At this point “art games” have become the butt of several jokes. Gamers have taken the piss out of these games for having incredibly basic art and gameplay that is obfuscated under the pretension of deeply symbolic story. It’s easy to dismiss these gamers as childish and immature, but there is some truth to their words. No game represents this better than Contrast, an “art game” through and through that has an incredible amount of heart and a touching story, but gameplay that falls far behind its indie-game contemporaries.
Contrast puts you in control of Dawn, the imaginary friend of young girl, Didi. Dawn is a slim figure with a painted face who has the ability to become a shadow whenever she touches a lighted piece of wall. This is the main gameplay mechanic of Contrast. Dawn will switch between the three dimensional world of reality, and the two dimensional world of shadows in order to solve platforming puzzles and make her way through the narrative.
The shadow mechanics of the game all deal with the way light interacts with physical objects. Move a light closer to an object and its shadow gets bigger, producing a bigger platform for Dawn to stand on when she goes two dimensional. Swing a light source near an object and the shadow it casts moves, creating a moving platform for Dawn to jump on. A tiny spec on the lens of a light can cast a shadow so big that it creates an impassible wall for Dawn.
The atmosphere of Contrast is spot on. It uses shadows as a storytelling mechanic with amazing success. The only people in the world of Contrast are Dawn and Didi. Every other character, like Didi’s parents, are only represented through the shadows they cast. You can still hear them just fine, but can only see their activities through shadow puppetry. In fact, it’s these very actions that create many of the platforming stages that Dawn has to traverse.
The story of Contrast revolves around Didi’s broken family. Her father is in deep debt and her mother has been taking, shall we say sketchy, side jobs. Seeing this play out through the shadows and having absolutely no way to interact with them or solve their problems gets across the feeling of being a small kid utterly powerless in an adult world. It creates a powerful feeling of helplessness that anyone who was forced to watch their parents fight at a young age can identify with.
Unfortunately, the gameplay of Contrast does not live up to its lofty story ideals. We first saw Contrast at PAX East this year where it felt interesting but unpolished. We are sad to say that the game hasn’t changed much since then. The controls are still very stiff. Sometimes you need to slip in and out of the shadows in mid jump and the controls just aren’t responsive enough to do that reliably.
The platforming itself isn’t very fun. It alternates between simple and linear pathways that can be cleared by anyone who played a Mario game once in their life, and frustrating finicky timing puzzles that feel at best annoying and at worst unfair. The best platforming levels are the ones where you run across the silhouettes of people interacting but that’s not because the jumping is fun. It’s because you get to see more of Contrast’s story.
Perhaps one of the biggest problems with Contrast is that it doesn’t do enough with its shadow mechanics. Early on you are bombarded with shadow puzzles but later Contrast falls back on the same switch pulling and box moving puzzles that we have seen in countless platformers before. The whole “interact with shadows” thing was also done before in the Wii title Lost in Shadow, and frankly it was done a lot better there.
The biggest problem with Contrast is its lack of payoff, both in story and gameplay. There isn’t any real reward for passing platforming sections aside from a few collectibles and getting to watch the game proceed forward. There’s a total lack of acknowledgement of your success, which makes the game’s pacing feel slow and actually kind of dulls the emotional impact of the narrative. Perhaps this was a pointed decision, as “dull” would be a good way to describe the way a child feels when they watch their parents’ relationship break down, but it still doesn’t do much to make the game enjoyable.
The story itself, while the better part of Contrast, leaves a lot of things unexplained. Some characters are introduced only to never have their backstories fleshed out. There’s this “magic” plothook that remain vague and unexplained. The story ends abruptly and leaves you feeling unsatisfied. At only three hours long, Contrast barely gives you time to care about its characters, let alone get attached to them.
Is Contrast art? Yes, but it's flawed art. While its concept is great and the atmosphere is phenomenal, that’s as far as the brilliance goes. The gameplay simply doesn’t hold up the weight of Contrast’s dark and serious narrative, which proves that art games still need to be actual games. As a free download on the PS4, Contrast is certainly worth a short look, but at a $15 price tag on Steam, Contrast is better left in the shadows.
This review was based off a retail version of Contrast for the PC.