Contrast -- Dawn

“So the basic idea being, what would happen if you could become your shadow, and I’ll start walking on shadow lines in the world. That really, at its core is where the game concept first evolved. In the same way as Portal, I wanted to create a mechanic that really fit well and [you could] learn well. So something that had enough depth that as long as there is a light source in the game you can become a shadow and use this mechanic in several ways.”

This is how Compulsion Games Studio Head Guillaume Provost presents his game to XBLAFans and a smattering of other members of the games media. He does it behind closed doors at Contrast‘s Electronic Entertainment Expo booth. It’s a little backwards. Having played the demo half an hour ago, I’ve already walked on the shadow lines to which Provost refers. I’ve already manipulated the power of light to illuminate a cabaret stage and subsequently born witness to a less-than-harmonious meeting of lovers after the close of the show for which I played at stagehand. I’ve already become a shadow to platform across the dark contours of merry-go-round horses at an eerily deserted circus in an old town.

Now, after they’ve already been experienced, these things are explained for the first time, and that leads into some questions. Chief among our curiosities are finding out who these characters are and what it means when they become shadows. Provost and Complusion’s public relations and community man, Sam Abbott, are mostly forthcoming with the answers. Mostly.

Let’s play make believe

In Contrast, there is a character named Dawn who is capable of slipping in and out of a shadow form, allowing her to platform on other shadows. Dawn is actually the player-character, so you’re in control of her. Sort of.

Sure, you directly move her around the environment, and she’ll perform the actions properly corresponding to your button presses on the controller, but Dawn seems to have another boss. Didi is a little girl who accompanies Dawn in the game and seemingly has no exploitable abilities of her own. So she makes Dawn do all of the heavy lifting. Dawn doesn’t appear to have any objections to this arrangement. As you may remember from your own childhood, the type of friend Dawn is tends to be good like that.

Contrast -- Dawn and Didi

“Didi is the little girl, and she’s been heavily inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth,” Abbott explains. “I don’t know if you guys know Pan’s Labyrinth the movie, but it’s about a little girl that’s going through a terrible experience… It’s all about how she invents this imaginary friend to deal with — to process these things.”

Dawn isn’t real. She’s a figment of Didi’s imagination, conjured up by the little girl’s mind to deal with some sort of dramatic event(s) that took place earlier in Contrast‘s timeline than what’s on display in the demo. Whatever happened, it seems to have involved her parents.

The cabaret

While playing the game prior to Provost and Abbott’s rundown, the first task — and the most-frequent one throughout the remainder of the demo — is learning what can be done with Dawn’s shadow abilities. Standing in a dark alley with Didi, the way forward is not immediately discernible. There is no tutorial explaining how things work, but pressing a button turns Dawn into a 2D shadow in this 3D world. After some mostly aimless fooling around for a few moments, the answer is revealed through accidental gameplay. Running and jumping along other shadows, Dawn and Didi eventually end up in that cabaret.

This section continues the education-sans-tutorial experience. Now I will learn how to solve puzzles in Contrast. The cabaret is empty, but that’s nothing a little music and dancing can’t solve. Powering up the lights and fooling around with the directions they’re pointed in allows the main act to come to life in the shadows. The band plays on, and the curviest shadow of a woman you can imagine takes the stage to hoots and whistles from the audience of shadow men who have suddenly packed into the joint. Like Jessica Rabbit, upon whom Compulsion says the cabaret singer is based, she knows what she’s got and isn’t afraid to use it.

Contrast -- Shadows

Leaving the men wanting more, she heads backstage after her performance and bumps into a man who seems to be a former lover. To say she’s less excited to see him than the audience was to see her would be an understatement. Hiding on the stairwell above them, Dawn and Didi listen in to the duo who are revealed to be her parents. But if being a shadow means Dawn isn’t real, does it mean Didi’s parents (also shadows) aren’t either? Does it mean they’re dead? What about the other shadow people? We won’t get the answers out of Provost today; he doesn’t want to spoil the story.

Looking backwards and inwards

He will, however, speak to the setting of the cabaret and the game at large. “When it comes time for us to decide how we surround the [shadow] mechanic in our creative process, one of the biggest first influences we had was film noir from the ‘40s,” he explains during the Q & A session. “We felt — film noir has traditionally used shadows as a storytelling technique — so we felt it was a really good ground for us to tell the story. So what we’ve effectively done is we’ve matched two eras together: the 1920s burlesque era and the 1940s film noir era in the game.”

There aren’t any specific period or genre pieces that influenced his game’s look or story; a more general inspiration was drawn from the films and architecture of the two decades and themes he mentions. There is one thing just a tad more explicit and modern driving the game, however.

“There’s a lot of personal elements to the game,” Provost reveals. “I’m a single dad. I have two little girls, so it was important for me to encompass that in the context of the game.”

Unsurprisingly, basing Contrast in part off of a game designer’s life means it’s not concerned with the same things most designers concern their games with. “We try to explore something that’s a little bit more interesting than saving the world, or beating a big bad guy or getting revenge for something or other,” Provost says. “It’s really the story of this little girl and what she wants out of her family.”

The merry-go-round

After the argument back in the cabaret, it was off to the circus. No one will be accusing the production of bearing a resemblance to either Cirque du Soleil or Barnum and Bailey, though. There isn’t a soul around aside from Didi, and the atmosphere is dour and depressing. Gloomy or not, Dawn needs to reach the top of the aforementioned merry-go-round to collect a shining ball of light and power known as a “luminarie” in order to proceed to the next area of the game.

Didi’s father is the likely-not-so-proud proprietor of this sad-sack circus. Things apparently didn’t go so well for him after the mafia fronted him money to get the show rolling, and now everything is broken. Though the circumstances may be unfortunate for Didi’s father and his mobster benefactors, they make an ideal scenario for Compulsion to teach the player how to navigate shadow platforms while carrying momentum. Once again, there is no tutorial for this. There is only gameplay.

No direct route to the top of the merry-go-round is evident, but powering the thing on reveals the solution: Dawn must platform along the now-moving shadows of the ride’s horses that are being cast on the buildings surrounding it. Figuring out what to do is easy, mastering the actual doing, though…well, not so much. Possibly due to the fact that this is the first time I’m playing Contrast, jumping along the ever-higher horses’ shadows results in more than a handful of failures before Dawn makes it to the top of the ride to claim the luminarie. Provost would later label his game a puzzle-platformer. Contrary to what the experience at the merry-go-round might lead one to believe, Abbott and Provost confirm that Contrast is more about elaborate puzzles than arduous platforming.

Contrast Platforming

“Definitely more puzzle-based,” comes his response to which way the game leans heaviest. “It’s a puzzle-platformer, so of course the platforming’s in here as you’re solving the puzzles, but it’s not the kind of game where you’re going to need to spend 10 minutes trying to…”

“Trying to jump,” says Provost, finishing his colleague’s thought. Instead, according to Abbott, players are more likely to invest 10 minutes at a time deducing puzzle solutions throughout the game’s targeted four-to-five-hour story.

As varied as light and shadow?

Regardless of which end of the puzzle-platform spectrum the game actually does tilt towards, the demo leaves me, like the men in the cabaret audience, wanting to see a whole lot more. Good thing, then, that Provost says that more is in no short supply in Contrast.

“We try to vary the activities throughout the game so you’re not always doing the same thing,” he explains. “And what we do, we also blend the mechanics together in a way that gives you a different experience as you’re traversing through the game. The [merry-go-round] is a great example of that, where having shadows — instead of telling a story through shadows or having you go through shadows, we sort of combined the experience in a way that will tell the story while you’re traversing it at the same time.

“For us, it was just trying to experiment for new ways to try to tell a story.”