My first instinct was to ignore Contrast. I passed it by many times in the indie megabooth because it didn’t inspire me. If I wanted a new portalesque I would prefer Scale or Against the Wall. When, finally, I stopped and watched the trailer… I cried! Not a teary fellow, in general, but this game pulled my heart guts in a new way. At this point it was inevitable that I play it, and once I was playing it I new this was the one.
Contrast is a new entry in the burgeoning subgenre spawned by Portal. It presents a (somewhat) unique mechanic, spends the entire game exploring it, and apparently almost avoids combat. This is great! When I finished Portal, all I wanted was more Portal (and Portal 2 just really didn’t cut it). It seems I wasn’t alone. In Contrast you can walk on shadows. As the game’s main character, Dawn, you must navigate a 3D world where you push and pull objects relative to light sources, so as to create a platformable 2D world. Then, you platform along to the next narrative node. Fits the pattern, but also sounds a lot like Perspective (or the earlier Lost in Shadow). Some tropes that portalesques have displayed so far (such as waking up in a mysterious facility) are missing here, and so it is tempting to just think of Contrast as an action platformer. An interview with the creator, however, puts this question to rest.
Very little storytelling is ever done with a game’s core mechanic. Am I wrong? Basically it seems to me that in Mario you jump, but jumping itself is never used to deliver plot. Jumping doesn’t tell us anything about Mario. Similarly, portals tell us very little about Chell (more on that later) and in general it is quite rare for the core activity of a game to really relate to the narrative, except in that it carries us from one narrative node to the next. Gameplay is usually the “fun part” that strings together the narrative; or it is the thing that we have to do in order to continue to enjoy the narrative, depending on who you ask. But when was the last time you played a game in which the core mechanic was the narrative (or vis-versa)? What would that even look like?
Well here’s an example: in Portal you never encounter a mirror or any exposition that tells you who you are. You never find a big obvious shrine with a painting of your character. Never. Instead the avatar is only introduced by and through the core gameplay mechanism. You think with portals, and you reflect with portals too. Early on, and whenever you please, you can look at Chell through the portals and come to feel a little closer to your character. The rest of the time, in Portal as in most games, puzzle time and story time are separated both in terms of where and when they occur, and in terms of the media of content delivery. Another good example is Dan in Street Fighter: he is a painting of a character; the paint is game mechanics.
In the Contrast demo I never felt like I was shadow walking my way from one narrative node to the next, even though Contrast is exactly the sort of game that could feel that way. The narrative was skillfully delivered by the shadow mechanic: in the theater area are you are arranging shadows both to platform on and also to give those shadows a voice. This is seamless! More importantly, though (and this has something to do with why I cried at the trailer), the younger sister Didi’s constant chatter never left me a moment to really feel like I was just moving to the next point in the narrative. We are always playing together! Hers is not a driving narrative voice justifying your every action, or giving you quests over an intercom; and it isn’t navi with her constant barking, either. It is something I really haven’t seen before. Didi really gives the impression of being your younger sibling. She makes recommendations, but they are delivered in such a way that it always sounds like something she wants to see you do, rather than something she thinks you should do. If you’ve ever spent an afternoon running around with a five year old, you will agree that they love to play the leader. Unlike adults, though, what they want from leadership is not status or productivity: they want you to model for them. They want to see how amazing you — the giant larger-than-life adult — can be. The task at hand is less important to them than its skillful execution by their role model. And so it is with Didi. She is always excited to see more, and this manages to create a heart-felt and caring relationship — even in the span of a 10 minute demo. In addition, her little sound-bytes, while environmental, don’t feel like they are keyed directly to simple events like entering or leaving a room, or completing a puzzle as they might have been in a lesser game. They are crafted in such a way that she just seems honestly thrilled that you are spending the night running around with her. Not only is the relationship between the sisters an ever-present part of the soundscape, it is also part of the landscape. This is really how the game got me to throw up my arms in delight: Didi’s shadow is often a platform. While you are leaping between the shadows of horses in the carousel area, Didi’s shadow is riding one of the horses. “Oops, sorry!” she declares as she ducks out of the way, as if she wasn’t thrilled out of her mind watching you leap over her shadow.
I got pretty emotional during Didi’s trailer when the characters are shown watching fireworks together; when I realized that this was a game in which a little girl and her female role model could watch fireworks on a balcony, without needing to dote on the attentions of the male leads. I was already sold, playing the demo convinced me that not only was this that game, but it was also a skillfully told story. It was scenes like Didi raising a stick so that you can cross its enormous shadow that impressed me; or in the announcement trailer when you leap from the shadow of Didi’s outstretched hand onto the looming shadow of a pistol. This is beautiful symbolism: the role model being portrayed as both smaller than and much larger than the lead really captures my imagination. It is also just a platform, and how many games have you played where the very platforms you jump on, or the act of jupming itself, helps to drive the narrative? Contrast reminds me of the stories I was read when I was a kid — like Sylvie and Bruno, Alice in Wonderland, and At the Back of the North Wind — and I hope to be able to put it on my shelf along-side them.
Is that enough pressure?