Contrast

Review in Brief
Game: An experimental hybrid 2D/3D puzzle-platformer set in an urban 1920s atmosphere.
Good: An interesting core mechanic used in varied, interesting, and thoughtful ways; an impressive attention to explaining that mechanic in the plot; charming storytelling and visual appeal.
Bad: Little replay value, a predictable plot, and other missed opportunities that I wouldn’t expect a $15 game to fulfill anyway.
Verdict: A concept game at heart, but successfully manages to be more.
Rating: 8/10 – “Great – fun to play, some minor but no major flaws.”
Recommendation: Definitely worth the $15 to pick it up.

“A charming concept game that successfully strives to be more.”

The dawn of Nintendo’s eShops, Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade, and Sony’s PlayStation Network ushered in a new era of console game development. The lower production costs associated with downloadable games helped facilitate a new paradigm of flexible pricing, and that in turn has allowed console games to have control of their scope for the first time in video game history. No longer has every game had to justify a $50 or $60 purchase, allowing minimalistic, experimental, and artistic games to be released with significantly less risk to the developers. This, in turn, has led to the release of numerous small games that would never stand a chance against the big-budget Halo, Uncharted, or Mario franchises, but that can leverage the lower barrier to entry to create worthwhile experience without all the necessary trappings of a full-price game.

These games serve various functions, from the resurrection of simpler genres with games like Geometry Wars and Mega Man 9 to the creation of minimalistic, artistic experiences with games like Journey, Limbo, and Braid. One such function is that of the experimental concept game. These games are built on a singular interesting concept that may or may not be able to really bolster a full game. The game, then, builds from this concept to see what is possible. Given the lower prices of these releases, there are lower expectations on nearly every facet of the game, so developers can experiment a bit with what the mechanic is capable of creating. In my opinion, Minecraft and Fez qualify as experimental concept games, as do numerous other games not worth mentioning because the result was deemed a failure.

Contrast, for the most part, is one of these experimental concept games, building on the interplay between 2D and 3D platforming by way of light and shadows. The game’s gimmick is that the player character can shift between a 3D world and a 2D shadow world, the latter formed by the shadows cast on the walls by the lights and objects in the 3D world. There is a bit of artful storytelling that also makes the game something of a successor to Limbo and Braid, but for the most part, the game’s selling point is its interesting core dynamic. Among concept games, Contrast is excellent: the core concept has plenty of inherent potential, and furthermore the game actually does a phenomenal job of realizing much of that potential. The game also impressively does not stop at the core mechanic and pays a pleasing amount of attention to the visual tone and storytelling throughout the game world, leading to one of the more pleasant gaming experiences I’ve had recently. Contrast may be a concept game, but it does not rest on its concept.

The Game
Didi is a little girl living in a big city in the 1920s. Her mother, Kat, is an aspiring cabaret singer more focused on her career than motherhood, while her father is absent from their lives after too many run-ins with the local mob. Didi has an invisible friend named Dawn, the player character, who no one can see except her. Dawn possesses the special ability to move back and forth between the 3D world and the “shadow world”, the two-dimensional world formed by shadows cast by objects and lights in the 3D world. Using this ability, Dawn can access areas that Didi cannot and help her solve puzzles throughout the game world. The majority of the gameplay revolves around this unique combination of the 2D and 3D worlds, with Dawn often manipulating the 3D world to open up 2D shadow pathways.

The Good
The primary positive point for Contrast is the interesting core game mechanic. The mechanic itself is sufficient to bolster a budget downloadable game, but more than just being inherently interesting, the mechanic is further taken to higher levels through its varied usage throughout the game and the symbiosis with the game’s story.

Interesting Core Mechanic
The core mechanic of Contrast is the playable character’s ability to move back and forth between the 3D and a 2D world. The 3D world is presented normally with traditional platformer perspective and gameplay elements. The 2D world exists in the shadows cast by lights throughout the game on the surrounding walls. Upon entering an area with such light, Dawn can walk to them wall and transform into a shadow. Once a shadow, she can treat all the shadows themselves like platforms to move around, reaching higher areas or leveraging movement in the 3D world.

This core mechanic is itself very solid. First, conceptually, it has a lot of potential. It turns every area into more than just a straightforward 3D level, but draws special attention to a unique interaction between the 3D elements and the 2D level cast behind it. There is a lot of potential to this dynamic, including moving 3D objects to change the 2D plane, the 2D shadows cast by moving 3D objects, and the use of the 2D plane to create independently solid platformer sections. Second, the mechanic is well-executed; it is typically very easy to predict which 2D areas can be entered and how to move about within them, and the player is rarely left with a lack of understanding of what the game is trying to communicate.

The core mechanic is strong, but even for an inexpensive game, that would not be enough on its own to create a sufficiently positive experience. Contrast, however, goes to two extra levels to really make that core title mechanic shine.

Excellent Varied Puzzle Design
When I first started playing Contrast and was introduced to the shadow mechanic, I wrote down in my notes the question: “Is the shadow mechanic a gimmick, or is it well-used as a puzzle device?” Only By a quarter of the way through the game, I had my answer. What sets Contrast apart from other concept games is that it takes that interesting core dynamic and uses it in varied, creative ways. To put this another way, in the previous section I remarked on how much potential the dynamic has. Not only does it have a lot of potential, but it takes advantage of its potential.

There are several different kinds of puzzles that leverage the shadow dynamic. Generally, I break them into three distinct categories. There are straightforward platformer sections where the shadows are merely used to create a 2D playing area akin to any 2D platformer. Second, there are areas where there is a natural interplay between the 2D and 3D planes: the player is required to make changes in the 3D plane to lay out a usable 2D plane to accomplish their objective. Third, there are animated sections, where rather than just a static 2D field, there are moving parts in the 3D area that lead to moving shadows in the 2D plane. These three different approaches to puzzle design with the shadows keep the game varied and interesting, and help make every puzzle seem fresh and different.

Within those categories, though, the game also has some refreshing variation as well. For example, for the animated 2D segments, some are animated as a result of moving gears or other mechanic devices, while others are shadows of scenes that the player can actually crawl around on. In one particularly interesting segment, entering the area causes a scene to start in the shadows. Upon entering the scene, the natural movements of one of the characters lift the shadow of your character up. The characters then move fluidly and naturally, resulting in your character being deposited nicely onto the head of the second character in the scene. Finally, that second character moves in the other direction, allowing the player to jump to the exit ledge. The body movements in the shadow scene all seem entirely natural, yet they all serve a very clear gameplay function as well.

The puzzles giving the player control of the shadows are similar as well. In some, the player is given control of the light and must move the light in such a way that the shadows of the stationary objects create an adequate path. In others, the light is stationary and the player is given access to multiple 3D objects to move around and create the necessary path. Still in others, the player is given more narrow control over the objects in play. In one place, a machine rotates all the 3D objects around in a circle, giving a discrete set of possible shadow states. In another, the 3D objects can be toggled to be either ‘on’ or ‘off’, demanding timing and strategy to get across to the objective. Still in others, the light is not moved freely, but rather is tilted and pivoted to drag objects in the shadows around.

Later in the game, the puzzles become more complicated (without ever becoming frustrating) by combining these dynamics as well. In one, for example, the player is given control over a light to position in a room of objects, but one of the objects is a rotating gear. The player is left to figure out whether to try to use the outside of the gear or the inside of the gear to get around (and I remain somewhat convinced that either way will work if done properly). In another, the player switches on a series of spotlights individually in sequence, using each to drag a box in the shadows around rather than moving it manually with their character. The combinations of puzzle dynamics as the game goes on continue to get more and more interesting, and never do two puzzles rely on the same basic mechanic.

Even what I’ve described so far doesn’t really do justice to the variety of ways in which the different puzzle types are used, so I’ll give a couple examples. One of my favorite puzzles involved having to get a big ball onto a higher platformer. The shadows in this section were controlled by a machine that moved them around in a set pattern. The only things that could be controlled were the initial position of the ball and the initial position and subsequent direction of the machine. With the ball in the shadow of the machine in the right place, the machine would lift up the shadow of the ball, roll it down one side, up another, and nicely drop it into place on the platform. In another, after maneuvering through a series of 2D platforms, you must jump and transition back into the 3D world at the last second to grab a 3D ledge.

Overall, the puzzle design throughout Contrast reflects a very mature understanding of the distinct functions that the shadow mechanic can play and an attention to using them in varied, interesting ways. Many concept games treat the core mechanic as a bit of an experiment to learn about as they go along, and end up with releases that touch on some interesting ideas but never really fulfill their potential. Worse, many times the applications are repetitive and uninteresting, falling back on the same underlying dynamics over and over. Contrast, on the other hand, fulfills the potential inherent to its interesting mechanic. Every puzzle is interesting, and no two puzzles are alike.

Excellent Gameplay-Plot Symbiosis
One of my sticking points in game design is the symbiosis between gameplay and plot. The plot should justify the gameplay, and the gameplay should illuminate the plot. BioShock is an excellent example of this dynamic: the plot actually explains why there are ammunition vending machines everywhere and why enemies have powers like fire, electricity, and ice. The later Assassin’s Creed games are very bad at this: why, for example, is buying a potion run through the animus screen instead of handled between the characters at the time? In the former, the plot justifies the gameplay, whereas in the latter, the gameplay casts major questions on the plot.

Being a concept game, I personally would not have faulted Contrast if it paid no attention to this issue at all. Realistically, failing to fulfill this criteria is never really a flaw in a game, but rather is just a missed opportunity. Attending to plot-gameplay symbiosis makes a game better, but failing to do so does not necessarily make a game worse. Contrast, however, does attend to this issue. Not only is the interaction between light and shadow the core mechanic in the gameplay, but it is also the core of the entire plot of the game. As the game goes on, the game starts to explain why there exists a shadow world and a real world, and even alludes to some of the reason for your playable character’s existence in the former. Ultimately, the shadow world becomes the key plot mechanic for the entire game, but I won’t go into that any further lest I spoil the story.

Not only that, but the shadow play is also key to the game’s excellent storytelling. Aside from the player character and the young girl Didi, no character in the entire game is actually rendered. Rather, they all exist only in shadows. Stories are told in shadow scenes, and the shadows occasionally even interact with the character Didi. The interplay between the “real” world and the “shadow” world is central to every facet of Contrast, from its gameplay to its plot to its storytelling, and that is a symbiosis that few games every successfully create.

Charming Storytelling
The actual plot of Contrast is not all that special. It’s a fairly standard tale of a 1920s businessman indebted to the mob trying to convince his lover that he’s changed; the relationships among the characters are pretty directly rehashed from nearly every gangster movie and television show of the past several decades. The shadow world dynamic provides an interesting twist on the story, fortunately, but what’s charming about Contrast is the way in which this story is told and the way in which the characters are elucidated. Rehashed plots are common because despite their past usage, they can still make the viewer, reader, or player feel something when executed correctly, and Contrast executes a prototypical plot beautifully.

The plot is told largely in two ways. The first is through glimpses of significant scenes amongst the characters, such as Johnny’s negotiations with the illusionist Vicenzo and the arguments between Kat and her daughter, Didi, are told through shadow play (as with the rest of the game), but the storytelling dynamic justifies the player only ever witnessing the significant moments. There’s no plodding through the boring details of characters moving from place to place, but instead the viewer is only given the necessary high points. This minimalistic storytelling method preserves some mystery and intrigue in the otherwise-predictable plot, almost as if the game understands that the player is sufficiently familiar with the story to fill in some of the gaps.

The second facet of the storytelling is the discovery of optional collectibles. These items show up as glowing spots throughout the game and most are fairly easily identifiable during a normal course of play, meaning that though they are optional the game is nonetheless safe in assuming the player will obtain a fair number of these. These items are things like news clippings, letters, pictures, and posters that do a masterful job of telling the player the bits and pieces of the story necessary to understand the current relationships among the players. There are, for example, notes from the local child protective services, photos of the characters in earlier days, and news clippings about past events relevant to the current events. The combination of these collectibles allows the player to put together their own understanding of the events rather than having to be directly informed by the game of necessary background information.

Overall, the story in Contrast may be somewhat predictable, but the storytelling is nonetheless beautiful. The game does a phenomenal job of showing rather than telling; never is the player directly informed of the nature of the relationships between the characters or the backstory of the plot, but through this minimalistic storytelling, the player is able to weave together the threads themselves into a satisfying tapestry.

The Bad
Ultimately, there are very few significant flaws with Contrast. With only a $15 price tag (or free with PlayStation Plus for the early adopters of the PlayStation 4), it doesn’t have quite the expectations on it that come with some of the bigger-budget releases. The game doesn’t do anything wrong, really, but that’s in part because it doesn’t set out to do very much in the first place. It’s a concept game: it’s an interesting core dynamic applied in innovative ways to create a unique, niche gameplay experience.

The only real flaws in the game, in my opinion, are merely missed opportunities. Could the game have had a less derivative story? Sure, although I personally think there are enough twists on the formula to differentiate the game. Could the game have been longer than just 2 to 3 hours? Absolutely, although I personally would rather the game end while it remains interesting than pad itself out with repetitive puzzles. Is there any replay value? Absolutely not; once you’ve solved the puzzles, there’s not much inherent fun in completing them again compared to other puzzle-platformers. But is it acceptable for a concept game to release without fulfilling these criteria? Certainly. These are ways the game could have been better, but the absence of these elements does not make the game worse.

Upon completing the game and beginning this review, I was a bit surprised to see that the general critical reception for Contrast has been lukewarm at best. To me, the game is a nice successor to other minimalistic concept games like Limbo and Braid that have received praise in recent years. Surprised that for once in my reviewing career my opinion seemed to skew significantly more positively than the mean, I delved into what others found lacking about Contrast. Several of the common criticisms I see are issues I simply did not encounter. Many reviewers lament the player character’s tendency to get stuck in scenery or lose access to movable items, but I encountered neither issue. Others comment that the controls are imprecise, whereas I was pleased with how smooth and fast-paced they are. What’s more, the game has a pleasantly low penalty for death, meaning that even when imprecise controls become an issue, you lose mere seconds; rarely if ever did I have to redo something after dying. Others criticize the one-solution puzzles, but I disagree with that notion wholeheartedly: on at least two occasions, I remarked after solving a puzzle that I suddenly realized how the game had intended I complete it – I just did it a different way. Even so, when the puzzles are engaging and varied, I find little fault in there being only one solution. Portal‘s puzzles only had one solution each for the most part, so while multiple solutions may be a strength, a lack thereof is not a weakness.

So, your mileage may vary. For me, I encountered no glitches, few frustratingly imprecise controls, and really no instances worth complaint at all. Maybe I’m the exception, either because I have a higher tolerance for said issues or because I’m simply on the lower end of the curve of how many problems were encountered. Regardless, I find little to criticize at all about Contrast: it could have done a few things better, but it did little to nothing badly, and for a budget concept game I consider that to be more than fulfilling expectations.

The Verdict
Contrast takes a core underlying concept and applies it masterfully. Many similarly experimental concept games are content to take their core mechanic and apply it in the predicted ways in otherwise unremarkable game worlds with throwaway stories and lazy exposition: they rest on their concept rather than building on their concept. Contrast, on the other hand, takes that concept and strives to construct something more than just an experimental game on it. It puts in significant thought to successfully apply that mechanic in a variety of interesting ways, reflecting a surprisingly mature understanding of the true potential of the gimmick. It wraps the mechanic up cleanly in the story as well, eschewing the frustratingly common practice of leaving a glaring disconnect between the gameplay and plot. With the gameplay and story taken care of, the game further endeavors to have a unique visual feel with an artfully minimalistic narrative approach, succeeding at creating not only an interesting gameplay experiment, but an all-around satisfying and charming game.

There is more that Contrast could have done, of course. Many critics are not incorrect in saying that the story is predictable and formulaic, that the play time is very short without any redeeming replay value, and that the puzzles are largely scripted rather than open. For a $15 downloadable concept game, however, Contrast is a very satisfying gameplay experience. At 3-4 hours of play time, the game runs a bit longer than the movies you pay $10 to see in the theater and is comparably entertaining, so even if you missed out on downloading it in December it’s still worth the price to pick it up.

My Recommendation
Definitely worth the $15 to pick it up.

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