Contrast starts off like all games of its mysterious, charming nature should: by not telling you much. You meet a little girl when the game loads up. A scene plays out and from it you understand you live in some parallel world where you can turn into a silhouette on demand. Only the little girl can see you, and you can only see her. Everyone else is a shadow. Soon after that, you learn that your name is Dawn and that you have the unique ability to phase in and out as a shadow in a 2D world cast on walls.
Contrast is basically a combination adventure/puzzle game and platformer. But while you’ll jump up to catch ledges and leap between windowsills like lots of platformers will have you do, most of the time you’ll have to find ways to navigate platforms made by shadows. So you’ll phase into the wall as a shadow and scale the dark areas. Sometimes you can even manipulate light sources to help cast shadows in the right place or at the right size.
This immediately registers as cool the first time you see it. It seems like a pretty way to make platforming just a little bit more complex. But it’s more than just a neat idea, it’s a different way to look at the world. A relaxing way, too. The colours are soft and the pace is slow more often than not. Every moment I walked through the orange-glowing, jazz-accompanied world of dilapidated buildings and floors that fall into nothingness, I could feel the game romancing me more and more.
It’s hard to explain just how beautifully these experiences play out. But you’ll feel it once you come upon that first scene where two people play out their dialogue in what would otherwise have been an non-interactive cutscene. As they move around, going about their business, you’ll hop on top of the shadows their heads create, and then you just might fall in love with how well Contrast includes the experience of its story into the game. It’s a shared, seamless experience that feels natural. Your curiosities in exploring the game doesn’t have to be interrupted just to watch the narrative progress. Instead it’s a part of your play experience. They play out together.
So as you walk to the next area of the map or try to climb up to grab orbs of light, you’ll learn the little girl’s name: Didi. You’ll learn that she is the daughter of a voluptuous, rising singer. Her father isn’t around anymore, but he wants to win his family back. “He’s in deep with some pretty bad people,” Didi’s mother explains. Kids never get told much about these things, and the only lens through which you understand the plot is always through Didi, since you essentially follow her like a lost puppy throughout the length of the game.
And so in her loneliness Didi likes to go adventuring. She gets into trouble at school and sneaks out at night, perhaps like any kid dealing with her parents’ separation would do. Playing as Dawn, you’ll help Didi sneak into places she’d otherwise not be able to reach. You can slip into any lit-up building and then find a way to open doors for her. You’ll climb your way into clock towers and snoop on Didi’s mum and dad arguing. Contrast is certainly a charming game — featuring a smart little girl and a wonderful sense of old-timey fashion and music — but it’s got some depressingly dark undertones, too. And it’s amazing how much Didi takes everything she hears in stride. She’s around violence and some seriously complex, adult situations but she handles it all like a champ. It’s rare to find even adults who are able to hunker down, overcome their emotions and get into problem-solving mode, but Didi is special. It’s almost hard to believe that a character like her even exists, but I enjoy that she does and so I accept it.
When Didi finds out her father is back in town and preparing a circus, she’s determined to help him. Because he’ll probably mess up something really simple, or so she says. Everyone is kind of hard on Johnny, Didi’s dad. As you follow Didi’s parents around and find out more of the backstory, it becomes easier to sympathize with the man that started off sounding like the absentee father.
You can pick up collectibles to learn more, which actually digs up some of the more important details of the story. You’ll pick up newspaper clippings and pictures that reveal an increasingly disturbing picture. You’ll learn who Dawn is, why she seems caught in this parallel shadow world that seeps into reality, the one where Didi lives. You’ll start to suspect some characters and sympathise with others. All the while you’re intermittently moving projectors and aiming light sources, hopping in and out of walls to complete various tasks. You’ll grab objects for leverage and throw them into the shadowed wall, too. You’ll leap over platforms and the shadow platforms cast by them and blitz across thinner, breakable shadows. You’ll fall. Sometimes you’ll die. You’ll always quietly follow a small girl with a big heart and a character that’s too mature to be true.
But by the end of the game there was an itch that it hadn’t quite scratched. Everything I learned about Dawn and how she became who she is was haunting. I suspected the worst. And as the final level builds and builds, touching on everything you’d just experienced and reminiscing about the most relevant details, my anticipation for closure just kept rising. I had theories of the game’s backstory and ideas for its end. And then the final cut scene played. It gave a hat tip to all you’d learn. Just a hat tip. It glazed over what felt like the most pressing matter in this entire storyline. To me, Contrast wasn’t about the little girl and her misguided father or her hot mum. That was just the modern setting it used to tell a bigger, darker story. The story of shadows and how they got there.
Contrast is a game of harmonious dichotomies. Of light and dark, of magic and science, of love and betrayal. Its themes and story presentation are as gorgeous as its lead character and art style. But it’s all hidden, holding back and waiting for you to discover it on your own. And though I enjoyed exploring it for myself, making my own determinations and using my imagination to fill in the blanks, I expected a big finish.
Instead that final scene was so jovial and happy and… Disney that it felt like a betrayal to the tone it had set for itself. A betrayal to every moment that led to it. A betrayal to poor Dawn, who, it seems, will never get the justice she deserves. The end glazes over the best parts that the rest of the game spent unravelling with you. And yet even so, Contrast tells a most depressing, thoughtful story. It made me think of relationships and selfishness and curiosity and sacrifice. And how many games can you say have done all that? All the while looking as pretty (and a little buggy) as it does.