Recently I was lucky enough to attend PAX East, one of the largest gaming conventions on the east coast. Hosted in Boston, PAX East draws tens of thousands of attendees and showcases the best that the video game and tabletop world has to offer for the upcoming year. While plenty of folks go to see what the big AAA studios are going to offer us for the new year, I instead found my way to the Indie Games section of the expo floor. Here, smaller studios were showcasing their projects for gaming fans to demo to attract new players and spread the word about upcoming releases. However among all the games offered, two stood out as powerful examples of indie games you’ll want to check out in the coming year: Contrast by Compulsion Games and Outlast from Red Barrel.
Contrast is a beautiful three-act puzzle platformer set in a 1920’s-esque French-inspired town. You play as Dawn, the tall, leggy imaginary friend of a little girl named Didi who can jump in and out of shadows to traverse around town. It’s your job to help Didi as she faces the realities of her life with a lounge singer mom and a father who (poorly) runs a circus that is falling apart. You’re tasked with thinking in more than three dimensions, as your character can hop from the “real” world of the game into surfaces as a shadow to complete the puzzles and get around.
The beauty of Contrast exists on so many levels. First, the setting itself is charming and beautifully constructed. The game is rendered with a gorgeous film noir style that reminds me of old French black and white films, which ties into the use of light and shadow that is so integral to the core gameplay mechanic. The lush colors utilized in the art, however, lend a depth to the game that mixes in some Cirque du Soliel inspirations, with a touch of Pan’s Labyrinth to boot. If that wasn’t enough to really set the mood, the music is one of the things that really sets this game apart. All of the music was created and recorded specifically for the game by a musician who specializes in 1920’s appropriate sound, and it provides an authenticity to the experience that draws you in.
But it’s the gameplay that truly sets Contrast apart. Contrast will make you think outside of your normal spatial problem-solving box in a very Portal-like way. After a few minutes of play, you start to wonder at how many ways you can traverse the environment through the shadows and how to manipulate the light sources to give you more room to explore. Shadows move to cut you off or carry you from place to place. My favorite part of the demo was riding on shadow merry-go-round horses to try and reach a high ledge and getting to jump on the shadow of Didi, made huge and reflected against the wall. Didi herself is charming and endearing, a lost little girl out to figure out her world and her problems with the use of her imagination. It’s that child-like quality, set just at the edge of growing up, that makes Contrast feel like such a unique adventure.
Contrast was designed on the Unreal Engine, with all the light controls recoded just for this game. Compulsion Games means to release it on Steam later this year. For more information, check out their website.
From a shadowy noir fantasy we travel to the Mount Massive Asylum for Outlast. Before we even talk about the game, take a second to watch the trailer. It might do more than any words I write can say.
Outlast is everything terrifying wrapped up in one gory, blood-dipped first-person nightmare. Set in an insane asylum, you play as a writer out to get the story about the weird events that have gone on there. Armed with only your night vision camera with it’s rapidly depleting battery, you try to navigate the wrecked halls—and you are definitely not alone. The powerful part about Outlast is that your character is completely unarmed! Horrible warped things stalk you through the halls, and you must outrun them to survive, hiding under beds and shimmying through air ducts at times to get away. Large sections of the asylum are pitch black, so you must use your night vision to see. But if you think that’s at all comforting, the eerie green light effect only makes everything that much worse.
The horror of Outlast comes from a mix of great narrative choices, artistic choices in the asylum and spot-on sound design. From the rotating wheel on a long-abandoned, overturned wheelchair to the sound of your character breathing harder after racing away from the whatever-the-heck-that-was chasing you, they all work together to build a seamless, tension-inducing nightmare. It is designed by a team who cut their teeth over at UbiSoft on games like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. These talented horror-bringers used the Unreal Engine to create an anxiety-inducing fright fest focused on survival rather than combat.
Having witnessed the game in action, I will say Outlast’s impact on players at PAX East was intense. Willing victims... er, players were sequestered in a booth and set up with headphones to enhance the experience. Folks came out shaken, pale, and jittery from the experience—the yelps and four letter words could be heard over the noise of the expo floor. Folks discussing the game likened the experience to Slender and Amnesia, while others conjured up the best parts of big name AAA games like Silent Hill, without all the weapon options. The downside is that the game will begin as a PC-only offer, but hopefully there’s aim for expansion down the line, so us Mac users can be equally traumatized by the experience. Outlast is slated to be released this year, with more information available at Red Barrel’s site.
Though so very different, Outcast and Contrast are examples of the amazing work coming out of indie game companies in recent years and truly highlight what small teams can do to create a stellar product. My hat’s off to both studios—I look forward to getting my hands on both these games so I can help explore the circus with Didi, and then crap myself in terror at Mount Massive. Two very different experiences, both amazing pieces of game design.
Shoshana Kessock is a comics fan, photographer, game developer, LARPer and all around geek girl. She’s the creator of Phoenix Outlaw Productions and ReImaginedReality.com.