To be perfectly honest, I didn’t finish the new PAX demo for Contrast. I tried my damnedest, but I ran out of time, my 30-minute demo butting up against other appointments where Compulsion Games had their one private station set up behind a banner and some “please no one come back here” hopefulness. It’s mostly because I was being an idiot, but it also made me even more interested to play the final build of the game.
Contrast is a platformer about a little girl named Didi and a young woman named Dawn, who is the character you’ll play as. Dawn, however, isn’t quite what she seems. The two meet in a train station, but the truth is that Dawn is an imaginary friend concocted by Didi to help come to terms with some unfortunate business with her mother and father. Set in the 1920s, it’s a beautiful world full of Art Deco design aesthetics blended with otherworldly elements.
For instance, much of this gilded, Parisian-flavored, absurdly gorgeous world is broken. It floats in an ether with broken walkways and buildings bobbing in and out of reach with giant, impossible structures moving all around you. This often causes grandiose and shifting shadows to appear on the walls nearby, which is good because it allows Dawn to shift in and out of the contrasting figures, forming the meat of the game’s platforming and puzzles.
And all the way up until the end of the demo, I thought that she was the only thing that could shift. The first half of the build is exactly what I’d played before (which Compulsion’s internal PR and community fellow Sam Abbott probably set a new speedrun record so I could get to the new stuff). The second half dropped me into a new chunk of the world that wasn’t discretely designed for a vertical slice demo.
Whereas last time was a very linear experience, this is an open world. A few short steps leads me back to the same carousel as before, still powered down and needing some luminaries to run. I had zero, so I had to set out and find a couple, the first of which was just a couple steps away. I began to wander, and found a lot of oddities that demanded answers.
There’s a giant carnival tent in the middle of the area with an even bigger pirate ship docked off to the side of the beach. (Oh yeah, there’s a beach, too.) Dilapidated sidewalks form shadow platforms that lead, ostensibly, to nowhere. I walked by a floating, glowing, spinning film reel and it activates a shadow puppet sequence of a man being offed, which could possibly be another platforming sequence. I grab my second luminary by activating a shadow man who slams a high striker that I could use to blast myself upwards to another ledge.
How much, if any, of this was real? Is there any correspondence to the world that Didi lives in? What real time impact does this have on her life? I had so many questions for Abbot, but all I was met with was “we’ll leave that open to interpretation” and a promise that we’d find something in the real game. I begin to regard him with the same trust afforded a spy lousy with classified information. Hmmm…
My carousel requirements met but my curiosity left unslaked, I continued to wander about and found myself in the pirate ship. This first puzzle puts you at the bottom of this entertainment-only, non-seaworthy vessel with a goal to get to the second story. Opposite the entrance is a large crate and the ledge I have to get to while to the left is a large, blank wall and to the right is a light being filtered into four spidering shadows against the aforementioned wall. I pick up the box and begin to move it around. I try to shift with it against the shadows but to no avail. How am I supposed to use one box to ascend 20 feet?
After what must have been five or so minutes with Abbot watching on in silence accented by enigmatic murmurs, I place the box juuuuust right and manage to climb its shadow peak, jump, and air dash to the ledge. “Wow, I’ve never seen anyone solve it like that,” he said. I’ve played a lot of demos and I know when someone is bullshitting me for enhanced PR effect, but he sounded genuinely surprised. As far as I could tell, though, that was the only way to solve it. How would he have done it? “Well, I could tell you, but it kind of goes with the next puzzle.” Fine, keep your secrets. I don’t need them. (Just kidding, I totally do.)
The next puzzle placed Didi and Dawn on the wrong side of three layered door grates, each one opened by a separate pressure-sensitive switch. A light against the ship’s steering wheel casts some very suspicious shadows against the far wall. The problem is the wheel and a switch is in a room closed off by a glass wall, and this is where Abbott offers his only substantial hint: this is something you would have already done before, so you can definitely get by the glass by yourself. Hearing that is enough to tell me I can walk through glass as a shadow but not as a corporeal Dawn. Simple.
Inside the bridge, I spin the wheel. When I let go, it spins back into place, allowing me to go outside and ride the rotating shadows upwards to the rafters. From here, I can see that a switch lies on a ledge too high to jump to, another just outside the bridge, and one inside by the wheel. I need three boxes, one of which is up here. From the crow’s nest, I can also see that the bridge has an opening at the top. Simple enough, I guessed: I’ll take the box, drop down on top of the room and use the box on the switch.
The problem, however, is when I drop, it turns out the hole isn’t actually a hole. It looks like one where I can see through it and light comes through, but in the digital representation of the world, there is an invisible, non-glass wall here. I turn to Abbot. “You can’t drop it through there?” he asks. Once again, this is genuine surprise. Am I the first person to play this demo?
Obviously not, but I am the first person to play through it without picking up on the fact that I actually can shift with objects in my hands, something Abbott tips off to me as we wrap up the demo. (Apparently I wasn’t close enough to the wall when I tried this the first time.) This would have made the first puzzle trivial and the second puzzle at least comprehensible. Instead of feeling like a fool, however, I felt inspired.
A lot of games talk about offering up obstacles that can be overcome in multiple ways, some of which may be unexpected. And through my stupidly, artificially placed limitations, I was able to demonstrate just that. Realizing this made me infinitely more excited at the prospect of playing the final retail version of Contrast.
And as for that box? “We’ll make it work,” says Abbott. I’m sure you will, and I’m sure you’ll fill it with secrets. Look for Contrast to hit the PlayStation Network for PlayStation 4 and Steam for PC on November 14, 2013.