There are two little girl characters in video games that I’ve been capable of giving half a damn about. One of them is The Walking Dead’s Clementine. The other is Jade Empire’s Wild Flower, and given that she’s a ghost who’s possessed by two demons, she might not entirely count. Child characters in general, really: in Walking Dead, given the option to save Duck from his own stupidity yet again or to leave the brat to his fate as zombie food, I always chose the latter — hell, it’s one less mouth to feed.
And so it’s not entirely little Didi’s fault that I grew to dread playing Contrast. The game is short (let’s call it three to five hours), but knowing that I’d have to put up with Didi talking and talking and yipping goals and plot analysis and imaginative little childhood bullshit at me — we’ve replaced little Didi with a small Chihuahua, let’s see if Richard notices — I had to play the game in 20-minute bursts. (And given that the game saw Bioshock Infinite’s hopeless save system and thought, “What a great idea!,” I inadvertently ended up having to do certain levels again — the game’s checkpoints are awful.) But you know, it didn’t have to be this way, and I think Didi is just the victim of forces beyond her control, maybe even before she was born: Contrast is a bad game in the way bargain-basement PS2 games are bad games.
Excessive cutscenes aren’t confined to the PS2 era, but there’s a particular stop-start pacing to Contrast that reminds me of console gaming in college. Walk down a hall, there is a cutscene. Jump up a platform, there is a cutscene. Push a lever, there is a cutscene. Drop a box, there is a cutscene. I actually quite enjoy block puzzles; Contrast is another of those games that seems to think you won’t observe a door opening without it being explicitly shown, and it’s one of those games that shows you that shot every single time because, well, what if you forgot in the past three seconds? Look at this. Okay, now you can play. Wait — okay, you’re good. Hang on, there’s a really cool scene where Didi’s mother tucks her in. Okay, now you can — wait, let’s check in on her father and the gangsters. Oh man, let’s go to the magician’s workshop to see if he can help — but first, Didi, why don’t you tell us how you feel about all of this?
I tease, but there’s nothing explicitly wrong about the story. You’re Didi’s imaginary friend and companion as she learns about the dramas surrounding her torch singer mother, her bum-with-a-heart-of-gold father, the gangsters he’s gotten himself in trouble with, the requisite twist of who your true identity is, and all of that. It’s just that I’m getting to the point where a story simply cannot carry me through a game anymore, and taking away control from me every five minutes is beginning to actively piss me off. You don’t take away a dog’s bowl while he’s in the middle of eating.
The gameplay — as opposed to the game’s copious moviewatch — is kind of lackluster. It’s your basic post-Sands of Time puzzle platformer, hop and bop around and move blocks. There’s a gimmick where you can hop into shadows projected on the wall and platform around there. But the game rarely does anything interesting with any of its mechanics. I’m very fond of games that have a limited ruleset and put them through their paces. My favorite platformers are those that consist of a thorough demonstration of their own physics. Contrast keeps introducing new elements and doesn’t know what to do with any of them. We see basic versions of “move some objects around to create different shadows,” “put these blocks on these pedestals to open the door,” and “break this stuff and jump around to get past these obstacles,” but we rarely see much beyond their introductions. It’s a game where the team came up with a bunch of different ideas, but rather than thoroughly testing them all, picking the two or three that worked the best, and refining them, they slapped in the first drafts of all of them.
The entire package has this unpolished feel. Oh, everything looks fine in screenshots, and it’s got this very distinctive look somewhere in between Cabaret, Moulin Rouge, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? that I like — your character might as well be played by Liza Minnelli as Fraulein Sally Bowles. But the movement is very unpleasantly floaty. The jump physics never quite feel consistent. One of the skills most gamers pick up along the way is the ability to internalize a bit of physics. You hand me Mario 3, you hand me Ducktales, you hand me Rayman Origins, you hand me Jak and Daxter, and I may find the math impossible, but I know by feel what combination of momentum and pressure on the jump button will cause me to jump a particular height or distance. I failed a lot of Contrast’s jumps simply because I couldn’t figure out the physics, and that’s not a sign of a well-made game.
And then there are the glitches — the character has an unfortunate tendency to get stuck on pretty much everything. Mostly this manifests itself in this weird floaty pose, but in the case of one particular puzzle set on a pirate ship ride, I had to restart the entire section twice because I got stuck in the rigging, unable to get out. (This is one of those areas where the game’s lack of a save system worked against it.) On the very same puzzle, I managed to essentially “break” two separate machines through bugs that seemed like they came from lazy testing.
Maybe Contrast is what the kids like these days. I can’t see that being the case, but like I said, I find most kids irritating and don’t spend much time learning what their tastes are. Maybe this is fun. Maybe someone who’s completely new to video games would enjoy it; maybe they wouldn’t even notice that it’s a bad game. I like that Contrast isn’t centered around shooting people in the brain, and I like that developer Compulsion Games is giving us one of those Different Kinds Of Stories with a protagonist that is Not A Space Marine. These are great, wonderful goals, but goddammit, those goals deserve better than this.