“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings – always darker, emptier and simpler.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
Out of all the games I’ve played in 2013 I like to vaunt over for their artsy qualities while also having to recognize a sheer lack of polish and/or several design problems within them, Contrast is probably my favorite of those flawed few. It presents a problem from a scoring standpoint because the antiquated demands of “properly” scoring sub-categories (i.e. not giving fun factor a much higher score than gameplay because reasons) makes the process of examining passion projects like this one feel…rather cold and impersonal. For the gaming community, it can seem nigh impossible to witness a collective agreement of enjoying a title while also being forthcoming enough to acknowledge a list of the flaws that come with it. Yet, for all the problems Compulsion Games’ rookie effort contains, I’m still drawn back to it by the belief of how many flawed works are typically the most fascinating in this industry.
Contrast’s emotional tale revolves around a young girl named Didi. You play as the svelte playable ‘non-protagonist,’ Dawn, Didi’s imaginary friend. Because of that, you observe every other character depicted in this world as shadows on a wall. With a hidden observation to this girl’s life and a mysterious set of powers that allow you to traverse between the depth of the three-dimensional world and into the two-dimensional space of light and shadow, you follow Didi along as she foists herself into the middle of a broken relationship between her showgirl mother and estranged father.
The central 2D/3D transdimensional gameplay gimmick to this platformer is merged into the story in a very clever way. Because of you technically being the product of Didi’s imagination, everything you see is dependent upon the mind of an unreliable narrator who gets so quickly caught up into an adult world filled with vice, frustration, and crime. Seeing the kinds of painful things Didi witnesses starts to make you wonder if what you’re seeing with these shadow characters mean she can even properly grasp everything that’s occurring or, as suggested in Nietzsche’s quote above, if she only understands some of the simpler dimensions of it, which could be why her thoughts are presented with such traditional literary antics and naïve heroics found within childhood fantasies.
While these interpretive angles may bring curiosity during the incipient stages of the game, diving further into this story only presents more ambiguity when seeing the world and some of the tasks you have to accomplish in order to help Didi. Despite initial impressions, the game world is actually what seems to be one huge piece of connected structures and cobblestone roads that are floating in some sort of abyss, with some buildings looking as if they were ripped right from their foundation and the end of some streets looking like a broken accordion descending into the nether. Where exactly is this place? Are we held within the psyche of a girl whose world, as she knows it, is metaphorically being crumbled and torn apart which translates to these environments doing the same thing? If that be the case, then do the random platforming tasks accomplished actually mean something or are they imaginary too? The further you travel down the rabbit hole, the more questions come up that have you pensively thinking over where that definitive line between the objective or warped reality is drawn here. It’s a narrative that builds upon a simple plot framework but continually pushes different interpretive, surreal undertones to even after the finale that elucidates some of these questions while throwing a few curveballs of its own.
I suppose the thing that kept me hooked the most is in seeing my initial expectations being subverted due to the tone being in stark contrast to the more playful art style. More reminiscent of Studio Ghibli than Disney, it’s able to provide a lens into heavy, mature themes through a child’s perspective. The exploration isn’t intended to act as a saccharine adventure examining youths’ innocence but rather as a tear-jerking, elegiac analysis of their ignorance and powerlessness. The central conceit in the player watching everything unfold behind the interpretation of a child’s mind is one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen for a storytelling idea for quite some time; and to make it even better when considering the industry’s current idea of bigger budgets with extremely detailed character models for “more emotion,” the cost-effective means in producing this whilst making every facet be subject to different interpretations makes this central concept a perfect example of the “less is more” saying.
The visual presentation certainly sells you on this world presented through the story. The style is reminiscent of the 1920’s Parisian vaudevillian setting with exaggerated, clayish character models that are typically found in stop-motion films. Even with the strangeness of this void-like world in the background, every corner seems to have been well-crafted to look like the period piece that was its inspiration. Combine that facet with Contrast also being a pastiche of Lost in Shadow for most 2D shadow platforming sections as well as LIMBO for an interesting puppet show sequence and you've got yourself an art house darling marrying different artistic perspectives with tremendous élan. Even on the technical side of things, there’s a lot going on at times that rarely gives the impression of Contrast being a fifteen-dollar downloadable title. Sure, the celerity in Dawn’s animations look too quick and awkward, but the lighting and overall quality looks exceptionally well-made. The only annoyance comes in the game maintaining this scope. It is prone to frame rate hiccups and a lot of material floating within this abyss seems to pop in and out often, harming your immersion with this cabaret-themed world.
Married with those graphics is an audio presentation that imbues this film noir vibe all the more. Just getting to the main menu gives you one of the best tracks here in “Kat’s Song (ft. Laura Ellis).” The rest of the soundtrack too never misses in capturing these time-of-night locales. As for the rest of the production values, most are exceptionally well-made, especially in regards to voice acting talent such as Elias Toufexis (Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution) who plays the dad whose in over his head and the voice actor for Didi who appropriately steals the spotlight. Admittedly, there are a few moments where the line delivery feels like standard ‘child actor’ level, but much more often her role is so convincing; there’s that great range in this VA capturing both Didi's silly attitude when impersonating other people and those heart-wrenching moments when hearing her panic or disappointment depending on the situation happening around her.
Now after expending praises about the look, sound, and interesting tone for the story/storytelling of the game, the tough part comes in having to admit Contrast leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to gameplay.
For all of its successions in building on the 2D/3D platforming foundation with a good difficulty curve, the level design makes the progression feel rather stilted. For so much of the game, the contextualization of puzzles swings between affording to not give the player enough information or feels like too much hand-holding for a task you could figure out for yourself. Take, for instance, later acts in the game that allow you to be more heuristic in how you wish to tackle an objective: starting a new objective almost always begins with you hitting an invisible trigger in order to play a non-interactive cut scene that takes in the scenery and directs you in how to advance, which is pointless since you control the camera and could do just that during gameplay anyways. Heck, even the subtleties like the BIG TEXT popping up when you receive your next objective just seems to betray the later open-ended nature the game develops into. The size of the map also betrays the sense of scope the game was trying to build up. The reality is these maps are just a couple of dense pockets that you can run through quite quickly, yet they don’t consistently have that sense of claustrophobic atmosphere either, due to that lack of extra visual or aural stimuli between areas that could make those outdoor areas have a more lived-in feel to them.
Dawn’s unique ability also mixes moments of storytelling in a unique way. Beyond just seeing these silhouettes through Didi, you’re able to cross that dimensional plane, jump into the sequence of events transpiring, and navigate to newly-accessible areas as if these characters were moving platforms. During some moments, these scenes prompt you to complete a certain action within a supposed time limit (never one directly shown) lest you see the consequences. Despite there being only one way through the game, there are a lot of possibilities to be had if failing in an objective could prompt for new ways to accomplish a later goal. Not just limited to storytelling moments, you’re able to use Dawn to traverse a number of puzzles through the manipulation of light and shadow in the three-dimensional world in order to construct a new pathway in the shadow world. It feels visceral and sounds great on a conceptual level, but it’s mechanically frustrating at times. Movement can feel sloppy and the camera can feel awkward in some spots. When considering the precise controls within all the other puzzle-platformers out there, it’s really not that easy to just get used to the imprecise jumping and basic mechanical imperfections that are present.
On top of design problems, there seem to be as many technical issues. The strictures employed for being kicked out of the shadow realm—for say the shadow of a box pinching you against the shadow of something else—seem pretty inconsistent thanks to wonky collision detection, which is a shame given how often that would make me tumble into the void and have to restart. The checkpoints aren’t very punitive anyways so it’s easy to get back into the game, fortunately. There are also a number of times of bouncing around resulting in getting stuck in the geometry; or these odd cases of setting a box down resulting in it falling in slow motion while I just hung in midair until it touched the ground. It’d be considered peevish whines if they only occurred once in a blue moon; but considering how often this or other various examples of clipping occurred, it began to wear my patience after a while.
So…yeah, there are certainly problems, but even considering all of them makes it hard to overwhelm my sheer joy of some great moments I had when playing this game. I had a smile from ear to ear when I could walk into the next puzzle and be forced to think of how to transport myself and other objects by using shadows on a wall rather than the typical means of focusing on the architecture; I remember having a brief sense of wonder and saying “Oh, that’s cool” to a simple cut scene from a completed puzzle that played with the dimensions ingeniously; I was always delighted in seeing an unassuming stack of objects that would make a set of shadow platforms on a wall that I could expand or contract to my heart’s content; I reveled in the full-on LIMBO shadow puppet show of Didi’s father pouring out a metaphorical tale of his constant screw-ups and the person who saves him. Indeed, the design isn’t well-executed, but it’s not often to see such variety built upon a simple idea that's packed with so many memorable moments.
It does strike me as strange to see almost every praise and complaint here being analogous to my earlier Papo & Yo review, despite having very different scores. They definitely weren’t the most polished platformers, yet were both brimming with atmosphere and contained mature themes in a kid-accessible viewpoint. I’ll be the first to admit in having more of a bias for film noir backdrops over lively South American atmospheres, but it extends to more than just simple procliviites. I believe the one quality that makes Contrast the richer experience, despite being a length more unpolished (played the PC version of Papo & Yo), is the conceptual design that gives the gameplay a sturdier foundation. Rather than the gameplay feeling like it’s on some sort of invisible leash for the story it wishes to tell, such as with Papo & Yo, Contrast’s gameplay is able to be intrinsically woven INTO the narrative so as to never feel half-baked.
Brimming with style, personality, and genuine mystery, Contrast is a game with its setbacks but never to the point of obscuring its imagination. 'Tis a short game that runs the gambit of being three to four hours long; yet for all the times of me acting like a curmudgeon in the past when it comes to value in a game, I’m starting to think that game-played-to-cost ratio isn’t unreasonable when looking at a lot of other single-player focused titles releasing today (especially within the genre). When considering the consumerist considerations I tend to have, the game lasts long enough with the content and collectibles, both empty and story-oriented, present. In the end, Contrast comes recommended if you’re the kind that’s able to handle the idea of playing a game that’s only a shadow of its true potential.
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