead opting to power through and focus on the case at hand—an admirable quality that makes her one of the strongest protagonists in video games.
Wander has cited the detective fiction novels of Raymond Chandler (The Little Sister, The Long Goodbye) and Dashiell Hammett (The Thin Man, Red Harvest) as inspiration for the game’s narrative, and the influence is clear; Wander’s brilliantly crafted narrative has the quality of a novel, with eloquent language that accurately explores the human mind. Even without voice acting, players will find themselves deeply immersed in the story—in no small part by the narrative, spectacularly supported by the game’s surprisingly complex mechanics.
A Case of Distrust employs standard point-and-click gameplay, whereby the player selects items of interest and the game provides a brief description that is added to Malone’s notebook. This gameplay mechanic is expertly taught to the player in the game’s opening moments in a hilariously low-pressure situation, and the tutorial is so smoothly implemented it is nearly imperceptible. A similar mechanic is used during conversations, often providing several dialogue options for the player to determine the flow and outcome of the conversation. A subtle but effective usage of the dialogue system is in the taxis between locations; by choosing to participate in conversation with the driver, the player is provided with a deeper look at Malone’s personal life and views, and while the chats are typically irrelevant to the overall story and investigation, they allow the player insight into the unseen aspects of A Cast of Distrust’s world.
The game world itself is a beautifully dramatised version of 1920s San Francisco, utilising a gorgeous 2D art technique reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s distinct style. Wander has cited the recognisable poster designs of Saul Bass as a major influence of the art style, which shines throughout the entire game, giving the environments a distinct and unforgettable look that truly captures the period. Even more reflective of the period is the game’s music, designed by Mark “Marowi” Wilson: an alluring medley of slow jazz music that provides deeper immersion into the atmosphere of the 1920s.
Unfortunately, full immersion is not quite achieved in A Case of Distrust—a flaw that can only truly be blamed on the medium in general. While viewers and readers of film, television, and books view their respective stories from an external view of a specific character or group, the interactive element of video games requires developers to manually explore, write, and implement every possible choice and dialogue option, and the project would likely never release—or remain locked in development hell—as a result. Often while interviewing suspects, the player may find themselves interested in asking a question about a certain piece of evidence, potentially relevant to the case or not; however, the game ultimately decides which evidence can be discussed, and any topics that avoid immediate narrative progression are avoided. Furthermore, asking the same questions multiple times lacks consequence, which would certainly not be the case in a real scenario. Ultimately, these flaws are due to the limits of the medium, as immersion is unachievable for such small independent developers. Nevertheless, A Case of Distrust manages to engage players into the game’s world and narrative very effectively, with a plethora of different choices and outcomes.
With A Case of Distrust, developer Ben Wander takes players on an intriguing narrative experience, with complex characters and intricate gameplay cleverly accompanied by a beautiful art style and charming soundtrack. For his first game as an independent developer, Wander has knocked it out of the park. For any fans of narrative games, or detective fiction in general, A Case of Distrust is a must play.