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.

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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.
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.

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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."

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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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