Shadows of Doubt is a detective game with too many threads to untangle

Shadows of Doubt is a detective game with too many threads to untangle

I hope you don’t mind if I’m a little blunt with you here. I struggled to write this piece on shadows of doubt for several days. Not because I don’t know what to say – I know what I did and didn’t like while exploring several different generated cities – but because I don’t know how to articulate my thoughts on this game. And I think the reason I found it so difficult is that I’m not sure that Shadows of Doubt itself fully knows what it wants to be.

Shadows of Doubt Publisher: Fireshine Games Developer: ColePowered Games Platform: Played on PC Availability: Available now on PC in early access

We’ve written about Shadows of Doubt before. Martin covered the game for Rezzed Digital in 2020 and I read his thoughts before I started playing. He was impressed with what he saw, and I know Martin is a good egg, which made me want to try it myself. The various descriptors that have been given to Shadows of Doubt have me scratching my head though. Martin called it “a first-person stealth detective game set in a procedurally generated dark city”, while developer Cole Jefferies also described it as dark sci-fi and an immersive simulation.

It’s definitely a detective game. The game does not hold your hand while you solve cases. It’s up to you to gather evidence and find out who the culprit is. The in-game notice board where all your evidence hangs will automatically create connections between linked items. It also lets you take your own notes and links between bits and bobs, a physical space in the game to help you make sense of the crime.

There is a wonderful freedom in your approach to solving cases. If you need to search for a spot, you can try sneaking in by picking the lock or climbing through the vents. You can break in, after a series of increasingly stronger blows. If someone is inside, you can try to bribe them. Most citizens aren’t willing to open up that easily, so you often have to resort to one of these methods to find what you need. Frustratingly, you can only ask a specific set of questions. Unlike Ace Attorney, where you can present evidence and see what kind of response you get, I was disappointed that I couldn’t ask people about specific pieces of evidence, such as proof of a phone call.

Shadows of Doubt.

Outside of solving cases, I found exploring the world extremely fun. Even in the smallest town, there are plenty of buildings to snoop around – after giving up my reluctance to break the law (the consequences are doomed!). I really enjoyed breaking into apartments and offices and snooping around, looking in refrigerators and seeing if there was anything to eat, stealing money lying around and hacking into computers to read emails and employee profiles.

I love this gameplay loop, but at the same time I rarely felt engaged with it. Everything in the world seems stereotypical, and maybe that’s the tradeoff with procedural generation. Citizens answer questions with the same answers. Homes rarely feel personal, often decorated with a television and shelves of matching books. Email spying, which should be the most personal communication in this context, simply brings up the same messages, just addressed to and from different names.

Shadows of Doubt.

There are few consequences to the world or your actions within it. I was spotted breaking into and stealing from a building, and was actually being chased by security guards, but once I ran out of the building and lost my pursuers, nothing happened. ‘changed. I could walk into the building without tape and no one remembered the chaos of a minute ago.

Likewise, your approach to solving cases has no effect on the results. As long as you get the crime details correct, such as the name of the perpetrator and the evidence that puts him at the crime scene, you get your payment for a job well done and your social status increases a bit. It doesn’t matter if I stole money from the assailant’s wallet or repeatedly knocked out a witness to my intrusion and robbery while searching my suspect’s apartment.

Perhaps that’s the trade-off for a noir setting – a grim world where crime runs rampant and the law exists only in the hands of the people. But, and this is clear even at first glance at the game, Shadows of Doubt is inspired more by cyberpunk than by noir and sci-fi. The game is set at the turn of 1979, in an alternate universe “where hyper-industrialization has swept the planet”. Corporations are vying for power as a new state, the Atlantic United States, elects the megacorporation Starch Kola as its president.

The UAS is a “loose” group of Western European and North American countries, placing us firmly in the Western part of the world. But each city generated has the same Asian iconography perpetuated in cyberpunk. Neon lights. Random mixtures of Japanese, Chinese and Korean scriptures gathered on panels. Paper lanterns line some streets, while others have randomly placed Chinatown arches. As I walk through the different towns the game has spawned, all I can think of is, why? Why does all this exist here? Why is there nothing stereotyped French or Italian in the streets?

Conversation on shadows of doubt

Shadows of Doubt.

While I couldn’t bear it long enough to find out Starch Kola’s origin in the game, or even if his origin is explained, a loading screen tells you about a tech company called Kaizen-6, which has was founded by someone called Kyra Cho. Kaizen-6, with its Japanese name, founded by someone with a common Korean last name. The more you look, the more you see it. The merging of East Asian countries into a single “entity” as a representative of American techno-orientalism is Nothing new in cyberpunk or video games, but I’m really sick of it.

Likewise, when you start inspecting the finer details in the world, everything starts to make less sense. Physical letters are transmitted around the city using vacuum tubes, to then be displayed electronically on a computer (or micro cruncher, in game slang). In one of my towns, a murder was committed by, as I found out using the local government’s citizen database, a hitman. Their profession was listed in the database as hitman, but if the government already knew that, why hadn’t this person already been arrested?

On paper, I should be absolutely in love with Shadows of Doubt. Immersive simulator? Check. Detective? Check. Black? Check. But despite a fun gameplay loop, none of its parts seem to fit together well. I don’t know if procedural generation can capture what makes an immersive sim or detective game great – a place where the consequences have real impact and the characters living there feel like individuals to full share. I admit it’s an impressive piece of engineering – the sheer amount of objects and information the game has to generate and interweave is fascinating. But for a game with so much literal substance, it felt ironically reductive in its experience.

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