E3 2013: Hands on with Contrast’s masterful mix of shadows, France, Jazz, and Pan’s Labyrinth

E3 2013: Hands on with Contrast’s masterful mix of shadows, France, Jazz, and Pan’s Labyrinth


“Elegant Simplicity.”

Those are the words I’d probably use to describe the unique gameplay mechanic of Compulsion Games’ latest creation, Contrast. The game is the reason that the studio exists, in fact, as the development team’s Sam Abbott informed us during a closed-door session that the team assembled around creating this specific adventure. The game, whose premise revolves around the ability to switch between a 3D world and 2D platforming adventure, was inspired by Valve’s Portal. “It was a game about a different way to move through space,” Abbott told us, “and we felt that we wanted to examine creatively moving around in a world, seamlessly and with a lot of freedom and fun.”

The “creative” aspect involves the interplay between light and shadow. Lead character Dawn, the imaginary friend of 9-yr old Didi, traverses the world examining and exploring where she can, unable to fully interact with the things in it. Because she’s imaginary, her interaction can’t take place with physical objects. It’s not until a light source is activated and shadows are cast that she can jump into the walls, scaling them in two dimensions and solving puzzles.

During my hands-on time I was required to activate a giant carousel, with Didi turning on a lamp. As the carousel turned and the horses bobbed up and down, I lept into the wall, hopped and ran across them, and reached a ledge up above. Other puzzles had me switching back and forth between the two worlds in mid jump to clear walls on one of the sides, gaps, or obstacles. It’s a novel approach to experiencing an already striking world.

Contrast is set in a town that borrows influences from 1920’s France, German Expressionism, Art Deco, and even a bit of Moulin Rouge. It has a certain classic Parisian style that, combined with the shadow play, adds touches of Film Noir along the way. The costume designs — Dawn has a burlesque-themed outfit, Didi an upper-class schoolgirl — fit well along cobblestone streets, red curtains, and the smoky ambiance of the game’s jazz club. The soundtrack further enhances the often sultry atmosphere, as Jazz singer Laura Ellis provides new and exclusive music for the game.

Everything is tied together through Contrast‘s plot. Told through shadow-based puzzles and interactive cut scenes (there are no other “live people”, just shadows), the game centers around Didi, who Abbott admitted was modeled after Ophelia from Pan’s Labyrinth. Didi’s parents have had a difficult marriage, and this has subsequently caused her to have troubles of her own. Her only outlet was to create Dawn as a sort of “perfect image” of her mother, and the shadows reflecting the memories of specific scenes that play out in her head. Didi’s mother worked as a singer in a cabaret bar, hence the constant reminders of the burlesque and Jazz music. As Didi deals with her personal ordeal, she uses Dawn almost as her avatar.

Contrast E3 Screen

In one part of the demo Didi sneaks into her mother’s cabaret bar. At first empty, Dawn climbs through the rafters to activate the lights, revealing shadow musicians that renact one of Didi’s mother’s performances. As the spotlights hit different parts of the stage, the highlighted musicians erupt into sound. It was enough to get our toes tapping in the demo room, and the performance is delivered with as much power and clarity as it was almost like being in the theater to see it.

Another scene had Dawn jumping on the shadows of Didi’s arguing parents, from hand to shoulder, hip to head, cigarette to ash tray. It reminded me of classic Disney cartoon tropes in which rodents avoid being seen by the people that they’re climbing on, ducking in and out of pockets and jackets.

Contrast has the ability to not only bring a fresh concept to gaming, but also an incredibly personal story told through all of the game’s mechanisms. It’s fascinating, and the demo was often touching and heartbreaking. It’ll be the kind of game that hits some people incredibly deeply, while others purely enjoy the 2D/3D shift. Whatever the case, it should be one for us to look forward to when it arrives later this year on PS3, PS4, PC, and Xbox 360.