Another Steam sale, another scramble to to finish enough games to justify buying more. I had resolved to sit this one out, I have plenty of games I haven’t played yet. But alas, the prices were just too good.
But I did get around to playing Contrast just before the holiday sale. I got it on sale earlier in the year for around five dollars, which is a good price for a two to three hour game. Hey, I have spent that much for comics I’ve read in less time, so for a video game, that isn’t a bad price at all.
Contrast centers around you, Dawn, an acrobat who lives in a noir-ish, cabaret-ish, twenties or thirties inspired town that hovers over a mystical sea of stars, like in Riven, except no one seems to be concerned at all. You can only see the shadows of people and hear their voices, except for Didi, a little girl, who also is the only person who can see you. In the beginning I had assumed Dawn is her imaginary friend and that the weird landscape was just Didi’s imagination, but sadly that didn’t pan out. I’m still really unsure why the sidewalk ends into a portal of oblivion, why no one can see Dawn, and why I’m the only one who seems to be disturbed by that.
Didi’s mom, Kat, is a singer, and while we only see her shadow, reminds me greatly of Jessica Rabbit in design. She signs at a night club called Ghost Note, and seems to wear heels and a push up bra even when she isn’t working there. Kat had left Didi’s step dad, Johnny, due to him being a deadbeat husband who bounced bad checks. He is trying to win her back, however, by putting together a circus, funded by the Mafia and starring Kat’s ex boyfriend. Yeesh, Johnny, why did you think this was a good idea?
You, as Dawn, help Didi help Johnny. Johnny does actually become very endearing, but he is a fuck up and needs his young daughter and her invisible friend to keep the Mafia from breaking his legs. You accomplish all this through a series of puzzles, and this is where the real hook of the game comes in. Dawn can shift into shadows to solve puzzles. As you progress, you can bring objects into the shadows with you, you can manipulate the light sources to shift shadows, you can push objects in the real world around to cast new shadows, and so on. One of my favourite levels is a shadow puppet show you participate in, the only time Johnny seems to be aware of Dawn (but doesn’t seem to question her presence at all, instead he rolls with it and narrates this fairy tale). Johnny throws shadow trolls, spiders and dragons and Dawn, and you navigate your way through this shadow dungeon to find your shadow puppet prince. I think it was the most difficult part of the game because it was far more of a straight up platformer than a puzzle, but it was a cute gimmick that did not overstay its’ welcome at all.
And ultimately, that is why the short game length does not bother me one bit. Contrast has interesting concepts and puzzles, but does not get redundant or boring. Once it doesn’t have anything new to offer, it ends. The story is rather simple, and to be honest I did not feel invested in Didi’s family. The ending felt pretty unsatisfactory, but again as it was only a short game I didn’t feel angry or cheated about that. The fun was totally in the game play and aesthetics for me, and I ended up liking the mechanics so much I bought a copy for a family member who doesn’t have a whole lot of time for video games, but enjoys puzzles.
I also found myself listening to jazz and having fun with shadow puppets a few days afterwards. Contrast may not have blown me away, but it certainly put me in a good mood that stuck around.