Many games will inevitably disappoint, but Contrast represents an especially bitter brand. Compulsion Games’ puzzle-platformer doesn’t simply fail to live up to expectations, it often demonstrates or alludes to what it might have been if only suits hadn’t hustled it onstage prematurely to open for the PlayStation 4. The result is a squandered concept and serviceable but clearly redacted title.
Set in a highly theatrical rendition of 1920s America, Contrast is a narrative-driven game about a young girl named Didi, and player-character Dawn, a corseted, stockinged, and heavily rouged woman that only Didi can see. For her part, Dawn (and the player) is only able to see Didi, and other characters in the game are represented as silhouettes. Didi’s mother is a club singer who has thrown out her erstwhile father, a well intentioned wheeler dealer deep in debt with crooks. Superbly written and performed, Contrast explores a child’s attempts to understand the challenges and vagaries of adult life.
Reducing all other characters to silhouettes isn’t just a creative solution to a difficult question of resources at Compulsion, it also gives Contrast its own beautiful aesthetic. For the player and the mute Dawn, it’s an empty reflection made more haunting and lonely by Didi’s constant enthusiastic commentary.
Dawn is also able to become a shadow that can move independently in a two-dimensional world cast onto walls. The core gameplay concerns itself with manipulating objects in a three-dimensional space relative to a source of light, in order to create a two-dimensional relief that Dawn can then successfully negotiate as a shadow.
It’s a very clever idea executed poorly. Dawn’s controls are often imprecise, and the issue is made worse by sections that require the player to flit between the corporeal and shadow worlds with some precision – an concept that could work had more time been spent polishing the game.
It's exacerbated by numerous bugs and technical difficulties, seen particularly in clipping issues and the erratic camera. Many of the puzzles also feel abridged, as if Compulsion was working towards something grander only to look up at the clock and hastily draw a direct line from step seven to step 10. Either because of this or because of something more systemic, many of the puzzles also come with little sense of achievement, and often the solution is most easily found through random experimentation rather than considered, deliberate thinking.
There’s so much good work here. The game's two leading female characters are well-rounded, its jazz soundtrack is used sparingly and to excellent effect, and its story is packed with smart ideas and possibilities that you’ll continue to spend time with well after the game’s truncated four hour play time.
But Contrast is representative of the worst kinds of short sightedness that sometimes seeps into the games industry’s boardrooms. It demonstrates the wrongheaded idea that the quality of the product isn’t the key determining factor in its success. Having a downloadable title like Contrast ready for the PlayStation 4’s launch was a meaningless, arbitrary goal for a multiplatform release, and it appears to have hobbled something beautiful. With some tender affection and without too far a flight of fancy, Contrast might've been a 2014 Game of the Year contender. Today, it barely receives a passing grade.