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Contrast (2013) and Compulsion

Compulsion Games remain the most interesting purchase Microsoft has made since it has gone on a purchasing spree to fix its problems with delivering first-party experiences for the Xbox ecosystem; I understand why Ninja Theory was bought; ZeniMax and Activision-Blizzard don’t need any explanation even if the cost to buy them made me question humanity; even smaller studios like Double Fine and Undead Labs have a portfolio of projects and a hold of a specific niche that in the context of adding value and excitement to Game pass makes sense. Compulsion games made We Happy Few, a game more remembered for its trailer rather than the actual game (which I did not enjoy, but does have a few fans), and Contrast, a 2013 next-gen launch title that I honestly first heard a few days ago when it got added to the Game Pass library. From rumors, it seems like Compulsion games are working on a project that is quite ambitious and exciting so that would seem to be the reasoning behind their acquisition from Microsoft, but that is the case for many studios yet Microsoft put some of their eggs in Compulsion’s basket. We Happy Few may just be part of the puzzle, so now I wanted to experience the other part and see if there is a lineage from one game to the other and whether it makes that purchase more logical.

Contrast is a puzzle-platformer with an interesting art style and what seems like an intriguing narrative. You play as Dawn, the imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi who is going through some turbulent times alongside her family; as Dawn, you will help Didi navigate and “fix” problems using your ability to become a shadow and interact with other shadows. This means that light and casting shadows from objects is a vital part of the game and figuring out solutions to traverse and overcome obstacles. Contrast is a very janky game: movement feels floaty and loose; shifting into and out of shadows is fun, but wildly inconsistent with where the game will allow you to use this ability and if it will kick you out of it; platforming is frustrating due to a jump that sometimes feels very weak or too big, and the ability to create momentum out of nowhere and eject yourself across the screen. In a lot of ways, it is the exact inverse of Tandem: A tale of shadows, since that game felt functional and without any imagination, whereas Contrast is frustrating to play however it has so many great ideas for puzzles, level design, and atmosphere, that I couldn’t help but really enjoy it.

That’s the first commonality between Compulsion’s two games thus far; interesting games that are not that fun to play. Both Contrast and We Happy Few have unique gameplay ideas, but playing through them is just frustrating. Contrast, for example, allows you to shift into and out of shadows, which makes you enter a 2D view whereas Dawn and the rest of the world exist in 3D; however, puzzles that require you to enter shadows, shift out of the shadows for a jump and re-enter shadows are simply frustrating. It’s a similar feeling to the pill system of We Happy Few, where the idea is interesting and unique, but the execution just made the game tedious and frustrating. The second commonality between these two games is the most interesting to me; both games stumble upon a reaction that they do not intend. When I first saw the infamous E3 trailer for We Happy Few, I was blown away; it looked like Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of A clockwork orange and, since it gave no real hints as to what the game was about, it created a sense of mystery. Weeks later, it was revealed to be a survival game with a pretty cool world but nothing else; Compulsion promptly capitalized on the excitement of players and reworked the game to be more of an immersive sim with a fully-fledged story, but it seems like they stumbled upon that rather than that being their intention. Similarly, Contrast creates a ‘dark fairy tale’ atmosphere and hints at a larger story but only by accident; the focus of the game is clearly on being a puzzle platformer, but once again players (including myself) were interested in the world and the characters which do not get that much attention. There are some moments where Didi, her mother, her father, and other characters are given some development, but mostly the story feels like an excuse to get you from one hub level to the next.

So, what was the point of this article? Partly, I just wanted to talk about Contrast, because it is a very interesting and flawed game; its short (around 3 hours), and its lack of polish and bad gameplay will frustrate people, but I still think it is worth a shot due to the fun ideas and great atmosphere. Mostly though, I found it interesting that it was a similar case to what happened with We Happy Few, which made me even more curious as to their acquisition from Microsoft since their acquisition seemed to be aimed at bringing in studios that can surely deliver what they think are gaps in their offerings and Game Pass releases. Compulsion Games are not that; they are rumored to be working on something amazing, but their history is of a studio that has a plethora of ideas and none of the technical skills and expertise to capitalize on them. Thus, the point is that I wish Xbox would make these acquisitions instead of the ones they have been doing recently; I like the fact that Double Fine is financially stable and able to work on whatever they want; I like the idea of Undead Labs finally having the budget and staff to make their games less janky and more approachable; I like the thought of Compulsion Games, a studio with two games filled with great ideas, may finally have the resources to execute on those ideas. Also, both Contrast and We Happy Few are on Game pass and I think both games deserve a shot by more people because they are ‘cult classic’ material, and Game pass is the perfect way to experience them and see if they click with you.

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