There is a natural phenomenon, the captivation of which even the most enlightened human beings share to this day with their cave-dwelling ancestors. It is as common and elusive as the wind and as frightening and mysterious as a nightmare. Yet it is also as comforting as a lullaby, as enticing as a lover’s kiss, and as unique and enchanting as our dreams: the shadow. For centuries, shadows have been a source of inspiration for a variety of intellectual endeavors and cultural traditions, like photography, astronomy, mythology, even heraldry. Far from being simply a shape of blocked light on a solid surface, shadows have often been said to be living entities in their own right—as good, evil, and everything in between as our flesh-and-blood selves. And what better place for shadows to live, to truly live, than in the City of Light—in game form?
Didi loves nothing more than to watch her mother, rising jazz singer Kat, perform at the local cabarets; not always easy for a little girl ordered to stay safe and sound in her bedroom. Luckily, she has the assistance of Dawn, her imaginary best friend with the appearance of a gorgeous acrobat and the ability to transform herself into a shadow. But now, the precocious nine-year-old has a new reason to brave the dark city streets and play spy in the middle of the night. Her father, Johnny, has a dangerous habit of getting in over his head in his money-making schemes, inviting trouble from the law and risking the wrath of the mafia. This has prompted Kat to kick him out of her life for the sake of her career and the safety of their daughter. But Didi firmly believes in his sincere goal of redeeming himself in her mother’s eyes. When his latest enterprise—a full-fledged circus with the Amazing Vincenzo as the headliner—threatens to become his most devastating failure yet, Dawn must use her shadow-shifting skills to help and protect her adventurous young charge as she strives to ensure the circus’s success and bring her broken family back together.
I’m just going to get this out of the way right now: this is not a perfect game—and by “perfect," I mean, “polished.” Depending on which reviewer you’re listening to and/or the system they’re playing on, you’ll get a whole laundry list of technical and design criticisms: “Three to four hours is too short,” “Moving boxes is boring,” “The controls are too frustrating,” “The game lags too much,” etc. I am sorry to say that these complaints aren’t entirely unwarranted; as a matter of fact, I experienced a game-breaking bug myself on my very first play-through. On the final puzzle—yeah, of course it had to be the final puzzle—, the game refused to compute my solution and trigger the next cutscene, so I was forced to restart at my last save and re-solve the previous three or so puzzles all over again before the last one would work and I could watch my reward for playing. Yeah, it may have been only just one time, but still. Ugh.
(The lights on the circus stage explode and fizzle out.)
KAT: (Angrily.) I knew it! I knew this was another one of Johnny’s pipe dreams! You screwed up again, didn’t you?
CARMINE: Johnny, what’s going on? Is this part of the show?
JOHNNY: (Flustered.) I got it, I got it!
CARMINE: (Aggravated.) They’re getting antsy. They’re gonna want their money back!
SALVIO: (In a threatening tone.) If you give them their money back . . . you can’t pay us.
JOHNNY: (Frantically.) It’s all under control! I just gotta . . . Go find a spare bulb . . . fuse . . . something.
DIDI: (Frustratedly to Dawn.) Why can’t he get anything right? (Starts running.) We’re gonna have to fix this one too!
All that being said, I personally and respectfully disagree that these apparent flaws hinder if not ruin the entire experience. I actually consider these minor inconveniences in the face of everything else that Contrast has to offer. It’s not often that both 2-D and 3-D platforming are featured in the same game, let alone in such a clever and attractive way. The latter is done by Dawn as a realistically-detailed “human being” able to move in all directions in the “real world;” for the former, she is a black silhouette able to leap onto other shadows on any flat, vertical surface to get Didi and herself (the player) to areas that would otherwise be unreachable. The game takes place entirely at night, illumination coming mainly from artificial sources like electric lamps and stage lights, creating shadows in abundance. Even so, Dawn will often need to create her own, such as when the environments are too dark or the shadows are too small or in the wrong place. The player can do this by using glowing orbs called luminaries to power various light-making machines and/or moving 3-dimentional objects and adjusting the scope and position of their shadows in order to form make-shift “staircases” and “bridges.”
DIDI: - (Looking down from the roof to the ash cart below.) I know. You can go down there, and move the ash cart. And I could jump down! I’ll put the light here . . . so . . . you can go over there . . . and be a . . . shadow person!
- (Pointing up to a balcony.) I think that goes all the way through to the other street. If I move this cart . . . you could walk up its shadow. Couldn’t you?
- (Sees the cinema at the other side of the chasm, a dark, broken billboard bridging the gap.) Oh no! There’s no way to get across! (Sits forlorn for a moment before jumping back up with an idea.) I know! If we could get this spotlight working, then I could track you with it. But, it’s out of power . . . we need some luminaries. Do you have any?
But this shadow-walking isn’t exclusive to inanimate objects; with the exceptions of Dawn and Didi, every character in the game is depicted only in shadow themselves. While leaping from one silhouette to another, the player is treated to their owners acting out their respective soap operas, oblivious to Dawn’s presence. This not only merges gameplay and cut scene together in a creatively entertaining piece of game design, it enhances the sensuality and authenticates the intrigue of the magically surreal setting of 1920’s Vaudeville-era Paris, the smoky, sultry phantoms brimming with that intoxicating air of dangerous romance and heart-wrenching drama, forever “shadowed” by their forbidden desires and haunted by memories of a long-faded past.
You went and left me.
Never really leave me.
No matter what I do.
I don’t mind when I dream,
But I’ve been scalded by steam
But I try not to dream about you.
You say you’re sorry
But you’re never really sorry
Wish I could fall for someone new
Wouldn't mind if I dream
But I drowned in a stream
But I try not to dream about you
The game’s title literally refers to the principle in art which deals with the striking visual differences between two elements, particularly color and brightness. As such, this concept permeates not only the look and feel of Contrast, but its very universe as a whole. Down the street you’ll see cabarets and bars with names like “Pompeii,” “Gold Mine,” and “Ghost Note.”
KAT: (Seductively to the player.) Wanna put on some lights? I promise you’ll like the view . . . [. . .] C’mon sugar . . . help girl out here. We can’t play in the dark. [. . .] (A stage light bulb bursts.) Uh, hey—one’s on the fritz. Hey Sparky, could ya do something about that one too? It’s really messin’ with our rhythm.
In Johnny’s circus, “Chiaroscuro,” an Italian art term referring to lights and shadows, is the name of the shadow puppet theater whose playable fractured fairy tale performance almost shamelessly recreates the monochrome style and gameplay elements of Limbo—right down to its giant spider!
JOHNNY: (Narrating as Dawn [as the fairy tale princess] runs from the spider.) Suddenly, a giant spider jumped out of the shadows and attacked her! She ran and climbed, and jumped and climbed. But the giant spider was very good at climbing too. It had eight legs, and the Princess only had two!
And then, there’s Dawn herself, whose name epitomizes the natural shift from the dark of night to the light of day.
DIDI: (To Dawn.) I wanna be a dancer when I grow up. Or an acrobat, like you. Did you always want to be an acrobat? You’re so good! You should be in the circus. Too bad nobody can see you.
This aesthetic ties in beautifully with the game’s film noir atmosphere. Speaking of film noir: as a wonderful nod to all the cinephiles out there, the game is peppered with numerous references and homages to the Golden Age of Hollywood. In the cinema lobby are life-size models of movie icons like the silent film vampire Count Orlock from 1922's Nosferatu, and the tap-dancing, top-hat-toting Harry Raymond from the 1930 musical, Puttin’ On the Ritz. But the most prominent is the immortal 1942 romantic drama, Casablanca. Many of the game’s chapter titles borrow heavily from the film’s treasure trove of quotes and their thematic significance: “Of all the gin joints . . .”, “The problems of three little people”, “The beginning of a beautiful friendship”, and “We’ll always have Paris”, just to name a few. There’s also one from another famous Humphrey Bogart film from 1940, The Maltese Falcon: “The stuff that dreams are made of”.
KAT: (Wearily.) Why’d you have to come back, Johnny?
JOHNNY: (Sad and just as weary.) I want to come home, Kat.
KAT: And you got another pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
JOHNNY: That’s the past, Kat, I’ve changed.
KAT: (Sarcastically.) Oh, yeah? You get religion?
JOHNNY: I got lonely. I miss you, baby. I’m never gonna give you another reason to kick me out, I swear.
KAT: (Unconvinced.) Never’s a big word. Feels like I heard it before.
JOHNNY: (Earnestly.) This time you’re gonna be nothing but proud of me. Look at this hotel suite! I got investors!
KAT: (Incredulous.) The ones who just left? Yeah, I’m real proud. They the ones who broke your finger?
JOHNNY: (Dismissive.) This? It’s nothing. I got it caught in a desk drawer. (Immediately backtracks.) In a door—a car door.
[. . .]
JOHNNY: You don’t believe a word you’re saying. I know, ‘cause I can read your mind like a highway sign.
KAT: No, Johnny. Not again. (Anger creeping in.) You’re a carousel of broken dreams. You keep coming around and around.
JOHNNY: (Solemnly.) No one is ever gonna love you like I do, kiddo.
And at the heart of all this is the story of a little girl who just wants her family to be at peace again. Besides being a stunning style choice in accordance to the time period, I think the fact that every adult is portrayed as a shadow plays another significant role. Only broad shapes, voices, and actions give players insight on the characters’ looks and personalities, but collectables hidden throughout, like posters, photographs, letters, and newspaper articles, offer valuable clues to their histories and motivations. For all their outward toughness, Didi’s parents lack confidence in themselves and their future, while Didi has no doubt that they belong together and will do anything to make that dream come true. It could be argued, therefore, that the adults’ shadow selves are their fear, ambiguity, and vagueness made manifest, while Didi’s substance comes from her courage and perseverance.
DIDI: Mommy. Are you going to let Daddy come home?
DIDI: (Pleading.) Please? Please let Daddy come home . . . ?
KAT: (Struggling to be reasonable.) He’s in pretty deep with some bad people, Didi. Maybe he should make good with them first. Right, Johnny?
JOHNNY: (Shrugs helplessly.) Maybe I’m no good without my family. (Takes Kat into his arms.) Maybe I need my family to make good.
KAT: Johnny . . .
DIDI: (Confidently.) Yeah! Daddy needs us!
KAT: (Serious.) If this is another train wreck, it’s not just gonna be you in the train this time.
JOHNNY: (Sincere.) I’m not gonna let it wreck this time. I promise.
KAT: (Fully embraces Johnny.) I missed you so much.
DIDI: (Overjoyed.) Yay! Daddy’s coming home!
Moreover, the fact that we see this plot unfold through youthful eyes suggests that the world we are playing through represents Didi’s struggle to understand the harsher reality of adulthood. And perhaps Dawn’s own substance is a testament to the younger girl’s need for an older figure to rely on and talk to. Dawn herself is completely silent, but her loyalty speaks volumes, like that of a protective big sister who lovingly endures every childish scolding and keeps every precious secret safe.
Now, on top of its apparent technical flaws, one could certainly argue that Contrast’s more mature elements of marital disputes and gangster violence aren’t treated very realistically and, as such, the game’s plot wraps up a bit too nicely and neatly. But then again, isn’t that why we love our Hollywood classics as well as our video games in the first place, because they and their own shadows and illusions help us escape reality for a time? Contrast may be more style than substance in more ways than one, but its highly unique gameplay mechanics, whimsical yet luscious visuals, and engaging, heartfelt story give that very style a substance all its own.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Soul and Mind” – E's Jammy Jams
“Our French Café” – Jimmy Fontanez/Media Right Productions
All other sound clips are from Contrast (developed by Compulsion Games; published by Focus Home Interactive).
“Kat’s Song (ft. Laura Ellis)”
Listen to the episode here!
Contrast on Wikipedia
Contrast 's Official Website
Contrast on Compulsion Games's Official Website
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