How Portal and Pan's Labyrinth inspired a game about a girl's shadowy imagination

Contrast isn't a puzzle game just about manipulating light and darkness to traverse a 1920s' noir world, it's also a game that explores a child's ability to use their imagination to resolve personal issues and cope with an "exploded" family.

In the game, players take on the role of Dawn, the shadow-shifting acrobatic imaginary friend of 9-year-old Didi. Didi's mother, a single mom, just landed a singing gig and Didi isn't allowed to go to the premiere. Initially, Dawn works to help get Didi to that show, but as the game progresses, the story becomes more convoluted and the problems less simplistic.

Guillaume Provost, developer Compulsion's studio head, said that the idea for the game first came to him in Lyon, France. The idea was to create a game that allowed players to control a character that can become a shadow. Dawn uses this ability as she traverses the landscape, slipping into shadow form herself to climb other shadows, and then popping back into the 3D world when necessary to avoid shadows that block her progress. Because Dawn is a creation of Didi's imagination, the girl is the only one who can see her. And Dawn, as a figment, can't see the real people of Didi's world, just their shadows.

This last twist impacts not just the gameplay, but the way in which the story is told, it also sometimes mashes those two things together. For instance, in some scenes, Dawn traverses the shadows of the key people in scenes as they argue, perform or play music.

In the sections I played, the gameplay was fairly straightforward. A trigger pull on a gamepad transformed Dawn into a shadow, tapping a button allowed her to do a little shadow dash. While the game's camera could occasionally be confusing, in general it was a fun and clever mechanic.

From a gameplay mechanic perspective, the game's biggest influence is Portal, Provost said. Like Portal, the game, an even mix of puzzles and platforming, is designed to get players to think about movement in a different way.

"We're striving to build condition layers," he said. "You start by thinking you understand the game and then we start laying on different ways in which you can manipulate the environment.

"The general idea is to realize you can look at things in new ways."

Contrast's shadow manipulation and play also helps drive the game's subtext.

Didi, Provost said, was inspired by Ofelia from Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. In Pan's Labyrinth, its unclear if Ofelia is in reality visiting a mythical world or if she is simply creating a fantasy to deal with the horrors of her life.

"It's inspired by Pan's Labyrinth," Provost said, "but it's not as tragic.

"I like the idea of a girl escaping her reality as a coping mechanism."

While Ofelia is dealing with the hardships of fanaticism in a post-Civil War Spain, Didi has to contend with an "exploded family," Provost said. "There's a lot of not so cool shit happening with her parents. You help her resolve issues she has with her family and cope with the things you discover."

Provost said that the relationship she has with her parents are a fairly important part of the game.

"We're not trying to tell a complicated story, we're trying to tell an emotionally impactful story," he said. " We use it to interest a player in the game.

"We want to have parenting to be an important component to the game."

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