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Puzzle Platformer Contrast Gets Lost In Its Own Shadow


A little girl named Didi lies alone in her bedroom. Her mother is out working for the night, singing love songs at the local cabaret. Her father hasn’t been home for some time. When Didi asked whether he’d return, her mother replied, “Maybe when he’s ready.” She has no siblings, no apparent friends — except one, who appeared without explanation, and who no one else can see. An acrobat, looking a little like Didi’s mother (and a lot like Amanda Palmer during her Dresden Dolls days). Her name is Dawn, and in her world, no one exists but Didi. Of the others, she sees only shadows, cast by adults having conversations beyond her companion’s understanding.

A magical premise, and one so original I’d already fallen halfway in love with Contrast from the trailer alone. But as I played, I found that this puzzle platformer has much in common with the younger of its two protagonists — a good soul, but a troubled one. 

The game is set in a surreal 1930s-ish wonderland, strange and enticing. It’s a little bit Moulin Rouge, a little bit Maltese Falcon. The streets twist and crumble, falling away into a void of stars. I’ve seen similar environments in other games, but the aesthetic is used well here, adding to the game’s most engaging question — is it real? Or are we just in Didi’s head, seeing her interpretation of the world of adults? I loved the possibility of Dawn existing as a coping mechanism, creating solutions to problems beyond Didi’s control. Didi may not understand nuance, but she understands eviction notices. She understands threats from mobsters. She understands her father not being home. And like all little kids whose parents are unhappy, she wants to help. It’s heartbreaking. The story of Didi’s parents is nothing new — the deadbeat man with endless pipe dreams, the woman who struggles to shut the door on him — but watching it from a child’s point of view packs a steady punch. Dawn felt like exactly the sort of friend a kid in Didi’s shoes would conjure up. A big sister figure, innocently embodying the feminine ideal championed by her mother’s profession. Heroic, too. Quick. Strong. Brave. Silent and loyal, as all imaginary friends are.

The game’s core mechanic is Dawn’s ability to shift in and out of shadows, traversing a 2D realm to conquer 3D obstacles. It was exciting, at first, placing objects and nudging spotlights to cast more advantageous shadows. This mechanic is best when it blends with the story, requiring you to climb up the shadows of Didi’s parents as they argue. Those moments sold me on my role as Didi’s protector. The shadows were her psyche, and I was there to help her make sense of it. A more desperate Psychonauts. A grim distortion of Calvin and Hobbes.

Initially, I was drooling over the possibilities of shadow play. I couldn’t wait for the game to let go of my hand. But that never happened. Contrast follows the same pattern, from beginning to end: enter a new environment, see the objective, take a few steps forward, get thrown into a short, unnecessary cutscene that explains the objective, watch the objective text appear on your screen, then actually solve the thing. There were a few nice “a-ha!” moments here and there, and the artwork was a constant source of beauty — the pirate ship! the carousel! the puppet theater! — but all in all, the game was too easy. Move a box, jump on a thing, collect orbs, repeat. I’ve been to this circus before. I would’ve expected a similar level of guidance and straightforwardness from a kids’ game, but the subject matter clearly marks Contrast as adult territory. Why, then, the reluctance to turn the player loose? There are nods in the game to both Portal and Limbo — especially Limbo, which one sequence mirrors so directly that it toes a dangerous line between homage and ripoff (I side with the former, as it felt rather self-aware). Contrast would’ve greatly benefited from the things that made those two games work so well: seamless flow, and trust in the player’s intelligence.

One such hand-holding moment confused the hell out of me, and I am still scratching my head over why it was there at all. Early in the game, the player is tasked with shining spotlights toward a stage. The spotlights are marked as usable. The objective splashes across the screen. It’s obvious what needs doing. But then a voice starts talking. A sultry, husky, come-hither voice, asking you to turn on the lights. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect in a cabaret, so that was all well and good — but who was it coming from, and who was it talking to? The source was probably Didi’s mother, who we had come to watch perform, but Didi’s mother can’t see Dawn. They don’t exist in the same world. Why would she be asking her to turn on the lights? And unless her act takes a few cues from Marlene Dietrich in Morocco, I found it unlikely that she’d be addressing a woman — let alone her daughter’s imaginary friend — with lines such as “I promise you’ll like the view.”

Was she talking to the player, then? That’s more plausible, but it would be a jarring break through the fourth wall if so (especially since it never happens again). And given the dual female protagonists, as well as a charming princess-saving-herself story later on, it seems odd the game would make those kind of assumptions about the player. A friend of mine interpreted the voice as Dawn addressing the player, which is also possible, but — you know what? No. If it were Dawn, that creates this whole horrible weirdness in the narrative, in which the game wants the player to flirt with the otherwise non-sexualized magical protector of a neglected child trying to navigate her parents’ crumbling marriage. I’m sticking with the Didi’s mother talking to Dawn because Morocco and magic I guess theory. That moment was peculiar whichever way you slice it, so I’d rather accept the explanation that does the least damage to my feeling of being Dawn, helping Didi — the one thing in the game I enjoyed without any footnotes or asterisks.

I mention the scene not because of the content, but because it’s one of several moments which jolted me right out of the story and left me asking “why?” That, in a nutshell, is Contrast’s biggest problem — having something to say, but being unsure of how to say it. It’s sad, because I wanted to know what that something was, but it was hindered by under-utilized mechanics, flow-breaking cutscenes, and stand-alone moments like the mystery voice, which felt as if they were slipped in after the fact. Within Contrast was a game I was hungry for, that achingly sad Psychonauts meets Calvin and Hobbes thing. I don’t regret playing it as it was, and in my book, a game trying to do something new with its characters, and that’s always worth the time. It’s not a bad game. It’s got some good stuff. It could’ve been great, though, and I think that’s what I’m hung up on. I was ready to throw myself into Dawn and Didi’s world. There were just too many things that kept pushing me back.

Contrast is available for Windows (Steam), Xbox 360, PS3, and PS4.

Becky Chambers writes essays, science fiction, and stuff about video games. Like most internet people, she has a website. She can also be found on Twitter.

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