Blade Runner Meets Sherlock Holmes in Shadows of Doubt

"Enhance. Stop."
"Enhance. Stop." / Image courtesy of ColePowered Games

Whether you know it or not, every detective game you've ever played has limited your freedom. The world is a big place, and finding the clues necessary to solve a crime becomes exponentially harder when you're not led by a marker on your HUD, or glowing items at the crime scene. If you're ready for a true test of your detective skills, Shadows of Doubt is happy to oblige. This upcoming detective game gives players almost total freedom in solving mysteries. Every clue, every deduction has to be made independently. There's no detective vision, no linear path from beat to beat. Shadows of Doubt forces players to rely on their own logic to put the pieces together.

A small side room at April's WASD convention held a number of the expo’s most promising games. It was here, under the banner of publisher Fireshine Games, that ColePowered Games gave players the first hands-on look at Shadows of Doubt. In an interview, lead developer Cole Jefferies talked us through the game’s anomalous premise.

"The general concept behind the game is that we've got this city and it has a load of randomly generated citizens who go about their daily lives," said Jefferies. "They will live somewhere, they will have daily routines, and they have friends and jobs and interests. Within them is a serial killer, and it's your job as a player to track them down. Dispense a bit of justice."

The ultimate goal is to catch the serial killer, but this noir-inspired city holds a number of dark secrets. To find them all, players will need to utilize the open world to its fullest. Every building can be entered, and each shady bar or dirty alley has the potential to house an important clue or point you to a whole different crime.

"It's very open-ended gameplay. The idea is that you're a detective. That you can go about solving and tracking down things how you want."

Like a lot of indie developers, ColePowered needed to work out how to do a lot with very little. Shadows of Doubt, in its current form, is at the hands of four developers with Jefferies at the lead. Joining him are Voxel artist Miles Atkinson, writer Stark Holborn and sound designer Nick Dymond. Creating a dynamic world is a monumental task for even the biggest studios, but within limitations often lie creative solutions.

"Visually, we started out using Voxels, because it was really quick to get the number of props into the game that we needed for a quite small team," Jefferies said "We needed a way to get a lot of 3D models into the game so we could flesh out environments. Initially, it was just out of necessity, but we developed it into this kind of unique style."

As in the neon-noirs that so heavily influenced Shadows of Doubt, style and atmosphere were important to nail down. Jefferies cited the likes of "Blade Runner" and the works of Terry Gilliam as core visual references — dramatic, yet quirky. But behind the gameplay lurks a more surprising influence.

"We're inspired by a tabletop game called Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, which, if you've not played it, it's like a game where you have this storyline and you get a city directory — you can visit all of these places."

The tabletop game allows players to dictate how they investigate. They choose which locations, documents, and leads are worth following — features that are emulated in Shadows of Doubt. One way in which the game allows players to piece together their leads is through an interactive evidence board. Players add every bit of information they uncover to the board and can choose which pieces of information or evidence to link together.

Image courtesy of ColePowered Games

If the player identifies a body in an apartment, a card will appear on the board with the victim's basic information. Later, they might find a contact book in the apartment with the name of an associate. This will then be added to their evidence board, where a thread can be attached to link the two items together so that players can keep track of relevant leads.

This system allows players to take the mystery into their own hands, forced to rely on their own logic and deduction skills. It also encourages the player to be thorough — every nook and cranny could house an important link. This player freedom has been a driving force in creating Shadows of Doubt, something which Jefferies felt was lacking in other detective games.

"I'm a big fan of detective games in general, but usually they are quite linear and laid out for you. You're kind of given very specific clues, and it's all heavily designed. But in this, you're kind of given vague clues. The first time you go in and investigate a crime scene you realize that you're not really being pushed in any direction. You're just there finding clues. And you could just go out into the world and investigate them at will."

But while complete freedom can feel liberating, for some it’s a daunting hurdle — to be dropped into an open world and simply told "Go." In Shadows of Doubt, players feeling overwhelmed can benefit from some early guidance.

"There's some direction there if you want it," Jefferies explained. "We've got an introductory chapter, if you like, which is a little bit more scripted. And it's designed to teach the player the core mechanics of the game."

DBLTAP had the pleasure of trying the demo at WASD, exploring this introductory chapter. It was surprising, and refreshing, how even the more scripted areas offered very little hand holding in a way that respected a player's competence. A little nudge to get you on your way, but ultimately it's your own journey to make.

"I think probably what's the most special about this game is that player agency," Jefferies said. "The choice to conduct your own investigations."

Shadows of Doubt doesn't have a release date just yet, but the game has been taking great strides in its development. WASD, a new addition to the London Games Festival, provided the game with its first public showing.

"It's the first time the game's been up to a state where we can feel like we can do that. Because it's a technically challenging project. There's still some bugs that people encounter today. But it's like, for the first time, it's kind of at a place where it's not going to completely ruin the experience if you play through. This year especially feels like it's a big shift. So it's quite exciting to get to this level. It's a bit of a milestone for us."

Shadows of Doubt will be released on Windows PC via Steam, potentially heading to other platforms in the future.