Wireframe

Walking the voxelated city streets in Shadows of Doubt, a fully simulated detective thriller

By Aaron Potter. Posted

The hyper-industrialised, eighties-inspired metropolis your character finds themselves in is full of unsolved mysteries. But that’s OK, because developer ColePowered Games hasn’t managed to solve them, either. Unlike most detective adventures, which lay down a predetermined trail of breadcrumbs to create the illusion of an investigation, in Shadows of Doubt, any clue or hint you piece together is procedurally generated. The only thing players can rely on, as they try to catch a killer on the loose, is their own wit and instinct. This is a game that will truly let them step into the role of a hard-boiled private eye.

Creating a simulated sci-fi noir city – especially one populated by NPCs with their own routines, explorable apartment blocks, and other secrets – is a tall task, and it’s one ColePowered has been hard at work on for almost seven years now. The studio already perfected the art of cityscape building (of a sorts) in 2015’s Concrete Jungle, but giving players a whole randomised world to roam comes with a more complex level of design challenges – not least how to present it.

Shadows actually started life as a top-down detective management game,” explains lead developer Cole Jefferies. “The core of the concept was always the living world; let’s simulate this really cool little city and have things play out according to the AI by having one of them be a serial killer, then it’s your job as player to react to what it throws at you.”

Cole and his team quickly discovered, however, that the top-down view divorced you from a lot of the simulated goings-on, and so opted for a first-person perspective to let players live among the citizens of the world itself. “Pivoting to that early in the project gave it a stronger direction, and made sure the simulation was front and centre to the experience,” says Jefferies.

Tracking down the killer in Shadows of Doubt works much as you’d expect, via the gathering of evidence, interviewing strangers for hints, and using stealth tactics to break into key areas. Not every piece of information or item you find will be useful for tracking down the killer, but it all adds to the feeling that you’re chasing leads on your own terms instead of being led along. Plus, with every player’s set of clues and killer identity always being different, no online walkthrough or strategy guide will help. The onus is all on you.

“The biggest appeal is complete player agency,” continues Jefferies. “There’s a moment where you arrive at a crime scene and realise that the game isn’t pushing you towards any clues or anything; it’s truly up to you to find what’s there and decide when you’re done. Then decide what to do about it. There’s a lot that’s exciting about that freedom. It makes you feel like a detective rather than playing along as one. It makes you laugh when you realise how bad a detective you are, or feel accomplished if you’re actually effective!”

Cole acknowledges that with freedom comes a greater risk of people becoming frustrated or lost. Shadows of Doubt makes a point of guiding you through its voxelated city in the early hours with a scripted section that explains the mechanics, but after that you’re off the leash. Despite this, ColePowered has found ways to offer guidance and a sense of progression. “You earn money from cases,” Jefferies says. “The amount depends on which questions you’ve answered correctly and the difficulty of the case. You can spend money on various things in the world; gadgets, upgrades, and even your own apartment.”

Said gadgets serve a practical use, as you’re encouraged to hack security cameras that may otherwise trigger alarms, and there’s a handheld scanner that can read fingerprints. Decorating your apartment isn’t essential to the story, but it still helps immerse players in the fiction.

“We found in some of our testing that immersion, and role-playing within the city was something folks really enjoyed, so we’ve tried to lean into that as much as possible and allow the player to live within the world.”

Additional puzzle pieces will generate over time should players ever become too stuck – it’s just one example of the trickery operating in the background, designed to help players avoid a fail state. “The killer you’re hunting will also keep killing,” Jefferies says. “If you don’t find enough [clues] at one crime scene, there will eventually be another.”

The prospect is simple, then: use clues and resolve questions to catch the murderer in a timely manner or there’ll be no NPCs left to question.

After a lengthy development, rigorous bouts of QA, and more work besides, Jefferies is confident that the procedural sandbox he and ColePowered have created will be the perfect venue for players who want to live out their detective story fantasies. But would he do it all again, knowing what it took to realise this bold ambition? “The process starts with ambitious ideas, and then with time they get shaped into things that are realistic and achievable while keeping the core that makes them special and worthwhile,” he says. “The development has been a lot of fun, and a huge learning experience. I would undertake it again without a shadow of a doubt – but I’d want a decent break first.”

Genre Detective, stealth, simulation | Format PC | Developer ColePowered Games | Publisher Fireshine Games | Release 2022 | Social @ColePowered

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