An adventure game about a private eye in Prohibition-era San Francisco, A Case of Distrust is a well-written noir mystery featuring perhaps the best-named P.I. of all time.
A Case of Distrust is a hip flask of homemade hooch; cheap, but stronger than you expected. I played it on a rickety old machine during a long train ride and spent the return journey just thinking about it. The game was developed by Ben Wander, who worked in AAA games from 2009 to 2015, when he left to found his own indie studio, The Wandering Ben. The mandate of that studio, according to its website, is to “create narrative adventures in settings less-explored by large studios, focusing on individuals rather than world-saving.” Mission firmly accomplished, I’d say. But what Ben has also managed to come up with is, and I say this with complete certainty, the greatest private eye name in the history of fiction.
Phyllis Cadence Malone. Just say it a few times – preferably out loud. Imagine introducing yourself as Phyllis Cadence Malone. Nobody would ever need any more information than that. She’s an ex-cop turned P.I. in Prohibition-era San Francisco. I mean, of course she is. She’s Phyllis Cadence Malone. How could she be anything else?
Malone has a new case. A local bootlegger is receiving death threats and wants to hire her to prove they’re being sent by a rival wrong-‘un to interfere with his new smuggling gig. The cast is all archetypes. There’s an easy-going bartender in the local speakeasy, and a career-cop in the precinct that’ll do an old friend a solid, no questions asked. When someone dies, which is fairly early in an already-short story, his widow drinks herself quiet. The neighborhood kingpin employs sultry lounge singers and black musicians who will keep his secrets. When he needs an alibi, they were all together, shooting pool and playing cards until the wee hours.
A Case of Distrust uses its setting and genre to tell a story and craft a game around it, but they’re mostly the same thing. This is an adventure title in some sense, but there aren’t any puzzles other than identifying the next hard-bitten line of dialogue that’ll move the story along. You gather evidence by clicking on things in each room. Stuff that yields a clue highlights when you mouse over it, so you never have to poke around too much. You take statements from people of interest. Present them with the right information, and new avenues in the investigation open up. Malone scribbles everything in her notebook; her handwriting is reminiscent of Cole Phelps, the ostensible hero in another period gumshoe game which could have learned a thing or two about minimalism from this one. In A Case of Distrust, that notebook is the only tool the player is ever given – and the only one they need.
It looks lovely, too. Each screen is a block of papery color, silhouettes of objects and people giving it a shape. When you move from one scene to another, a stylish transition folds the world up and slips it aside; when it unfurls you’re somewhere else. Often, you’re in a taxi – Malone takes them everywhere. The drivers don’t just ferry you from one location to another, but fill in the details of a 1920s America that is still reeling from the Great War. They fret over immigration, marvel at advances in transportation, and rant about political scandals and baseball bet-fixing. It might be the trappings and conventions of classic noir that give A Case of Distrust its shape, but it’s these go-nowhere slice-of-life conversations with cabmen that give it texture.
Malone herself seems somewhat immune to the excitement and possibilities of the era. You can color her worldview with branching dialogue options, but if she wasn’t cynical and world-weary, could she really call herself Phyllis Cadence Malone? Besides, she needs to fit snugly into the P.I. archetype so that A Case of Distrust can occasionally subvert it. See, Malone’s a woman in a man’s world. When she first meets with her new client, the guy’s wife follows her to a nearby bar and accuses her of being his mistress. You have to produce a contradictory piece of evidence to prove her wrong; it’s a tutorial, obviously, but one that effectively highlights the casual sexism of the day.
If it’s disappointing how blasé Malone is about all this, it’s probably because you’re used to more explicit present-day parallels. That she’s jaded and pragmatic is most of the point here, and nothing about her character feels lost when she elects not to monologue at length about how discrimination makes her feel. (A Case of Distrust is refreshingly economical with its writing, which is probably why it’s only three hours long.) The game presents her as shrewd and determined from the outset; that she stays the course and isn’t flustered by every snide remark and belittling action is comment enough.
The slightness here doesn’t matter either. The mystery, for all its clichés, is engaging and satisfying but feels better for having the confidence to get out of its own way. The stylish presentation helps. A Case of Distrust is a constant pleasure to look at, evocative and atmospheric in how it’s written and presented. It didn’t need to be any longer, or even, I’d suggest, any fuller with things to do.
The problems are predictable. In interviews, it’s often unclear exactly which piece of information the game would like you to use in order to make a point, even though several would do. Cycling programmatically through lines in Malone’s notebook is hardly engaging, especially when it takes one or two clicks too many to select the next item. The character explicitly presented as a useful tipster offered me nothing useful throughout the entire game. And at one point I’d progressed so far into the story without triggering one specific dialogue option that characters were openly discussing a plot revelation that the game technically hadn’t recognized as a revelation yet.
Still, these are minor criticisms that don’t really take much away from the pleasures of A Case of Distrust. It’s a modest game, but a compelling and well-made one, and if you find yourself with a few quid in your pocket and a couple of hours to spare, there are certainly worse ways to spend your money and time.