A statuette is the first thing that clues me in to this game’s smarts. It’s a bird of prey, maybe 10 inches tall. It sits on the bookshelf in a young woman’s apartment. She’s a detective living in San Francisco in 1924. She’s also the protagonist of A Case of Distrust.
Her apartment is rendered in two-dimensional silhouettes. I can click on things — a pile of newspapers, a refrigerator, a cat — but the statue catches my eye.
Text in the tec’s voice tells me about the bird. Turns out, it has nothing to do with the murder mystery that’s about to unfold. It’s just a knickknack she’s picked up. But you and I both know that it’s that icon of noir, that majestic MacGuffin, the Maltese Falcon.
This is the sort of in-joke that makes A Case of Distrust one of the best narrative adventure games I’ve ever played. It’s a layered historical drama that slides you onto a barstool, pours you a stiff tarantula juice and tells its story with panache.
Our hero is an ex-cop, down on her luck. A client comes a-calling. He’s a low-grade bootlegger who claims the Black Hand boys are threatening his juice, see? And sister, he needs a way out.
The setup’s a cliché, but that’s how they roll in the world of noir. The steak soon starts to sizzle. As she pieces together clues, the gumshoe visits various haunts to talk to a cast of characters.
These characters are also presented as lightly animated silhouettes (rotoscoped from videotaped actors). They each offer a few facial expressions, but somehow manage way more emotional range than the most motion-capped movie star you’ve ever seen.
Dialogue trees walk me through the tale. My choices come down to basic responses to the chitchat. Conversations and clues are recorded in a diary, which I can use as a questioning device, highlighting pieces of evidence.
I move from speakeasy to jazz club to cop shop to racecourse, interrogating my marks. A beautifully sordid soundtrack accompanies me through the foggy alleyways and sodden hooch houses.
As I build my case, new pieces of information send me back to the gangsters, molls, dirty cops and dancing girls I’ve encountered along the way, ironing out the lies and homing in on the solution.
Memorable characters try to give me the brush-off, but I’ve got all the angles. In taxicabs, I flap my gums at the drivers. They pass the (loading screen) time by talking about politics, sports, movies, radio shows, all of which envelop me in a rich sense of time and place.
At three hours long, A Case of Distrust held my attention all the way, but that’s not to say it’s without imperfections. The main character, I think, lacks the energy of her associates. She’s rightly angry about how she was treated as a woman on the force, but her feminism falls somewhere between overly earnest and glib. Despite a strong backstory, she lacks emotional force and presence.
Even so, this is a damned fine game. Murder-mystery books and TV shows can sometimes feel like a bit of a chore, rolling through familiar procedures as they wend their way toward the whodunit.
It’s a sign of the times that a point-and-click dialogue tree narrative adventure gives flight to a genre that’s been so thoroughly tilled in other media. I’m looking forward to playing more games like A Case of Distrust.