Friday, November 22, 2013

Additional Thoughts Re: "Contrast"

In my initial thoughts on the PS4 from earlier in the week, I mentioned that I rather liked "Contrast". I also mentioned that I hadn't actually finished it yet.

As of yesterday, I finally got around to finishing it.

And... well, my opinion has shifted somewhat.

See, when I discussed it before, I talked about how the game felt unfinished, but the story and unique mechanics elevated it enough to feel worthwhile to me.

However, having now completed the game, I think I can safely say that the whole thing basically falls apart in Act III.

Act III feels more than rushed. It feels like the original creators of the game all died and then the janitor swooped in and tried to finish it.

The first two Acts of the game, while somewhat unpolished, served as a solid foundation for the story and the game mechanics, but the final Act decides to rob the story of any dramatic weight and scrape together poorly-designed gameplay to bring about the finale, which has an ending tonally incongruous to the rest of the game.

To be more specific, I need to go in SPOILER territory, so forgive me.

Alright, so the first two Acts establish an interesting -- if a bit cliche -- setting in a noir style about a young girl, Didi, and her imaginary friend, Dawn (the playable character). Didi's mother, Kat, works as a cabaret singer and is struggling to make ends meet due to her deadbeat husband, Johnny, getting the family in trouble and then skipping town. Then, of course, Johnny shows up wanting his family back. He has another ridiculous plan to start a circus funded by mobsters, with the highlight act being a man named Vincenzo, a sort of hybrid between Houdini and Tesla. His plan seems to be coming together, but Kat still doesn't want him getting the family involved. She pulls a gun on him and reveals that Johnny isn't even Didi's real father, and that, in fact, Vincenzo is. Didi stops the fight, leaving Kat little choice but to give Johnny one more shot.

The next act is about trying to get the circus up and running. Johnny, being a natural-born screwup, needs Didi and Dawn's help to fix basically everything in order to keep Vincenzo from leaving. You succeed and the circus seems ready to go. Didi also wishes to talk to Vincenzo to learn more about him, but he seems hard to get ahold of.

To me, this was a pretty good setup. Johnny was depending on the guy his wife cheated on him with in order to try and win his family back. Dramatically, that's pretty dynamite. Simultaneously, you have Didi who at once wants to give her father another chance and have him around again, but also wants to learn more about Vincenzo. And last, you have Dawn, whose origin and identity is very much a complete mystery, particularly in regard to her powers. Is she a ghost? An actual imaginary friend? Didi from the future? A manifestation of Didi's latent psychic powers? It seems like a great setup for a killer Act III.

So Act III begins with Didi wanting to go find Vincenzo to talk to him. We find out that he's hidden in his lab. Now this was the first big failing for me. The lab of someone like Vincenzo should have been a much more interesting place than it was. Sure, there were tons of gadgets and gizmos all over the place, but almost none of them actually come into play. On top of that, the level design is just ridiculous and needlessly complex. There's no clear sense of space or logic to the layouts.

Anyway, you get through this and Didi finally confronts Vincenzo. And Vincenzo basically reacts about how you would expect... he never wanted her, he's too busy, she's better off with Kat, etc. Still, this scene felt weird to me. The context of the scene is that Didi seems to want to run away with Vincenzo, but the game never really gives us a clear indication of why. Up until this point, Didi has been very dedicated to wanting to bring her family back together, and now she suddenly wants to leave? I mean, granted, if I were a kid, I totally would have wanted to go on an adventure with Houdini-Tesla, but her sudden desire to ditch her family seemed to come out of nowhere.

Still, the scene could have had dramatic weight. After all, her father also left their family to pursue his own ambition, and so her desire to leave could have been used to mirror her father's mistakes. That could have made for some interesting drama, but it never materializes.

Anyway, the big climax in Vincenzo's big performance, which of course has technical difficulties. Didi is suddenly very upset with the fact that she has to fix Johnny's screwups -- something she never seemed upset about before -- and she goes to the nearby lighthouse to save the day.

Now here's the first problem. Didi has shown that she doesn't want to live with her family. She's shown that she doesn't like Vincenzo for abandoning her. She's just now explained that she's tired of fixing Johnny's screwups. So why then is she bothering to go to the lighthouse? Why does she care about the self-centered, witless, frustrating adults enough to go through the trouble of fixing everything?

More importantly, Didi hasn't really done much of anything. Dawn does pretty much all of the heavy-lifting. Particularly in Act III where Didi is nowhere to be seen for the majority of it.

So you climb the lighthouse, a task which is really not that difficult and only introduces one new mechanic that you use twice. Along the way you discover Dawn's identity: she was Vincenzo's assistant that he somehow got trapped in a parallel dimension. Then you get the lighthouse pointing at the stage, Vincenzo does his performance, and then we get our big finale.

Johnny tries to get Vincenzo to take his daughter with him because he's a screwup. They praise Didi for being incredibly thrifty and for saving the day (even though it was Dawn that did it), and Johnny says that Didi should travel with Vincenzo rather than stick around and cover for Johnny's mistakes. But then Kat, Vincenzo and Didi all tell him that it's OK and that everything is better now and their family can be happy again now that his insane mob-run circus somehow turned a profit. Then we get a brief scene where Vincenzo thanks Dawn for looking after Didi, revealing that he was aware of her presence and also possessed her abilities of hopping into shadows. End credits.

OK, what the fuck?

First of all, if Vincenzo knew about Dawn, why did he praise Didi? He knows she didn't do jack shit. Second, why are we OK with the fact that Vincenzo is a terrible person? He got his assistant trapped in an alternate dimension, he slept with a married woman and then abandoned the resulting child for purely selfish reasons, he decided to help out the cuckolded father, but only for money and unreasonable demands (and was a major dick about it the whole time), and in the end, we're supposed to be... OK with this? We're supposed to care that he thinks that Johnny is a suitable father? What gives him the right to have an opinion? He's clearly an asshole!

Next... what kind of ending is that? Everything works out? Kat, Johnny, and Didi live happily ever after? What about the mob? Are they going to still be extorting Johnny? What about the circus? Is it going to have to keep running indefinitely? Will it remain successful without Vincenzo? If the circus was just a one-time thing to settle some debts, what is Johnny going to do now? Is Kat still going to try to become famous? Why does Didi suddenly love her family again after all that huffing and puffing and wanting to run off with Vincenzo? Why does the world seem to be falling apart from Dawn's perspective? What did we learn? What was accomplished?

It's incredibly aggravating. The game has a very intriguing setup and then attempts a resolution that is unearned, tonally dissonant, and lacking any real dramatic weight or climax. Everything just works out and everyone is happy. No one learns anything, no one loses anything, and what the characters gain seems undeserved and possibly doomed.

It's beyond clear at this point. This game needed at least another year in development. Not just to correct the numerous bugs, glitches, and half-finished levels, but also to find a fitting conclusion to the story. The shadow mechanic is fun, but unlike a game like "Portal", the player is never really challenged to master those mechanics or use them in creative ways.

I wouldn't say I hated "Contrast", because it certainly kept me engaged the whole way through, and while the ending was massively disappointing, I was more or less satisfied with the experience. Though it probably helped that the game was essentially free thanks to PlayStation Plus. But $15 is way too much for a game this unfinished.