A Case Of Distrust E3 Preview: An Indie Noir Mystery Bursting With Smarts And Style

Your kitty confidant in A Case of Distrust
Your kitty confidant in A Case of Distrust The Wandering Ben

My experience with A Case Of Distrust at E3 started off as more “survival horror” than noir mystery. I weaved awkwardly past hordes of slavering neckbeards at the Call Of Duty booth -- an elbow to the boob here, a backpack in the face there -- determined to get some time with this story-driven indie game about a detective in Prohibition-era San Francisco. And it was damn well worth it.

Brought to life by developer Ben Wander, our hero is a former San Francisco cop turned private investigator, Phyllis Cadence Malone. As the story opens, we find her in a reflective mood in her office. She got into this gig in the hope of helping people, but has found herself stuck churning through one “thankless adultery case” after the other. And who can blame her, really? There are only so many ways a couple can cheat on each other.

Malone's office in A Case of Distrust
Malone's office in A Case of Distrust Ben Wander

It’s a pretty lonely life, and the only pal she can depend on is her cat. (And he just wants to be fed, dammit.) Malone’s starting to ask herself some tough questions about her direction in life. “Is this life worth what I’ve given up?,” she wonders. That is, until a sketchy acquaintance shows up at her door, dropping some tips about a bootlegging operation. Despite her misgivings, her thirst for real intrigue and justice wins out.

Wander cites games like Phoenix Wright and the Jules Verne-inspired 80 Days as inspirations, and while the inheritance to those games is visible, A Case Of Distrust has a vivid, resonant visual style all its own. Each character and location has it’s own distinct monochrome palette. Clarence Green, the guy who presents you with the bootlegging info, is rendered in a crisp apple green, all eyebrows and sly grin.

A Case Of Distrust’s gameplay is pretty straightforward. You progress through the game by examining clues in various locations to add entries to your notebook. Some objects offer details about the mystery you’re working to unravel, others offer insight into Malone’s backstory and motivations. Even in my brief demo, I found myself clicking on every object I could; this game had no trouble drawing me into its world and characters in short order.

You’ll need to refer back to these written records later to contradict potential suspects or catch someone in a lie. The opening moments of the game quite cleverly introduce this mechanic, requiring you to “prove” to your cat that there’s no tasty morsels waiting for him in the icebox.

The moment that really hooked me in the demo came just before the end, as Malone grabs a taxi to head to a speakeasy in the guise of a coffee shop. As you make your way there, you’re prompted with the option to take a look at a discarded newspaper sitting on the seat. The article describes a reaction to then-President Calvin Coolidge’s immigration policy, advocating an “America-first” vision for the country that explicitly links that vision of national identity with whiteness and Christianity. This wasn’t a fictionalization; my “oh shit” reaction prompted Wander to inform me this snippet came from an actual news article contemporaneous with the game’s setting. I'm excited to see more of the connective threads this mystery draws between America in the 1920s and the present day.

Even though I only saw a brief portion of the story, A Case Of Distrust impressed me with its nuanced, careful construction of its milieu and characters, and the resonant comparisons it draws with the world of today. My early look at the game hinted at a lot of care, depth and complexity beneath this aesthetically straightforward (if impeccably stylish) point-and-click adventure.

A Case Of Distrust heads to PC and Mac via Steam later this year. You can check out the game’s announcement trailer below.

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