One of the newly announced indie titles at E3 2013 was Contrast, a simple platformer with an incredible emotional weight. While everyone else was shooting terrorists or slashing away at demons, I was experiencing one of the most incredible artistic expressions ever seen in a platformer video game.
In Contrast, you play the role of a young girl’s imaginary friend. You have the ability to turn yourself into a shadow at will, allowing you to treat shadows as if they were real objects. This is the beginning and end of the gameplay in Contrast. You simply work your way toward the end of a level to the best of your ability, standing on real life objects when need be, and blending into the shadows when there is no physical road forward.
However, Contrast does a lot with this simple concept. For example, turning on a merry-go-round suddenly turns its shadow into a series of moving platforms that you have to navigate. If a shadow of a table isn’t tall enough to get you where you need to be, then just move a light source closer to it in order to make the shadow get bigger. The platforming puzzles that you solve in this game give you plenty of eureka moments that keep you coming back for more.
However, the gameplay of Contrast is second to its masterful storytelling. Contrast is about a 1920’s family who has gotten into trouble. It tells the story of a father who has fallen into gambling debt and a mother who has to take seedy jobs just to make money to raise their daughter. Yes, this is the same daughter who you are the imaginary friend of.
What’s interesting, is that you cannot actually see real world people at all. You can see and interact with real world objects but all people are merely invisible to you. Instead, you can only see and hear them through their shadows. So, Contrast shows some pretty gripping scenes of domestic abuse, crime, murder, sexual assault, and more, all through this shadow play which only alludes to the acts being performed. These horrendous scenes then help create the shadow platforming world that you have to traverse, if your heart hasn’t already been ripped out from your chest from watching them.
That’s when it hits you. You are essentially experiencing these scenes through the eyes of a little girl. You are turning your head away from the violence, yet hearing them all the same. You are finding comfort in your imaginary friend who does her best to save you, yet still cannot actually interact with anything real. She can only be passive, and that is the only thing you can do in the story as well. It’s an incredibly powerful message told through simple platforming mechanics, and it will leave an impression on you comparable to other great indie titles like Braid or Limbo. Contrast is exactly why we should look at games as art. Few other games at E3 had the emotional impact that this one did. Look for it in Q1 of 2014.