Joel’s favorite game of PAX East 2013: Contrast [Preview]
Contrast was just incredible. The art design, music, and gameplay all come together in a game that’s just stunning. True story: I had to use the bathroom in a terrible way right after my interview with Klei Entertainment, but when I rounded the corner the Contrast booth was right there. I stood there mesmerized by the trailer, and soon myself bugging the rep for a time when I could talk to someone about what I was seeing on screen. I’d seen a gameplay mechanic similar to this game’s used in Lost in Shadow, but it had nowhere near this much personality and presence. For the type of gamer who needs inspired art and sound design to complement the gameplay, this is the full package.
The stunning artwork drew me to the game before I could even hear it. According to the game’s lead, Guillaume Provost, the game takes a lot of its inspiration from France in the 1920’s. Bright signs light up the night, flickering against the sides of buildings that are covered in beautiful paintings. It’s a time of vaudeville, of live magicians and circus acts, and is a time that really hasn’t been explored all of that much in games (Besides Bioshock, to an extent). Considering how visually evocative the architecture and decorations of the time were, I think that’s an absolute crime; one that Contrast is looking to fix. Seriously, go down and watch the trailer and then come back.
Finished? What did you think of the Laura Ellis song that played? The decorations and setting are all well and good, but without an incredible jazz singer to back it all up then things start to fall apart. The sounds of that time period had a vibe to them all of their own, and were a big part of what makes the entertainment from then really stand out. The game would have looked good without the appropriate music, but it wouldn’t pop as much as it does without Ellis’s voice. Provost told me that they’d gotten permission to use one of her songs in the game’s trailer, and that the reaction had been so positive that she agreed to do some more songs for the game. I’m not going to lie: a part of me is excited to play the game just to hear this lady sing some more. Autotune this ain’t.
Let’s get down to the game, though. You can move in and out of the shadows (literally), using the darkness to traverse to areas you might not be able to reach any other way. In one instance early on I needed to reach a balcony that was high overhead. There was no way to reach it on my own, but there was a lantern sitting in front of a bicycle not too far away. The light cast a huge shadow of the bike up on the wall, and all I had to do was move close to the wall and flick a button on my controller; allowing me to become a shadow version of myself. From there, I had to hop along on the still-spinning pedals in order to scale the wall and make my way to the same level as the balcony. It looked great, but it wasn’t exactly challenging stuff.
After moving on I got to a huge, beautiful carousel. After getting it started, I had to then slip into the shadows and hop from horse to horse in order to clamber up the side of the building. I had a little bit of trouble here as I just rushed to the closest wall and tried to start scaling the shadows of the horses. I’d gone to the wrong place, though, and it made my life a little bit more difficult to move on. I could still get up that way, which was the good part, so it’s entirely possible that there will be openings for some creative run-throughs of the game’s stages the developers didn’t intend.
Just the same, such runs were a little beyond my skills since my sneakier route didn’t give me a lot of time to figure out what to do. You’re not just stuck inside of the shadows once you’ve slipped into them, as you also have an ability to do a short dash out of the shadows and then meld back into them. Its application became apparent pretty when I came to a pillar of darkness being cast from a pole. You can only remain in the shadows if you stay in the light, so I had to dash across these areas while keeping pace with the spinning horses. It gave the game a bit of a Mega Man X feel, for lack of a better example, so I think there could be some devious platforming in store for our heroine. I also doubt this is the only new ability that will show up along the way.
There is also going to be a little bit of light manipulation in the game. Shadows can change based on how light hits an object at any given time, so if you move something closer or farther from the light it will make a different path. I only saw little hints of this in the trailer, but it could be used to make for some fun puzzles.
While platforming I was also picking up items called Luminaries. I needed a few of them to activate light sources in the area, but the in-game counter implied that there were a lot more of them. Provost told me that they could be used to access hidden areas of the game, ones that would provide harder puzzles for those who really wanted to challenge themselves. They weren’t necessary to complete the game, but if you really wanted to continue poking around the game world then you could seek them out and try the harder areas.
I only got to see a little bit of the initial area, a place called the Ghost Note: a cabaret whose sign was lit up bright red against the darkness around it. The sign just drew me to it, bringing my attention from it to the huge paintings above it advertising magicians and singers. Did I mention how good this game looks yet? Anyway, most of the game is either buried in shadow or is lit up with the dim yellow glow of the light sources of the period, so when you see one of these bright signs shining out of the darkness it draws you to them. This allowed the developers to create a more open world without having to provide ugly arrows or mini-maps that would muck up the visuals. There are no offensive ‘game’ items cluttering up the screen because the developers just used light to draw the player toward important things.
Color was another big part of the game. Those bursts of bright color in between the yellowed buildings and deep shadows are built to show you what is important. Each of the game’s primary locations are splashed with color, so much so that if you find yourself on the rooftops you can see the important areas from a huge distance. I could make out a circus that was well beyond the parameters of the demo once Provost got me on the rooftops, and even further away there was a spot for a gigantic puppet show. They were all colored in bright reds and blues, and almost seemed to surge out of the darkness, pointing the way to new and exciting paces to go to next. Again, you can tell all of this at a glance just from seeing light and color, so the game can show you the way to everything important without a single arrow, hint, or map to clutter up the screen.
Why are we here, though? What are we even doing in this era and place? I only got bits and pieces of the story that pulls the game together, but it seems like a beautiful singer fell in with the wrong man at some point. We’ll see all of this happen from the outside, though, as we watch the shadows of these two characters interact through the eyes of Dawn, the playable character and imaginary friend of Didi, a young child. In the demo, Dawn silently kept up with Didi; following after her as she tried to keep up with the activities of the shadow characters. From the looks of one scene in the trailer where Dawn hops from the singer’s silhouette onto a gun in an outstretched hand, I can’t see these events ending well.
Like any good noire film, getting to see how those two people get to that point, and how they’re connected to Didi and Dawn, is where the fun lies. Experiencing the power of shadows in this game, watching as characters come to life through manipulating light and dark, is something that needs to be experienced. The era, the art, the sound, the story, and the gameplay come together to form what was easily my favorite game at PAX East 2013. It’s just so rich in every way you can create a game that I can’t even describe how excited I am to play it. I just want to immerse myself in that world and see this story unfold.