Walking into the sizable Indie Megabooth at this year’s PAX East, I both knew what to expect and knew that what I expected would likely be subverted. I knew Transistor would drum up a lot of floor buzz and its line would be damn near unfathomable in length. I knew the Double Fine/Capybara Games booth would make a big splash and feature a beardless Tim Schafer. But I didn’t know that an indie-er game would steal my heart.
I passed by what felt like a dozen times, never really giving it much thought. From the looping trailer that played on the TV, it looked an awful lot like the 2010 Wii game Lost in Shadow. Everything I saw was just a shadow running across other shadows, leaping gaps and hugging walls. As the convention began to wind down for the second day, though, I happened to walk by one more time and, for some reason or another, finally decided to give it a chance.
And boy am I glad I did.
Contrast is a game four years in the making from a tiny studio out of Montreal (they run slim on just seven team members) that is about light, shadows, and a little eight-year-old girl named Didi. Set in the 1920s at the height of the Jazz Age and the burgeoning of Art Deco, Didi lives with her mother but spends most of her time with her best friend Dawn.
Dawn, however, isn’t real. To Dawn, though, none of us are real either. Compared to her tiny progenitor, Dawn is strong, capable, and older, but she’s also imaginary and only sees people of the real world either in shadows or not at all (save for Didi). Whereas Didi is young and innocent and unsure of the world, Dawn is mature, lascivious, and knowing enough to be wary of what lies ahead. The contrast is as strong as the light and dark that the game trades in.
Shadows are something of a specialty for Dawn in that she can merge into nearby walls at will, at which point she is in this alternate state of being where she can walk on and boost through shadows. This is the key point at which Contrast diverges from Lost in Shadow and other similar games: Dawn can be controlled both from a conventional, three-dimensional perspective and from a flat, two-dimensional scheme. As a corporeal form (as much as you can get when you’re imaginary, anyways), you can move light sources, collect luminaries (a hybrid collectible and in-game resource), and explore this strange, broken world.
I say broken because the world that you explore as Dawn is obviously not the same one that Didi lives in. After a brief tutorial of how to go in and out of shadows, we break out into a wide open 1920s strip of nightlife. Not content with simply going through the motions and immediately following objectives, I wander a bit (to the point where the PR person thinks I’m lost) and quickly stumble upon the end of the world. I mean the literal end; the street bends and sags and snaps off into a void.
“Did you see that? Not many people see that,” says level designer Joshua Mills. “We want the game to open for interpretation, so some things that people want explained may not be explained.” Beyond certain vagaries of Dawn’s world, this could extend to the Shel Silverstein ending to the road or to the intricacies of the shadow world or Didi’s growing relationship with a fictional reality.
The first real puzzle presented to the player in the demo is admittedly from several hours into the game, but it gives a chance to introduce luminaries. Luminaries are little floating balls of light that are scattered about the level in limited quantities and, possibly, in hard-to-reach locations. The function as both a collectible (“1 of 9 luminaries collected,” the game says) and as a resource. They power anything that produces light and light is often the first step for solving a puzzle, puzzles that include illuminating a jazz band, untangling a tangled hot air balloon, and powering up a carousel.
The first step for Compulsion Games, though, seems to be creating a whole bunch of content. Even in these small bits of the game that I played, I was blown away by how much stuff is in the game. Everything is voiced and each setting seems to be wholly visually distinct from every other area. And all of it is absolutely drenched in the 1920s. Dawn with her old timey acrobat getup, shadows with fedoras, and buildings with gilded architecture. But why the 1920s?
“I think it’s just personal preference,” said Mills. “When I started with Compulsion, we have a drive with a bunch of movies on it, and it’s like you have to watch these if you want to work here.” One of them was Dark City, the 1998 neo-noir film about a fella with amnesia who finds himself accused of murder. “A lot of the levels and stuff I designed is directly inspired by that.” Dawn, though, in particular seems to draw from a different well.
“Alice,” said Mills matter-of-factly. “All that stuff that American McGee does.” It becomes readily apparent when you compare Dawn and Alice from Alice: Madness Returns side-by-side as compatriots of a dark, twisted fantasy. But it’s also more than that. “Some of the camera techniques really inspired the way we handle some things.”
That, especially, comes to the forefront when after a puzzle involving fixing spotlights, you are treated to an extended jazz performance. A sultry singer, a smoky sax, and lingering shots of shadows skewed against the sharp Deco angles of the stage. The camera follows from the edges of the ostentatious proscenium to a door as a man and a woman dart out into the side stage, though they appear as only shadows to us. Didi calls out to one and gives chase as Dawn follows. Possibly an estranged father figure and possibly not even real. Mills explained it to me thusly: “if somebody has an imaginary friend, the parent will play along but they still don’t believe.”
There are obviously holes in Didi’s life that we will hopefully see filled. Dawn is “only there because [Didi] needs you to be there,” and she is presented as an acrobat because Didi sees things as a “performance piece,” her imaginary counterpart a warped version of a Cirque du Soleil performer. And it all serves to explore what the player wants to fill in the gaps with.
“Any good story allows somebody to feed their own input into it and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Mills said. “Everyone on the team has their own take on it, but it really is open for people to fill it in themselves.” And that seems to be the resonant theme of Contrast. Light fills in the dark of the shadows, Didi fills in the holes of her life, and we fill in the gaps with our interpretation. If nothing else, Contrast seems poised to push some buttons, tug some heartstrings, and, most importantly, ask some interesting question.
Look for Contrast on Steam in the next two months.