A Case of Distrust feels like a detective novel in videogame form

After so many years of text adventures languishing in relative obscurity, it’s great to see them start getting more attention thanks to works like 80 Days, Subsurface Circular, and more. Most of the recent examples excelled because of how they used the form in new and fascinating ways to help tell their stories, something that Twine games have been doing for years to great effect. A Case of Distrust is much the same, but it’s also one that feels similar to traditional point-and-click adventures in some ways.

A Case of Distrust is a detective game from developer Ben Wander that, according to the game’s website, takes inspiration from the works of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. It’s a stylish, exceptionally written game that seamlessly blends modern text adventures and classic point-and-click games to create a strong take on detective games and interactive fiction.

You play as Phyllis Malone, a private investigator who’s approached by a local bootlegger to investigate a threat on his life, only to then become embroiled in a murder case at the local speakeasy. What begins as as simple case soon transforms into a dramatic, complex web of events as Malone runs all around San Francisco piecing together what happened.

Set in the 1920s, A Case of Distrust draws heavily from events and the general political climate of the era. The prohibition on alcohol plays a key role in the story, with things like suffrage, racism, and more coming up here and there as well. They aren’t brought up merely as props, however, but as an attempt to paint a picture of what life was like in that era. Most of these touches are tucked away in the chats you can have with cab drivers while in transit between locales — understandable, really, given how hard it would be to naturally strike up conversations about, say, the ills of capitalism or the state of the current baseball scandal mid-interrogation — but they’re a nice touch all the same.

While moving around, the game assumes a more traditional point-and-click flair, presenting a snapshot of each locale — a bar, a barber shop, an apartment, etc. — and allowing you to examine objects for clues. The majority of the game is spent in conversation, though, wherein it takes on a more Twine-like appearance — text-parser on the left, characters on the right — as you question suspects, gather statements, and occasionally expose lies via contradictions.

The process of deducing lies is a simple matter of contradicting testimony, but the game is quick to show that just because you can contradict someone doesn’t mean you should; or rather, that there’s anything to contradict at all. At first I figured every time the prompt appeared it meant they were hiding something. After all, usually games don’t provide an option like that without reason. There were many instances where I merely didn’t have the evidence I needed at first, so I often thought I just had to find something. But sometimes, no matter how flimsy someone’s story sounds, it’s evidently true. The game never explicitly makes it clear when you should or shouldn’t challenge suspects, leaving it to you to figure out whether the person is lying or not.

That’s part of what makes playing A Case of Distrust so thrilling. It doesn’t trivialize the process, nor does it make it too opaque. Too often adventure games can fall into the trap of making it’s challenges, whatever they may be, too difficult. Whether that’s due to obscure logic, or simply not doing a good job of guiding the player toward the answer, it’s frustrating. A Case of Distrust avoids this by subtly leaving obvious hints in Malone’s observations. What might look like a nondescript bottle of alcohol could actually reveal an important detail if used on the right person. It forced me to be proactive in my thinking, as I couldn’t just blindly follow along and let the game do all the heavy lifting for me.

Usually I find myself able to follow along just enough to pick up on what I should be doing to move the story along, but not enough to be able to actively deduce anything along the way. Maybe it’s because those games didn’t do a good enough job of leaving clues to pick up on or maybe I’m just bad at this kind of thing generally. Whatever the case, in A Case of Distrust at least, I was able to keep up with the game and figure out how to progress through my own deductions rather than trying things at random, as I so often feel forced to do.

But as enthralling as the actual detective work is, it’s the writing and characters that shine brightest. A Case of Distrust would be nothing without all the excellent writing throughout. Malone’s narration captures the tone of a classic mystery novel, which is complemented nicely by the stylish Saul Bass-inspired art, making the game feel like a detective novel in videogame form. Given the game’s aspirations, I can’t think of a higher compliment.