In entertainment there exists a genre that I like to call “era porn,” what a less profane critic might refer to as a “historical period drama.” Birthed on the stage and in film, and reborn in the gritty cable television renaissance, it’s a type of fiction that relies heavily on the public’s nostalgia for an idealized, and usually highly stylized, depiction of the past. But from that rose colored lens can come an honest appreciation that leads to thoughtful deconstruction of the contemporary cultural parallels between the past and present. In the 1920s-set A Case of Distrust, the story of women’s liberation is as relevant now as it was then. And that’s why games designer Ben Wander wants to tell it.
When Ben Wander stepped away from a successful career in AAA development, leaving his position as Lead Systems Designer at Visceral Games after many years in the industry, it was to pursue the stories that big studios avoided. He didn’t want to tell a story about saving the world, but rather the individual struggles of ordinary people. But he also wanted to portray an era of American history he’d been interested in since at least high school—the Roaring ‘20s. A few years before even starting the game, he pored over the articles, essays and images at the free online compilation by America in Class, Becoming Modern, “just for the fun of it.” He later decided to set a game during the period because of its immense storytelling potential, forming the basis for A Case of Distrust, a noir-style mystery starring a female detective, Phyllis Cadence Malone.
He explains, “I don’t really adjust anything from the period, just present it with a contemporary perspective. Many of our contemporary cultural and political issues are mirrored in the ‘20s: young adults rebelling from their parents by listening to jazz and attending ‘petting’ parties, new technology disrupted social norms, like the automobile. A federal law prohibiting sale of a drug (alcohol) even as much of society ignores those same rules. And, of course, the emancipation movement with the first women voters and smokers, wearing their hair short, proudly joining the workforce, but still hitting strong barriers, [like being] less socially equal to men than the law might claim. All of these themes easily resonate.”
While conducting his research, a sentiment Wander encountered frequently was that women were equal in rights but not in social stature (which, he adds, resonated deeply as he was writing the game during the 2016 Presidential election). He was particularly struck by the words of women’s rights activist Carrie Chapman Catt, who in 1927 said, “When and if a woman is as well qualified as a man to fill a position, she shall have an equal and unprejudiced chance to secure it”. He says, “As I was re-reading Dashiell Hammett and William Chandler, I couldn’t help but wonder, how would the lives of their main characters change if their main characters were women?” From there, the game’s lead character Phyllis Cadence Malone naturally emerged.
To write Phyllis Malone, Wander drew from the experiences of Amelia Earhart, but also was heavily inspired by Alice Stebbins Wells, the first American policewoman in the United States, who served in San Francisco from 1910-1940, even writing a chance encounter with her into the game. “Wells was in San Francisco in 1912, reciting her lecture ‘The Need of a Policewoman and Her Work’— which would have been the perfect time for fourteen-year-old Malone to have a conversation in the park with Wells that would change her life forever,” he hints.
In order to create a game almost entirely on his own, Wander had to pick up a number of new skills. The game was initially built in Twine, but with, as Wander says, “ a pseudo-scripting language inside Twine that only my game can interpret.” The visuals and audio, meanwhile, are powered by Unity. As for the aesthetic, Wander took cues first from the poster art of Saul Bass, favoring the simple, bold cutouts and imitating them to create the game’s sense of style. But he also turned to Hotel Dusk: Room 215, taking inspiration from its pseudo-static character art and adding just enough animation to the stationary silhouettes to flavor the game’s text based format.
To achieve this, Wander reached out to a friend in the Toronto theater scene and had her record real actors, whose videos he then broke down into a few simple stills that could be imbued with motion. Wander explains, “The actors have to really exaggerate their faces because the visual style only shows their eyebrows, nose and mouth. Once I’ve found the sections of video I want, I’ll go through them frame-by-frame, selecting about six frames for each expression. Painting over them just involves using Photoshop’s pen tool to get smooth lines, then importing a PNG into Unity. The process takes a couple days for each actor. Of course, when your actor doesn’t keep still, like our cat, it can be more challenging!”
Wander says that for all the work he’s put into A Case of Distrust, one of the biggest challenges was actually maintaining a positive attitude in the face of the self doubt and imposter syndrome. “Six months after I’d started, I realized I still hadn’t found the fun in my game. After working long hours on programming and writing and art and design, I felt I’d yet to achieve anything. I was dejected. I still look back on it as motivation— knowing those moments will pass, and knowing that, if I’m driven to create something great, I will.”
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer living in Seattle, WA. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.