Shadow Puppeteers: Designing the World of Contrast

Contrast blends 2D and 3D platforming using light and shadow. Learn how its designers created this game's surrealist interpretation of 1920's noir.

Didi has an imaginary friend. Her name is Dawn. Didi admires Dawn, she shares secrets with her, and even sneaks out after bedtime with her. However, Dawn isn't like most imaginary friends. She can pass into the shadows of any lit surface and manipulate the world around her--moving seamlessly between 3D to 2D. Whether this is just one child's imagination, or something greater, remains a mystery, but as creative director Guillaume Provost explains, the result is a dynamic platformer with sultry style.

For the team at developer Compulsion, designing the world of Contrast was a matter of balance. Its core mechanic--using shadows as objects--came first and, as Provost explains, for a long time that's all the game was. "We kept it that way intentionally so that we could develop the core mechanics without confusing them with the setting or context for the story." When it finally came time to build that setting, the process wasn't as clear cut. The team knew, in order for Contrast to succeed, it would need a strong visual style and narrative to support it. The problem was, where to begin?

With the game's strong interplay between light and darkness, the moody style of film noir felt like a natural starting point. To that end, Provost and the team set to work gathering references from all sorts of artistic styles. On one wall of the studio they collected samples from film, local architecture, German expressionist artwork, period references from the early nineteen hundreds, and more. Gradually, certain works began to stand out from the rest, including the neo-noir science fiction movie Dark City and the early works of director Tim Burton.

"Burton's work was actually a big inspiration from a design perspective," said Provost, "and you can see his influence in the design of the characters. Tim, before he became this big-time film director, did a great job of standing out without going completely over the edge." That idea of tempered surrealism became a constant throughout this game's development. The running joke was that if the game ever ended up looking like Voodoo Vince, they'd gone too far!

This piece of concept art perfectly captured the mood and style Compulsion was after.
"Tim Burton's work was actually a big inspiration from a design perspective, and you can see his influence in the design of the characters."

With the game's style nailed down, the team could then focus on designing specific locations. To do this, Provost would meet first with his level designers to brainstorm locations that offered a balance of both story and gameplay. The carousel sequence shown in the video above is an excellent example: the rotating shadows provide an interesting challenge for the player, while also being visually interesting and giving Didi a chance to show off her more childish side.

With a list of locations in mind, Provost would then meet with the game's writer to ensure they would still fit within the game's narrative before sending Clayton out to scout their real-life counterparts and author some concept sketches. But when it came time to actually start building these levels in the game, new problems arose. The game's mechanics and artistic vision were at odds with each other, and the team had to find a way to strike a balance between the two.

"Lighting was a big issue for us since it was used both for mood and as a gameplay element," Provost said. "We had a lot of situations were the lighting actually competed with the gameplay requirements." The issue was identifying for the player which areas were lit aesthetically and which areas Dawn could phase into. The solution was saturation: by desaturating areas Dawn couldn't phase into, the player's eye was naturally drawn to the spots where she could--while still maintaining the moody atmosphere the team was striving for.

As development progressed, it became clear that the musical element of Contrast could have as much impact as the visuals--much to the surprise of the game's creator. "I didn't originally anticipate we would be able to afford having a singer in the game," Provost admitted, "but I always wanted one." At best, Provost was hoping to license a single song for the game's first teaser trailer. That song was Sway by Julie London, a famous singer and actress from the 1950's.

However, after negotiating (and re-negotiating) with the song's owners, Provost found himself at an impasse.

What started as a reasonable licensing fee quickly ballooned into almost nearly ten times what he had originally anticipated--just to use a 30-second clip! There was no way Compulsion could afford such an extravagant purchase. To make matters worse, the trailer's deadline was fast approaching, and the team had already started editing it to fit with London's music. Now that option was off the table. The team needed a new song and they needed it fast.

"I went home really depressed that night because I just didn't have the money," said Provost. "However, that night I was listening to a song by Laura Ellis, a contemporary singer I had recently discovered while doing research for the game, and I really liked the way it sounded." Ellis' jazzy, femme fatale style was exactly the type of sound Contrast needed. "I cold called her…explained who we were and she offered to donate her song to the trailer."

The following week Contrast went up on Steam Greenlight where, as Provost tells it, "the community really responded to the game's music." The game's supporters were so enamored with Ellis' music that the team reached out to her again, this time to see if she wanted to perform for the entire game. To everyone's delight, she agreed. "That's been really cool," said Provost. "We're really lucky to have Laura help out and lend her voice to the game."

Today, development on Contrast is in full swing. With the successful completion of the game's Greenlight campaign, Provost and the rest of the team at Compulsion now have their sights set on a release window sometime in May of this year on Steam. Of course, there's still a lot of work left to accomplish between now and then, but Provost is confident Contrast will have plenty of substance to backup its distinct style.

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62 comments
picho86
picho86

It looks really cool. I've even voted earlier on Steam Greenlight, but still, the proof is in the pudding.

shanethewolf
shanethewolf

Looks like an interesting concept, but judging this video, it needs a LOT more work on the graphics and the optimizing side.

kramer_inc
kramer_inc

I really like the concept for this game looks fun

tomkat69pc
tomkat69pc

Didi Dawn? De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da ..


kyle756
kyle756

cool, so in real world its a 3d platformer, then becomes a 2d one in the shadow, thats pretty neat

Xuix
Xuix

Noir is a predominately post war style and NOT a 1920s style.

leikeylosh
leikeylosh

I hope the controls are tight. Otherwise, those platform sessions are gonna be painful.

Renunciation
Renunciation

The game looks wonderful with its mash-up of artistic styles.  It seems fairly innovative, as well.

But... ugh!  Dawn looks like Prince during the mid-to-late '80s.  I'm unable to see her face without hearing "When Doves Cry" or "Little Red Corvette" in the back of my head.

POP-3D
POP-3D

The guy said Pan's Labyrinth, Tomb Raider, Portal and Steam, what not to love about this game!?, i also love the Paris old themed world of the game.
Definitely will be looking for this game when it come out.

RETROGAMES
RETROGAMES

Her body movement when she runs needs more work! Granted she has lanky legs but it looks like shes almost in slow motion when running! This does look awesome though and I am looking forward to the finished product :)

SEEDman_X
SEEDman_X

Nice to see something that has never been done before!  I am looking forward to the Steam release :-)

Dessicator
Dessicator

I was cringing a little at that kid's voice acting :-\ Hopefully they fix that up a bit before release.

MetalDogGear
MetalDogGear

This looks insanely SICK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!11

stev69
stev69

This looks pretty cool, reminds me of grim fandango what a game that was and still is.

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

This reminds me of Lost in Shadow which was a great game.

starduke
starduke

Hrm, could be an interesting game. Kinda reminds me of Perspective, a game made at Digipen.

oflow
oflow

finally an article talking about something innovative in gaming not politics.

carsale
carsale

Please put some emphasis on the story as without that gamer will not be engaged for long.

Myst17
Myst17

Whoa! Looks very nice. The shadow/3D dynamics looks fun BUT the real draw for me would be the whole imaginary friend character. Hope they deliver with the story. Will keep my eye out for this title.

arkham_89
arkham_89

Please compulsion, put this out on PS3.....looks amazing.  Reminds me of Gravity Rush but with a darker, way cooler noire tone.

Pawfalcon
Pawfalcon

Looking forward to it, but hope it becomes available for PS3 as well.

digi_matrix
digi_matrix

Great write-up, Maxwell! You can tell this was written by a journalist than some enthusiast blogger who'd just make this a Q&A and be done with it. 

I've been hyped for this game for a while, nice to see it come together specifically on the music. I like seeing games' narratives supporting the core mechanic, like Walt Williams recently said in the GDC lecture (http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/188964/Video_Spec_Ops_The_Line_contextualizes_violence_through_story.php). By German expressionist, do they mean Cabinet of Dr. Caligari? 

petez34
petez34

@Xuix 1920's noir style is incorrect. Wikipedia is our friend!

CompulsionGames
CompulsionGames

@Xuix Yep :) The world is a deliberate mash up of 1920s vaudeville and 1940s noir - it's just more convenient to refer to one time period. - Sam

CompulsionGames
CompulsionGames

@jhonMalcovich PC to start, and we're talking right now with several shady looking characters about bringing it to consoles, mac and linux as well. We rewrote parts of the engine (Unreal engine 3), and will need to optimise it for consoles, so ports need a little bit more work than the PC version does. - Sam

CompulsionGames
CompulsionGames

@stev69 Grim was a big influence on us, so your comment is pretty neat for us to hear :) - sam

mindfreak4563
mindfreak4563

@arkham_89 well ps3 is getting rain. which is also a brilliant concept and will never come out on pc.

RS13
RS13

@arkham_89 I bet the system requirements won't be all that steep.  You can probably run it on your PC.  Unless you have a mac, then you'll have to use bootcamp.

Giancarlo
Giancarlo moderator

@digi_matrix Caligari certainly springs to mind. I would also imagine Nosferatu and its famous shadow scenes. 

arkham_89
arkham_89

@RS13 @arkham_89 I have a cheap little netbook so maybe not so much but do look forward to investing in a desktop next year.  Love the shadow phasing concept, cool game mechanic.

RS13
RS13

@Giancarlo @digi_matrix And M.  

Caligari is a paradigm example of German expressionism, but by no means the only example. Most of what's now categorized as film noir was influenced by German expressionism (albeit indirectly in some cases.)

Toysoldier34
Toysoldier34

@arkham_89 @RS13 The 3D effects look good enough to require a decent computer. Also many indie games aren't as optimized as big budget games so even if it doesn't look as good as some AAA titles it still could take similar hardware.

Also I don't imagine it would see a port to consoles unless it did really well at which point it would go to 360 first because it is a much easier port.