Developer: Compulsion Games
Art Director: Whitney Clayton
Original soundtrack: Contrast OST
To understand the artistic skills of Contrast we have to describe some aesthetical influences. Artistic concept of Contrast is influenced by two different epochs melted together.
BELLE EPOQUE & NOIR MOVIES ERA
Belle Epoque refers nostalgically to the European historical period roughly from 1890 to 1920, between the end of a long period of severe economic crisis and the First World War. However its cultural and artistic influence extends to the ’20s and ’30s. In U.K. it’s best known as Victorian Age. At that time , scientific and technological progress was unmatched. Electric lighting, radio, cars, cinema, pasteurization, tuberculosis vaccine etc. etc., all contributed to an improvement in life conditions and the diffusion of optimism. It was the era of Tesla, Edison and Marconi, where the electromagnetism applications smelt of magic and fed the myth of séances in the respectable middle class living rooms. It is no coincidence that this era give birth to science fiction with H.G. Wells novels as The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine and The Invisible Man, and no coincidence that the art of illusionism reached one of its peaks with the well known Harry Houdini. No surprise that steampunk novels are set in this historical period.
La Belle Époque indicates the brilliant life in the great European cities such as Paris and London, with quaint “café” full of people enjoying life. It overlapped the so called Victorian Age in London, and also affected Italy, and in particular the city of Turin.
There were many artistic experiences in this period, from Impressionism to Art Nouveau, known as Liberty in Italy, whose influence lasted until the ’30s. Cabaret, cancan, modern circus, cinema and comics were born in this period. It was mainly the birth of cinema to fuel the Belle Epoque magic aura that is still alive today.
Although not the entire population lived in wealthy conditions, in particular the proletariat, the growing wellfare interested big social groups previously excluded. It is in this period that you start to talk for the first time of free time and summer holidays and take confidence with optimism, then shattered by the First World War. Many people identifie the Titanic accident in 1912 and First World War as the end of the era, but from an artistic and cultural point of view it influenced also the following decades, ’20s and ’30s.
Recently Belle Epoque inspired different artistic media but in an idealized and romantic way, with strong science fiction and fantastic suggestions. It’s the case of V For Vendetta, Alan Moore comics masterpiece realized with Art Nouveau aesthetics and resulting in a Cabaret and Vaudeville tribute. We find a similar aesthetics in another Moore’s comicbook, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, an artwork with strong steampunk connotations. We can not fail to mention the movie “Hugo Cabret” (2011), Scorsese’s title inspired by George Melies visionary short movies.
Of course the Tenth Art (Video Games) could not remain indifferent to Belle Epoque. Quickly we could quote Bioshock (2007) and obviously Contrast.
Contrast is also influenced by noir movies of the ’30s and ’40s: dark jazz club, “femme fatale“, gangsters, a bit of pessimism inherited from the Great Depression and 2nd World War era, dark and light contrasts of Expressionism but in a colored version. The clever blend of different epochs in historical succession creates an atmosphere of magic suspended over time that has no precedent and is unmatched still today.
THE SHOW BEGINS
I think Contrast is one of the most underrated game ever! Mainstream magazines gave it so many low ratings that I was hesitant about purchasing. One day on YouTube I found someone who inserted it among the best artistic games in recent years, so I decided to try.
Needless to say, it was a revelation, a bolt from the blue! This is further proof that in mainstream reviewers opinion videogames are mostly sophisticated technological toys oriented to entertainment, so they tend to underestimate artistic contents aimed to intellectual experiences.
Contrast is a delight for the eyes and a party for the spirit because it is able to offer a coherent and compelling mix of different eras suggestions; while playing, you can immerse yourself in Belle Epoque magics mixed with smoky noir atmospheres of the ’40s, all together embellished with an aesthetics that ranges between Liberty and Steampunk.
As soon as you start the game, you have the impression of being at the movies! While opening titles scroll on, you are immediately hypnotized by a warm jazz ballad straight out of a ’40s noir movie, sung by a Fitzgerald – like voice that makes you goosebumps! The whole Contrast OST is simply astounding, able to put yourselves in the right mood. Listen to believe!
The menu screen makes the rest by showing an impressive picture of a nineteenth-century Paris street at moonlight. The expectations become huge. Time to set the best graphics options and the adventure begins.
And here comes the magic!
There is no other way to define the feelings given by Art Nouveau scenarios aesthetics and characters stylization. The interplay of lights, shadows, colors and contrasts creates a charming and unique visual experience. Welcome to the twilight adventure in the world of the shadows! Your mind goes back to your childhood, when you were playing hide and seek with the complicity of the night while your parents sleeping!
Your avatar is an elegant and slender female character, Dawn, with a makeup reminiscent of V For Vendetta’s mask! Our adventure pal is a tender little girl named Didi. Our aim is to look after the child and help putting back together her complicated family. Didi’s mother is a jazz singer, who neglects his daughter to chase fame in vain; her father is so tenderhearted as muddler, and gets himself into trouble with the Mafia. Situation gets more complicated when the famous illusionist, The Amazing Vincenzo, comes on stage…
After the first few minutes you realize that Dawn and Didi are the only beings in flesh and blood, all the others appear only as shadows projected on the walls. You will understand why only towards the end of the game.
The main message is that children need to be loved and looked after by their parents, while receaving education and economic safety.
Didi faces her precarious situation with kids secret weapon: imagination! Her adventure in the world of the shadows is a refuge from the hard reality; but at the same time it creates a metaphor, a parallel between age of innocence and Belle Epoque, which is in fact the twentieth century childhood, where people had hopes and dreams to live for!
AESTHETICS AND GAMEPLAY
The interplay of shadows and lights is just brilliant; but what blew me away is the ability to transit from the colorful 3D world to the two-dimensional world of shadows, flattening ourselves on the walls of buildings or rooms, provided the presence of favorable illumination. Often you will have to create the right shadows moving and positioning light sources in an appropriate manner. So gameplay consists of two components: third person exploration of the 3D world and 2D platform moments where Dawn is a shadow. What is most surprising is the ingenious way the two gameplay interact and intersect each other. For example, you can turn into shadows some 3D items, and then transport them by moving the light beams!
The game can be experienced at two levels. On one side it is a contemplative experience, where you can enjoy the magics of steampunk fairytale settings, from twilight Paris streets to Luna Park tents; you can relax our mind breathing the Belle Epoque charm and, lulled by the haunting soundtrack, you can immerse yourself in the romantic atmosphere of noir movies. On the other hand you will be engaged in puzzle challenges that will require an ingenious and creative use of your ability to transform yourself and other objects to shadow. But even here, platform mode will enchant your eyes for its aesthetic beauty. Building walls often are used as movie screens to project characters giant shadows on, allowing you to climb their shapes on! And you can hear what the characters say, even in the distance, so the giant shadows have also a narrative role as giant actors at the movies! A smart tribute to the charm of the seventh art (Cinema)!
THE GAME MECHANICS
And now we come to the weak sides of the game, which earned the mainstream critics low ratings, not at all justified. Technical defects are not so severe to obscure the great work and the sublime artistic achievements from the small indie Compulsion Games team in Montreal, the same team that at E3 2016 presented a new promising title, We Happy Few, which has gone in Steam Early Access on July 26th 2016 and still in development.
Defects are few and not intrusive, they do not affect the gaming experience. There are some bugs, very common in AAA games too, appearing a limited number of times: some transparencies, unintended interpenetration of the texture when the virtual camera is too close to the objects, a lack of precision in the boundaries of the polygons, sometimes Dawn seems to place her feet on vacuum, a fog effect that with certain virtual camera angles could shows some flaws. There are also stronger defects: an excessive controller sensitivity and a certain inconstancy in shadows interaction, both details that can sometimes force us to repeat more than once a puzzle. But even in this case, nothing alarming. If you experienced the frustration of a game like Limbo, in comparison this is fresh water and you will get over some more critical passages without even noticing it. Incostancy is due mostly to the high degree of freedom offered by the game. In fact the usual platform games have predefined patterns; instead Contrast let you “paint” the game level design moving sources of light and projecting shadows which you will have to walk and jump on. It will not be easy to find the right configuration, but neither too difficult. You will have to test some configurations before you succeed, but that’s part of the fun. It is appreciable that despite the freedom to compose the pattern, in the end everything is working good. No doubt, Contrast has an original and innovative gameplay. Some crtitics also blamed the title for inhabitated scenarios, but i think that deserted and silent Paris streets are really suggestive; crowded streets would have wasted the magical atmosphere.
The adventure will keep you busy for no more than 5 hours, a time well proportionate to the price. The ending scene is not very satisfying. Such an artistic game deserved a better conclusion; however, all the plot nodes come home to roost and you will not be disappointed, perhaps just a bit sad because you can no longer continue to run around that faboulous world. The desire to replay it will remain high because of the haunting atmosphere.
Contrast is a title developed by a newcomer small indie team with enormous artistic content that will give you moments of magic and ecstatic suspension in addition to the original, ingenious and funny game challenges, not at all overshadowed by few technical flaws that do not affect the whole charming experience.