The noir scene of old San Francisco is a setting we usually don’t see too often in gaming. There was L.A, Noire by Rockstar, which satisfies those tastes, but other than that no titles in that period containing quality writing exist. That all ends with A Case of Distrust, a new narrative adventure that sees an edgy female detective take on the world of masochistic bootleggers and so called honorable cops. This adventure consistently felt fresh, and the way I interacted with this new world made A Case of Distrust a joy to navigate.
Starting in the apartment of your female detective, A Case of Distrust begins by warming you up to both its world and the many mechanics you’ll encounter within in it. Not much can be told from the first hour of a game, and that fact is even more true when playing something as exposition-heavy as a narrative adventure, but A Case of Distrust truly did show its worth within minutes. The tutorial for the main mechanic of the game was done expertly. That mechanic, interviewing potential suspects or eye witnesses, meant using textual clues to incite questions and answers. Where other games in the genre might’ve gone with a long form page of text explaining the process, A Case of Distrust used a cat to mirror what you’d find in the rest of the game. This tutorial, made comical by the situation of interrogating an animal, was interesting and taught me everything I needed to know about what I’d find later in the game. It’s tutorials like this that I point to every time I run across the oppositely crafted complicated piece of gameplay teaching. The mechanic it taught me was central to the loop A Case of Distrust offered up.
That may sound odd, because as far as narrative adventures go, you often find they’re less about mechanics and more about story. While reading text is the only source of communication in A Case of Distrust, it’s the detective-like conversations that excite me on my various paths. Every statement a person made, every object found, all were jotted down in my notes. These notes could then be used to contradict and question future suspects. This form of continual clue searching and interrogating meant I felt like I was always solving the case, and more importantly that I didn’t lose interest in paragraphs of text (like some often do with interactive fiction like this). Not only did these clues in your notes make for fun gameplay, they also paved whole new paths for you in the story. If you presented an ashtray randomly in a conversation, you get nowhere. However, point out a specific brand of tonic and you might just find yourself one step away from solving your case.
These tools were used to help me progress through a series of assertions on a handful of objectives. These objectives were all wrapped up in a plot that used speakeasies and bootleggers to its advantage. The 1920s is a particularly cool setting to be digging around in, and the cast of characters you question in A Case of Distrust are written with an eye towards mystique. Finding out their motives kept me driving on a road that endlessly swerved in ways I never thought it would. These surprises in the narrative would’ve been better if I hadn’t wasted so much time going from place to place.
To talk to each one of the suspects I was introduced to, I kept having to switch settings. This would bring up a couple of pages which I felt weren’t really necessary to the story. In all, I’d say I wasted nearly thirty to forty minutes flipping between locations. This was caused by another underlying problem I had with A Case of Distrust: The leaps in logic made solving crimes more frustrating than fun. I’d compare many of the puzzles I encountered to be akin to an old LucasArts adventure title (in the bad way). Whether it was clicking on a wine bottle hidden in the corner of the screen or simply making accusations that made next to no sense, the troubles I had with interacting in this 1920s town made the game’s story feel like a reward for dealing with this uneven logic. Either way, I’m happy I got to experience that story and the writing that came with it. Even more than that, the sound and visuals that assisted the tremendous writing were on key for most of my roughly five hour play time.
The little jingles and wrings that accompanied a toe tapping 20s score set the scene almost better than the writing did (which is saying a lot). That score changed from every setting and ramped up when a conversation was getting heated or some important clue was found. Quite frankly, I don’t think I would have stuck around to see A Case of Distrust develop if it weren’t for these truly inspiring minutes of orchestrated noir-styled notes. To add to that artistic manner, A Case of Distrust uses its crafty visual style to keep your attention. In a world that folds and wrinkles like a kid telling a story with construction paper, you surprisingly get a lot from very little. Animations were just a few frames moving at a time, yet that meshed better with the overall feel of the game so much so that I preferred it over any over the top technical masterpiece. Combined with the music, this style of storytelling is different from what a lot of other visual novels or interactive fiction do.
If I’d say A Case of Distrust was a great video game, I’d be wrong. If this piece of art were able to be framed and put up among some other, more looser categorizations of art, then it’d be up there in terms of non-traditional means of storytelling. It’s not the overall quality of developer The Wandering Ben’s work, instead it’s the way that his levels of visuals, music, and writing combine to form something truly unique. It’s nothing revolutionary, but if I had to stick a few games out there and say these represent the fact that games can be art, A Case of Distrust would surely be in that group. Though the long waiting periods between tense scenes frustrated me, there was little left to nitpick with A Case of Distrust. Its story genuinely interested me, its characters were written with a real sense of the setting, and the way it wove all of these things into a visually and audibly satisfying experience makes it one of the best pieces of interactive fiction that I’ve played in a while. For that, I have no quarrels with giving it a score relative to that amount of quality.
Developer: The Wandering Ben
Publisher: Serenity Forge
Release Date: 8th February 2018