A Case of Distrust
Sometimes you can arrange for good things to happen, and other times they just kind of fall into your lap. Such was the case with indie adventure A Case of Distrust, which I didn’t plan on seeing at E3 but came across in a stroke of luck. It’s a stylish noir detective story set in 1924 San Francisco by developer Ben Wander, who puts his own spin on the noir theme, setting it apart from other thematically similar games.
The first thing you will notice about the game is its distinctive graphical style, which takes inspiration from the work of early twentieth century artist Saul Bass. Many of the visuals consist of silhouetted locales set against colored backgrounds, like a cross-section of the environment, as seen through the protagonist's eyes (more or less). Moving the cursor over an object highlights it if it’s interactive; in that manner, this is a point-and-click game of sorts. However, it eschews the traditional item collection and inventory puzzles found in many of its contemporaries. Instead, it plays out as an interactive novel, with evidence to gather and statements to contradict.
A Case of Distrust indulges players who are interested in a leisurely-paced experience. Everything you click on prompts text to be displayed on-screen, sometimes just short flavor passages, other times more elaborate pieces of backstory. Within this text, further branching choices allow you to delve deeper, or simply ignore them and move on. Even when presenting evidence, each wrong selection elicits a unique response, some of them quite humorous.
Everything is written in a consistent tone, congruous with the era. Ben admitted to having an unhealthy obsession with the 1920s, and this game is full of synchronous references to the politics, technology and state of the world at the time. For example, a taxi ride late in the demo involved a conversation with the cab driver about the dangers of the fledgling automobile industry (one of many pre-programmed conversations chosen at random for this scene).
The majority of the demo featured protagonist Phyllis Malone (a play on the name of classic gumshoe Philip Marlowe) attempting to prove to her ravenous cat that there is no food in the house. This requires searching the rooms and presenting the feline sufficient evidence that the cupboards truly are bare. It’s a playful way to introduce the mechanics of gathering and presenting evidence. The fact that the lead character is a female, in a male-dominated profession at a time when women were fighting for equal rights, plays a big role in how the story unfolds. Other hot-button issues of the period like prohibition, racial prejudice, and technological mistrust are also frequently referenced. Despite its playful demo, A Case of Distrust is meant to be a thoughtful game.
The demo ended before the case got going in earnest, but Ben was willing to let slip that the game’s mystery, like all good mysteries, is much deeper than it seems at first. Just when exactly A Case of Distrust will be finished is unclear, though Ben estimates it will be sometime this year. He’s aiming for a release for Windows and Mac when the time is right.
There are two kinds of adventures: those that bring the whole family together with a fun, friendly experience, and those that know their target demographic and aim straight for the mature bullseye. >observer_ is one of the latter, pulling me into its E3 show floor station purely based on the way it looked from a distance. In a word, the look it goes for is dark.
Developed by Bloober Team, the indie team previously known for their Layers of Fear titles, the game is a first-person cyberpunk horror title set in Poland, 2084. The protagonist Daniel Lazarski is one of the titular Observers, corporate-funded police investigators specializing in hacking into people’s minds. The nanophage, a digital plague caused by technological body augmentations, has wiped out a large percentage of citizens. Those who have survived live in widespread poverty, and it is this remnant that Observers must deal with.
As the game opens, Daniel has discovered a mutilated body in a bad part of town, and has entered a dilapidated apartment building in search of clues to the murderer. Equipped with specialized electromagnetic and biometric scanners, the Observer can scan for clues invisible to the naked eye. Following a tip, you make your way to a certain apartment. The atmosphere is grim and disturbing, the kind that makes one expect a screaming maniac or drug-addled psychopath to come charging out of a door at any minute. Other apartments line the building’s hallways, and you can knock on the doors to get some kind of response, but most citizens are suspicious of Observers, and some will react with outright hostility. The game does have several available side missions for those willing to go off the beaten path and explore.
Once inside the right apartment, having to gain entry by force, Daniel discovers a dying man propped up against the tub in a filthy bathroom. He can’t speak, at least not in any coherent manner, but the chip embedded in his brain might have some answers. The Observer unfurls a plug, and, after at least getting the dying man’s nonverbal consent, jacks it into the back of his skull. Instantly, he is transported to a virtual nightmare world which he must travel through and survive, making sense of a dying man’s disjointed thoughts.
It’s an incredibly creepy experience: menacing imagery everywhere, doors open and close on their own, rooms change and furniture shifts when your back is turned. I solved a puzzle that required me to choose the correct exit from a sequence of rooms that have several doors. Imagine the psychological horror of Freddy Krueger, jacked into the Matrix. By the time I neared the end of the demo, a slow and steady thumping noise was becoming more and more insistent the closer it got. Eventually, I found myself trapped in a room whose walls would shake as whatever nightmare creature was causing the threatening footfall stomps must have been right outside of it. The demo ended without giving me any answers, just before the giant evil revealed itself, leaving me hungry for more.
Fortunately, we won’t have to wait too long to experience what >observer_ has in store. The game should be released before the end of summer, and will be available for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.Continued on the next page...