Shadow Game: Compulsion’s Contrast

by Kristin Bezio

ContrastArtworkIndie studio Compulsion was one of several at PAXEast 2013, which is where I first saw the gameplay of Contrast. The developer who was there told me that the game would only be available on Steam, but that it would come out in May. In May, I checked on the game’s progress using this magical place called “the internet,” and learned that Contrast was being developed not only for Steam, but for Xbox and PS3, as well, but also that it was not going to come out in May… nor were they really sure when it would.

It finally came out mid-November, on Steam, PSN, and XBL Arcade, so no matter what platform you’re using, you can play it. And you probably should, especially if you like noir, art deco, or the circus. I happen to like all three.

Contrast is based around the premise that the player – a noir-era circus acrobat named Dawn with impossibly long legs – is the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi. Dawn has the unique ability to shift between the three-dimensional world we live in and a two-dimensional shadow world, transforming the game as she does so between being an immersive 3D exploration game and a 2D platformer at the player’s will, provided Dawn has access to a light source.

The puzzles are challenging without being impossible – however, if the player (like me) isn’t that big a fan of jumping puzzles, they can often be frustrating, as they suffer from the problem of “I know what I need to do, I just keep repeatedly failing to do it.” Personally, I’d rather be uncertain what to do than to have immediately ascertained what I need to do and then be unable to do it without dying repeatedly. Of course, to have no clue as to the solution would be similarly frustrating, and Compulsion should be commended for making puzzles I could quickly solve without making me feel silly – or stupid.

One of my two favorite things about Contrast is the game’s aesthetic; set in a noir city that seems partly in and partly outside of Didi’s imagination, the streets are suitably gritty and glamorous; Didi’s nightclub-singer mom, Kat, is both maternal and “soiled dove”; Didi’s father-figure, Johnny Fenris, is appropriately wolfish yet vulnerable. The graphics are artistic without being too cartoonish, and the shift between three- and two-dimensional play smooth, with the shadow world having just as much richness as the three-dimensional one.

The plot of the game is similarly film noir, but (thankfully!) takes a twist toward the feminist because Johnny Fenris is a bit of a failure, and Didi and Dawn continually come to his (and Kat’s) rescue in a reversal of the damsel-in-distress trope. It’s pretty clear that Compulsion is making a point of this, in fact, as in the circus itself Johnny tells a fairy tale using shadow puppets – in which Dawn stands in for the ubiquitous princess. The story begins with a king offering the hand of his daughter to Fred the Knight, in pursuit of which, Fred heads off to slay an ogre. He fails, and the Princess has to rescue him. Repeat with a spider and a dragon, after which Fred decides that it’s okay that the Princess rescued him and marries her anyway. At this point, Johnny tells Didi – to whom the story is being told – that there’s another version where the Princess rides off on the dragon to have adventures.

It’s pretty clear that the Princess puppet show is an allegory for the whole game – the Princess (who is really Didi, of course) constantly rescuing her father (well, her mother’s future husband) from his own mistakes. She does it because both she and her mother love him and believe in him, not because she’s forced to, but because she chooses to. As Dawn, the player is a little bit forced into helping Didi, but (as we will see) there’s more to this, as well.

The downsides to the game are to be expected for its production value (company size) and price point. Its graphics are a little bit rough around the edges; while the style is very pretty to look at, it is also pixelated, and the loading screens appear to be concept art, which is cool, but suggests a lack of finances or access to technology. That said, it is an indie game, and it can’t be expected to produce graphical quality akin to a triple-A company – for what it is, it’s very pretty and done with artistic flair.

Unfortunately, it’s also a little buggy. Dawn gets caught on things a lot (“charging” will usually get her out of it), and more than once I fell from one part of a level to another part and had no way of getting back to where I was – aside from dying. If a player falls down a series of jumps and doesn’t die, the level should reset its other conditions (or provide new ones) to enable the player to climb back up to where they’d already gotten.

This could also be alleviated (although not solved) by including manual saving. Having to either wait for death or wait until I’d completed a quest was a little irritating at 11.30 at night when I want to go to bed but Dawn is standing on top of a carousel in the middle of a puzzle.

But the biggest downside, in my opinion, is that the game is far too short. It has some interesting puzzles and mechanics, but I feel like there is so much more I could do with them if only I were given the chance to really explore the full realm of shadow-powers and abilities. Particularly at the end, some really interesting concepts in terms of manipulation of shadows show up, and I’d like to have had a lot more time to play with them. I also wish I’d gotten more of an explanation about what was going on in terms of the shadow world… which leads me to the final section of the review.

spoilers ahead

Which brings me to the other favorite thing about the game, which is also a significant plot-spoiler. The game – like another recently released AAA title – has a lighthouse as its final quest that introduces an interesting mystery, which is quickly (even, I would say, too quickly) resolved.

Over the course of the game, Didi learns that a magician named Vincenzo is her “real father,” whom Johnny Fenris is attempting to employ in his circus (in an attempt to make enough money to pay off some goons who have threatened him, Kat, and Didi). Didi drags Dawn to Vincenzo’s lab in order to confront him, and learns that he has no interest in her – or so it seems. Instead, when the lights go out on the big performance, Didi and Dawn head to the creepy lighthouse on the edge of the world to turn them back on.

In the lighthouse and in Vincenzo’s laboratory, Dawn (the player) begins finding artifacts that suggest that something bizarre is going on with Vincenzo. For one thing, his assistant disappeared years ago, under circumstances that seem rather nefarious. But then Dawn starts finding photographs of people with shadows that don’t match their bodies, shadows without people, and people (and objects) without shadows. This is the first time that it really becomes apparent that Dawn is more than just Didi’s imaginary friend.

Then the player finds the flyer that shows Dawn standing next to Vincenzo – she (you, as the player) is the missing assistant. This then raises the question of whether Dawn is Didi’s willing shadow or whether she has somehow been forced into it. The answer comes at the game’s end – and I’m not going to tell you how – but the idea of an alternate universe, a shift in reality that isn’t just in the mind of a little girl with a terrible life is actually quite compelling.

What it means is that Didi is a figure who has considerable agency, despite the fact that everyone around her either tries to take it from her or doesn’t believe she has it. She is branded as “disturbed,” her mother as “unfit,” her adoptive father as a failure, and her biological father as a villain, but Didi retains her own personality and her beliefs in the people she loves in spite of all of it. And she wins. The figure in the game with the least amount of referent power is the person who actually has the most, even though it is continually denied to her.

And Dawn, whom the player, if they’re anything like me, has assumed to be imaginary, unreal in all possible senses, is validated in the game’s end as real, as having made a real difference, even though her power lies entirely in the literal and proverbial shadows. As such, then, Contrast is a game about the “little people” who are forgotten, dismissed, marginalized. The Kats and Johnnys and Didis of the universe who have so much to offer in terms of talent and love, but whose stories are cast aside and left to die in the alleys and shadows of society. And it gives them not only a story, but a victory, in spite of their mistakes, their heartbreak, their problems, their disadvantages, because they, too, have magic

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