A Case of Distrust
The Wandering Ben
February 8, 2018
Sidequest was provided with a copy of A Case of Distrust for PC in exchange for a fair and honest review.
I love a good detective game. It was often my genre of choice when I was a kid, mainly because point-and-click adventure games were pretty ubiquitous in the 90s, but also because they personally appeal to me as a curious but also a dark person. I am kind of obsessed with true crime (thanks, Forensic Files), and often listen to true crime podcasts when playing games, the irony of listening about real murders while often committing fake ones not lost on me. I’m also a big fan of fictional mystery series, as my Netflix queue and Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze review can attest. All that aside, there’s just something about piecing together a story out of a series of clues, from things you found in the environment to the things that people say (or don’t say) that I find very appealing, and I love using the part of my brain that solving a mystery requires. So when I saw new indie game A Case of Distrust was up for review, I knew I had to try it.
A Case of Distrust is a stylized, noir-infused narrative game about P.C. Malone, a former policewoman turned private detective in 1920s San Francisco. Business hasn’t been booming (this is a noir, after all, and a gritty noir detective can never be the most successful) and with few prospects, P.C. decides to take the case of a brash, hot-headed gangster who has received a death threat and is looking to find out who it’s from. Of course, nothing is as it seems in this case, and eventually P.C. ends up with a body on her hands. It’s your job as the player to solve the crime.
The gameplay is fairly simple—P.C. can look closer at designated objects in background scenes, talk to people, and ask them about things other people have said or things she has found. The more you interact with people and the environment, the longer your list of clues gets. You can then use your notes to ask characters about objects you’ve found or statements other people have made.
The game is really a test of how well you can sort large amounts of information, because there is a lot that is irrelevant and the only way to find out what you need is by asking about it. Sometimes this is obvious, but a lot of the time it isn’t. What you get is an ever-increasing list of clues and statements that gets harder to sort through the further along you get in the case, which could have been streamlined. A way to keep track of things I had already asked, or a system similar to the one in Miss Fisher and the Deathly Maze, where you could make connections between evidence and statements to create new clues, would have gone a long way to help. Even a feature where I could move clues and statements into a separate list labeled “not relevant/useful” would have helped make the investigation system more enjoyable and user-friendly.
This is a problem I have with most detective games, not just A Case of Distrust—either the player gets info-dumps or too little information, making the game less of a challenge. To be a really successful detective game, there needs to be a very delicate balance of information giving, and tools given to the player to help them figure out what’s pertinent. This is not just an indie game thing, either—I had the exact same problem with the investigative elements of 2010’s Heavy Rain, where I felt overwhelmed with information. And, because it’s a much longer game than A Case of Distrust, it mattered a lot more that I wasn’t able to solve the case with what was given to me.
The main question I had regarding the narrative when starting A Case of Distrust was “will this game parrot bad noir tropes, or will it challenge them?” For the most part, I think it fell into the latter camp. The decision to make the detective a woman definitely went a long way in accomplishing that, but this a very politically astute game in general. This isn’t something I always liked about it while playing (particularly the very on-the-nose “the 1920s are just like now” moments), but there is a depth of self awareness to A Case of Distrust that does set it apart from a lot of other games. For example, there is a moment where #MeToo is explicitly referenced, and in a way that makes sense. I personally found it took me more out of the game than enhanced the experience, but not everyone might feel that way. While the plot does rehash some well-trodden noir staples—secret identities, torrid romantic affairs, gangsters, et cetera—there are enough twists to keep it interesting.
Like most noir, though, the game is still overwhelmingly populated by white characters. For the few people of colour there were, it does acknowledge the racial tensions of the time and makes that something that influences how characters behave. They are still the most minor characters in the game though, and do feel a bit tokenized. The game could have done more in that regard, and it was a bit of a disappointment given how self aware the game is about other things, like sexism and classism.
At some points in the game, there were gaps in what I could ask about in the investigation. For example, once there’s a murder to investigate, you’re given a few details from the coroner’s report and that’s all you have to go on. You don’t get to see the body or even the complete coroner’s report, nor do you get to go to the location the body was found. This felt like a pretty major oversight in the story—sure, P.C. is not able to see the body because she’s no longer part of the police force, but the scant information she gets from a friend there who does have access to the coroner’s report did not feel like enough. And let’s be real, not being part of the police has never stopped a fictional private detective from getting the information that they want if they’re willing to bend the rules and do a little manipulation/breaking and entering. And she could definitely go to the crime scene regardless. If I felt like this omission was intentional and served some kind of purpose I could get behind it, but it really just felt like you were skipping important steps in the investigation more than anything else.
In all, I mostly enjoyed A Case of Distrust, though a little bit more fine-tuning of the mechanics would go a long way to make it a more successful detective game. I managed to figure out whodunnit in the end, but all the back and forth it took to get there was too frustrating to make me truly love the experience. I enjoyed being P.C. Malone, and the ending does a good job of setting up more to come. It’s intrigued me enough that if there are going to be more episodes of this game, I am still interested in playing them.