Contrast has been on my radar after I saw the teaser trailer on Steam Greenlight earlier this year. The snippets of footage showed both an attention to detail and gameplay, with intriguing possibilities.
Steam greenlighted Contrast in October last year, which gave indie developers Compulsion Studios a platform to release their game. I spoke with lead developer Guillaume Provost about the early stages of development in a January article right here. Contrast has progressed nicely since then, with a release date slated for next month and a possible console release forthcoming. With the game so close to completion, I caught up with Provost and talked to him about what has happened with the game since then.
Finding a platform like Steam is no guarantee that a game will find success. Good execution and proper marketing are also critical elements. The trailer footage for Contrast suggested a game made by people that really knew what they were doing, but there is no way to confirm that until players get their hands on it. Compulsion Studios is in the process of marketing Contrast ahead of its release. They want to show people that this is a game that deserves attention.
After the team prepared a short demo, Provost showed off Contrast throughout a busy April. Provost took it to Game Connections and Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this month. He also took the game to PAX East in Boston. Contrast ended up being chosen as a selected project at Game Connections this year.
What sets Contrast apart from other titles is the unique atmosphere. The level design goes hand in hand with the shadow mechanic that is central to game play. Provost said that gamers compared the art style to Bioshock Infinite in terms of the environment. Both games are set in different universes but the comparison makes sense, since Contrast is set in the 1920’s and Infinite in 1912.
“People agree we’ve developed a pretty unique art style,” Provost said. “The gameplay held high expectations, too, and I think we’ve delivered on it. Players felt immersed when they played our game at PAX. It’s pretty humbling really. I was super nervous ahead of the conference.”
Contrast portrays time and place well with both level design and characters. Dawn, the protagonist of the game, is a vaudeville acrobat that whips around a level lined with cobblestone streets and a old-style carousel that is the centerpiece.
Many of the sets were created by PixelNauts Studios and level artists Alex Golebiowski and Chris Iacobucci. They did sets for the game Darksiders among other titles. Much of the recording work and sound in Contrast is done by Wave Generation Audio. Their team has worked on such games as Assassin’s Creed II and Mass Effect 2. The game will also feature music from real life Jazz Singer Laura Ellis. She did music for the teaser trailer and the game will feature more songs by her.
Gameplay is a also a critical element to atmosphere. The shadow mechanic is central to gameplay and how it integrates with level design will determine just how good Contrast will be. Provost said that players liked the shadow mechanic, which allows them to switch seamlessly from 3D and 2D space in order to solve puzzles.The Carousel level illustrated just how this will work as Dawn uses shadows as platforms in order to access higher parts of the level.
“The multi-dimensional platforming we showcased during the conference helped people understand we’d had a lot of time to think about how to use the system and dug deeply into it,” he said. “After a while, you notice players paying attention to all the lit surfaces around them, to try and figure out how they can interact with the environments.”
When building the atmosphere for this game, script and gameplay scenarios dictated the locations picked for each level. Provost said that the team would pick key memorable places then worked on refining each scenario with location research and backstory on each place.
“We’d plan out the general pathways leading between locations in a way that would be intuitive for players so that they don’t feel lost while playing the game,” Provost said. “There’s also the micro-sequence of events. The story you tell minute by minute, as a player is progressing through a sequence. This is something that we typically iterate once the basic gameplay sequence is in place. We’ll spice it with commentary from Didi, or add props in the environment that help propel the story.”
Designing the levels were a challenge because it required thinking about objects in the level and the shadows they cast on a variety of different surfaces. Provost described the process as ‘mashing your brains on your drawing board, and then trying to make a level layout out of the gooey gray bits.’
“At first, We wanted a very rich European architecture set, with a lot of details on the wall surfaces, but we soon realized that it made navigation on the walls as a shadow very complicated,” Provost said. “From the process of designing the shadow puzzles themselves, that was also a bit of a brainbuster, because you can’t easily picture shadows in your head since all the shadows in Contrast are ‘physically correct’ they grow and get smaller as you get closer to the light.”
The team categorized the puzzles into a series of attributes, like moving a light source or traversing multiple spaces. Then they threw about shapes that would be visually interesting.
“What made it difficult design wise also made it super interesting from a gameplay perspective. There’s really no limit to the amount of ways you can solve a given puzzle or situation,” Provost said. “I think having a couple of open-ended problems we throw at the player, and more carefully choreographed sequences where the traversal is the main challenges, helps build a nice diversity and richness to the game.”
The carousel level only featured two sequences in the game, but the full version should showcase the shadow mechanic even further. “As the game goes on, we start mashing a lot of concepts together and build up the level and depth of interaction you have with the mechanic,” Provost said. “I based this on my experience playing Portal, which I felt was a really good exercise in minimalistic, yet deep gameplay design.”
The more I see of Contrast the more it piques my interest. The environment is unique and the shadow shifting has the potential for some unique puzzles. It’s difficult to peg this game in a certain genre after watching the gameplay. Dawn roams around a 3D environment then all of a sudden shift into shadows. The game turns into a Mario style platformer as she hops on shadows that shift and move underfoot.
Genre bending doesn’t make this title seem alienating though. The way it plays looks familiar and intuitive, which is why I’m interested to see what the full version looks like next month. In addition to Steam, Contrast may find a way onto consoles. It’s a possibility that Provost said is ‘very likely.’