Contrast: The Mystery of Why You Are Such An Inappropriate Imaginary Friend
WTF is Contrast?
Contrast is an indie game from 2013 about a little girl with a somewhat inappropriate imaginary friend who looks like a fantasized prostitute and helps her solve puzzles centered around her parents splitting up. It’s kind of in Paris. It’s kind of in the 1940s.
Players take the role of the imaginary friend (who is really more accurately called an invisible friend, because her actions have consequence in the real world) and shift between the 3D world of kind-of-neo-noir-Paris and a 2D shadow world that’s happening on the walls. Like, to be clear: you spend part of the game playing normally and part of the game turning into a shadow and running around on the walls.
Contrast is all about symbolism and atmosphere, but most of the puzzles are platforming challenges, with the added element that you sometimes have to use objects and lights to create your own shadow platforms, and you rarely understand WTF the rules are of how your power works.
What’s it like?
It’s very short. You can play it in an afternoon. It’s also kind of… particular.
Contrast has a really interesting concept, but the execution is fiddly and imprecise. I’ve said this before, but I think the main challenge in a game should come from a carefully-controlled difficulty level that rises over time rather than confusion about how the controls work and what your gameplay strategy should be.
I spent a lot of time in Contrast either doing the wrong thing, because there wasn’t clear feedback about what the solution should be, or doing the right thing and having the controls respond too sluggishly or imprecisely for what I did to work. In particular, there were a couple of timing puzzles, where I had to phase into the shadow world at a stupidly precise moment as I was jumping off a platform, and, if I missed it by even half a second, the game registered that as a failure. By contrast – ha ha – there are other puzzles where you just have to be sort-of-in-the-right-vicinity when you phase, and everything’s okay.
There was also a turning point in the game where I suddenly had the ability to carry objects from the 3D world with me when I phased into the 2D world. The on-screen instructions did a pretty poor job of explaining that, though, so I made the natural assumption that I’d have to solve the puzzle I was working on in the same way I’d solved the ones before – by using 3D objects to create shadows. And, because the puzzles that came before were so fidgety, and relied so much on re-positioning objects over and over again until their shadows were exactly the right height, I had no way of knowing that my strategy on the new puzzle was wrong – it seemed like it just required annoyingly precise placement.
Was there anything good about it, though?
The concept is really smart, and, while neo-noir isn’t really my thing, I eventually gave in and started to dig the weird atmosphere. There are moments where you’re hopping across people’s shadows as they have stereotypical dialogue about how so-and-so’s a no-good scoundrel or whatever and it seems kind of fun and aesthetically pleasing.
There are also two sequences of the actual gameplay that are well done, and made me wish the rest of the game had been like that.
The first is a sequences where you take part in shadow puppet theatre and puzzle-solve to act out the story of a princess who keeps having to save hapless knights from monsters. Story-wise, it’s an interesting moment, but the gameplay – which is much more traditional – is also easy to intuit while still feeling fresh and entertaining.
The second sequence is the last sequence in the game, in which you have to climb a high tower using all the skills you’ve learned to phase and navigate 2D and 3D platforms. It’s the only part of the game where the difficulty is a natural outgrowth of mastering the controls, and it works pretty smoothly. I understood what I was supposed to do, and the challenge came from doing it quickly and competently. It was really fun.
What’s the story like?
Random. I’m not joking when I say this is the mystery of why you are an inappropriate imaginary friend. Like, it turns out, right at the end, that the question of why the fuck this invisible person is following a kid around is seriously at the core of the story and something that needs to be answered. That’s actually a little clever, since your impulse would be to take for granted that this is just a thing that happens in stylized neo-noir Paris, but it’s still jarring when it turns out to be a major plot point.
Otherwise, the story is kind of shallow, and mostly about this kid following her parents around while they fight about whether they’re going to break up and about whether this travelling magician dude is her real father.
Contrast feels more like proof of concept than it does like an actual game. There’s definitely something interesting here, and definitely something innovative and unique, but the execution feels like the demo for a full game rather than a finished game itself.