A Case Of Distrust: The History Behind The Indie Mystery Game

A Case of Distrust Cat

The narrative mystery game A Case of Distrust, which comes to Steam this week, places players in the role of private investigator Phyllis Cadence Malone. Set in San Francisco in 1924, this ambient noir point-and-click lets you piece together clues for the case by exploring speakeasies, looking for clues, prodding persons of interest to see whose stories match up.

The game is the passion project of indie dev Ben Wander, previously an engineer and designer with studios including BioWare, Visceral and EA Mobile. We first saw A Case Of Distrust at E3 last June and came away impressed with its attentive eye to period details and social issues, an extension of Wander’s interest in the era.

"The 1920s -- and mysteries in general -- have always been really fascinating to me. Before I even thought about making this game, I started reading books that took place in that era. I took an online course,” said Wander. “It was about two and a half years ago that I left Visceral Games. I thought: what is it that I want to make? What do I want to say with the next thing that I put out, that'll have to be on my own? It just sort of came naturally. I don’t think there are enough mystery games. I don't think there are enough video games set in the 1920s. Why not make that game?”

Noir influences, including Chinatown, The Long Goodbye and the fictions of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, weave into the texture of the game. Dramatic shadows slice through monochrome scenery. Tucked away in the corner of the detective’s office, keen-eyed players will spot a small Maltese Falcon statuette. Elsewhere, Phyllis broods over a stiff drink in a basement dive, before going to question a source who’s loopy on laudanum.

Wander’s research encompassed everything from the broad to the specific, from histories of the NYPD to days spent exploring the historical archives of the San Francisco Public Library. "There's a lot that goes into writing a story that you'll never see,” he told Player.One with a laugh.

Small details create a sense of historical accuracy, and Wander was concerned even a small inconsistency could yank players right out of the experience. "I found out the rearview mirror wasn't standard in cars until about the mid-thirties,” he said, explaining that the mirrors were around at the time as optional add-ons, but not yet in widespread use. “There was a line that said, ‘He looked at me through the rearview.' But people would have no idea what this was back then. So I specifically took out that line.”

While history buffs will find a lot to chew on in A Case Of Distrust, storytelling takes priority. Interactive objects and optional conversations sprinkled throughout the game enrich immersion and atmosphere, without coming across as assertively educational.

“With a game, and especially with the choices that you have in this game, you can choose to skip over stuff or dive deeper into what you want to see,” Wander told Player.One. “I find it really interesting to learn about something while I'm having fun, while I'm enjoying myself. More games should take a look at our history and try to go backwards in time, rather than to a fantastical place.”

A Case Of Distrust subtly draws connective threads between the cultural debates of the twenties and today, particularly regarding issues surrounding social equality and vice. Bootlegging, women’s suffrage and racial prejudice are central to the plot and the motivations of its characters. “There are themes from that era that translate really easily to modern society without me really having to point that hard at them,” Wander explained.  

Still, Wander doesn’t shy away from evoking recent events they pertain to the overall themes of A Case of Distrust. "There's this one line I had written as, 'Maybe in a hundred years a woman could be president. But not now.' Then our election turned out in a way that I didn't think it would, so I changed the line to 'Not even in a hundred years would there be a woman who could be president.' Little things like that, I think, really connect that period with our own,” he elaborated.

With one corker of a case under her belt, will P.C. Malone be back for more? Wander says he’d be open to the idea -- but not until after he’s enjoyed some hard-earned downtime. "I spent months and months and months researching each character, getting inspiration from various real-life people, writing a whole bunch of backstory ... It would be a shame to throw it away. I would like to revisit it at some point. There is an arc of stories that I've thought about doing,” he said. “But, for now, I'd just... like to breathe.”

A Case Of Distrust will be available on Steam for PC and Mac on Feb. 8. 

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