Ask Guillaume Provost where the idea for his latest game came from, and he'll tell you it started in the kind of place you might expect from an indie developer: a coffee shop. Unlike many of those showing their titles at this week's Game Developers Conference, he was in Lyon, France when it happened -- he worked there as a freelancer following a job with Arkane Studios -- but the story sounds universal: he felt there was a place in the indie market for more games focused on a single creative gameplay idea.
"[Following] Portal...there seemed to be a niche for games that could revolve around a cool mechanic, and then really, really execute well on it," he says. "I was interested in making a game of a certain level of refinement...but I wanted it to build on something that was new in terms of how to traverse space."
His idea? A world where players can move in 3D like in any other game, or flatten themselves against walls so they become a silhouette that can jump between shadows like in a 2D platformer.
"I used to be a rendering programmer when I used to write code, so I thought about a lot of physical and/or graphical novel ways of interacting with games, and that's how the idea sparked," he says. "I can't say 'I saw a shadow on a wall' and had this sudden boom of an idea. I was basically sitting in a café when I got the original idea, and I built up from that."
Now in Montreal with a team of nine at Compulsion Games, he's ready to announce the title: Contrast. His original idea remains the centerpiece of what his team calls a "puzzle/platform" game that plays out like a more complex Lost in Shadow, taking place in a vaudevillian setting and giving players control over different light sources in the 3D world (spotlights, film projectors, etc.) to create the proper shadow platformer paths to reach new areas in the 2D world. To use the Portal comparison, players spend their time figuring out how to set up rooms, then move through those rooms.
"But I would say Portal is very room oriented in that sense," adds Provost. "Portal 2 definitely changed that paradigm, [but we also have] roaming areas. So there's the concept of rooms, which is where key narratives occur, and there's definitely that exact same paradigm to it -- the Portal setup of moving lights to the right places, and then triggering the narrative sequence that occurs after it. But they're separated by roaming areas that help build up the world but also have a number of optional side puzzles you can go through."
Within that structure, Provost says the game has a linear overall thread, with a fairly heavy narrative and occasional combat to mix things up. "It was important to us to break the pace for the player. One thing we noticed in doing focus tests is that...players do get a headache after a while if they just keep doing puzzles."
That noted, the focus is using shadows to solve puzzles. Combat doesn't show up often (in fact, enemies appear as 2D silhouettes that attack out of the walls -- most if not all characters apart from the main character only appear in silhouette), and much like many modern puzzle games, the story ties into many of the scenes you play. In one area, two giant shadows cover the side of a building wall as their silhouettes act out an argument, and the player -- a tiny, 1/10th size shadow -- has to jump along those giants while the argument takes place, making for an excellent example of in-game storytelling.
This all connects, of course, to the two main characters: an older girl Dawn (who you control) and a younger girl Didi who she meets at a train station and discovers has a dysfunctional family with a recently murdered mother and an estranged father. "There is a connection between the two characters, which we're not even sure we're going to reveal in the game yet," says Provost. "She's asking the player to change the course of past events in order to mend her family. And that's a little bit the theme of the whole game."
Though the developers are announcing the game today -- in this story, in fact -- they don't yet have a publisher and as a result can't say what platforms the game will appear on or when exactly such a thing might happen. (We have it listed as "PC" in 1UP's database since we need to assign a platform for the product to exist.) Provost's best estimate is "late 2012/early 2013," and COO Derek Elliott says he's confident the team can hit that deadline regardless of publisher support.