As a platform game, Contrast is a little broken, but it fascinates me. I played it various times, and have seen many interpretations of the story, but none of them seemed complete to me. At its surface, Contrast is an unusual platform game, characterized by its vaudeville aesthetics. Its atmosphere consists of carnivalesque settings and noir elements. Smokey night clubs, circuses and magic shows are but a few of the sites that Contrast has to offer. But Contrast has also riddled the minds of players. Who is Dawn and what is her relationship to Didi? I am writing down this fan theory because I believe that much has been overlooked, and I am not surprised. To interpret this game, we need to look primarily at the setting and collectibles.
The Identity of Dawn
The ending of Contrast has riddled many gamers. Their comments on Steam, Gamefaqs and other platforms address its abrupt closure and the ambiguity of the final scene. Is Dawn real or imaginary? What does the final shot in the game mean? Who exactly is Vincenzo? Theories about Contrast can be found in abundance online. What the player knows at the end of the game, at the very least, is that this is not a game about a girl and her imaginary friend, but about traversing multiple universes. I want to unravel these themes in Contrast primarily through the rhetoric of its objects. It is through the objects – collectibles and level props – that the player can gain some understanding of the game world and the identity of Dawn.
Making sense of Contrast is complex, I would argue, primarily due to the fact that Contrast tells a large part of its story primarily through showing rather than telling. Players find clues that can help them interpret the narrative world and its characters. These objects linger between the diegetic and non-diegetic: as props, players can observe them in the narrative and characters draw attention to them; as collectibles, they are more than exclusive concept art but necessary tools to interpret the story. A total of twenty objects can be collected in Contrast that are essential to fully understand the game’s narrative.
At its surface, Contrast is a tale about a broken family that heavily depends on the two father figures: Johnny and Vincenzo. Dawn is an observer of these circumstances, who provides agency to Didi. She helps her fix the devices and, through this, her broken home. Whether Dawn is real or imaginary does not matter much for this core theme of the narrative, which explores a dysfunctional family. This narrative is embedded in a strong film noir atmosphere. The titles of the acts and scenes from the game also position the game in an early twentieth century atmosphere. Many of the titles are references to Cassablanca (1942), such as “of all the gin joints…”, “the begging of a beautiful friendship”, “we’ll always have Paris”. “the problems of three little people”. Through these allusions, Contrast aligns itself with the noir genre clearly. Still, Contrast is not just noir – it augments the fantastical, unreal and the imaginary. This partly befits Dawn, the main character.
One of the essential questions in the game – and the source of much speculation – is who Dawn is. In the first act of the game, it is suggested that Dawn is Didi’s imaginary friend. When the player first interacts with Didi in the bed room, the mother interrupts. Didi looks at the camera and tells you to leave: ‘She’s gonna catch you.’ The mother asks: ‘What are you looking at?’ Didi faces the player again: ‘I don’t think she can see you.’ When they both sneak out to The Ghost Note, Didi admits that she admires Dawn: ‘I want to be a dancer when I grow up. Or an acrobat, like you. Did you always want to be an acrobat? You’re so good. You should be in a circus. Too bad nobody can see you.’ In this scene, Didi emphasizes the close relationship between Dawn and the fantastical. She describes her as an acrobat but also emphasizes that other people cannot see her and that she is part of a different world, presumably that of the imagination.
Later, Didi is apparently brought home by the authorities and Kat receives a note from the Department of Child Services. This letter can be read as a collectible: ‘It is of particular concern that, when found, Dorothy seemed to be having a conversation with a nonexistent person. A mentally disturbed child such as Dorothy needs devoted care. If you cannot provide it, I will, regretfully, be forced to take action.’ The player, at this point, may take the note literally and fashion Dawn to be a figment of Didi’s imagination. The child protection services of course do not approve of Didi’s temper and want to take her away from Kat. (It’s also worth noting that Didi’s real name is Dorothy, which sounds an awful lot like a Wizard of Oz reference to me).
During the first two acts of the game then, it is strongly suggested that Dawn is an imaginary, but more mature subconscious version of Didi. Is this who Didi wants to be when she grows up? No one confirms Dawn’s existence in conversations. Dawn can readily be interpreted as an aspect of Didi’s imagination or wishful thinking. The suggestion that Didi too wants to be an acrobat, like Dawn, is meaningful. Moreover, the appearance of Dawn closely aligns her to Didi. Both women have black, wavy hair, for instance, and have some character features in common, such as curiosity.
However, the third act sheds new light on who Dawn is. The player investigates the clock tower where Vincenzo has built strange devices and stalled all kinds of trinkets. It turns out that Vincenzo has been investigating the shadow dimension. Dawn, it seems, is closely connected to this dimension. The player can find interesting objects in this level, such as a collectible described as ‘picture depicting the shadow dimension’s effect on world’. The objects consist of two pictures, which includes a photograph of a woman walking across the street with a shadow next to her that is clearly not her own.
Vincenzo has been experimenting on this other/shadow dimension. The illusionist, however, took his experimentation too far. A clipping suggests that he is known under another name and has lost his assistant in such an experiment. This item ‘missing illusionist sought in affair of missing assistant’ reveals that a Mr. Artur Iliescu and Miss Aurora Rose are missing. It states: ‘Mr. Illiescu is well-known for making his pretty assistants disappear and reappear. On the evening of October 23, however he neglected to fulfill the second part of his act.’ The article ends with the note that: ‘His belongings remain in his room, and, mysteriously, the maids report that some of his clothes have been displaced by a party or parties unknown. Persons in possession of information in regards to the whereabouts of Mr. Iliescu, or of Miss Rose, are requested to inform the Yard.’
These characters may remind the player of Dawn and Vincenzo. This parallel is confirmed once the player finds an illustration dating from 1900 that depicts Vincenzo with his assistant, a younger version of Dawn. Dawn, then, appears to have been Vincenzo’s assistant for some time. Indeed the very name “Aurora” – the sunrise or goddess of Dawn – is almost identical.
The notion that Artur Iliescu is The Amazing Vincenzo and that Aurora is Dawn, is confirmed in the light house. Didi confirms that the light house is similar to Vincenzo’s workshop. Once Dawn is in the light house, she discovers a family tree that mentions “Vincenzo Iliescu”. The family tree cannot be collected. It can only be admired as a large wall that describes the history of the Iliescu family. This family tree states clear relations between the Iliescu line and other-worldly affairs. Certain family members are redlined and have notes stating ‘received exorcism´ or ´admitted to asylum´. Vincenzo is redlined, suggesting that he too has unique abilities. Behind Didi’s name, there is a question mark.
This family tree is very important since it tells us that Vincenzo possesses a rare ability – he can go from one reality to the next, similar to Dawn. This is a rare ability which runs particularly in this family. Are Dawn and Vincenzo related?
There is a platform puzzle which leads to the top of the light house augments the surreal nature of Contrast. The player guides Dawn across large shadows that echo fragments of the game: the mother who states ‘–you’re not even her real father!’ and Didi who cries ‘I missed you so much’.
Near the top, the player has to platform across blown-up objects from the game: balloons from the circus, items from the bed room and finally, an eviction notice. This scene gives the impression that the player is not any world, but a world of memories. The idea that Dawn is in fact Didi is also conveyed here. This tapestry is not a dream, but a memory.
Multiple Universes, multiple selves
The idea that Dawn and Didi are the same person is also closely connected another important theme of the game, that of multiple universes. This is reflected in the interplay of shadow and light, which is also reflected in the game play itself. Dawn materializes from the shadow world in the psychical world. All non-playable characters are depicted as shadows that the physical Didi can talk to. Dawn, however, can shift betwixt and between light and dark as a liminal figure. She does not partake in the conversations, suggesting that she merely exists in Didi’s mind.
As I wrote earlier, the objects in Vincenzo’s workshop are closely related to the occult and are connected to the disappearance of his assistant. An invitation to a lecture by Dr. James can also be found. It states that he is the author of A Pluralistic Universe and the Meaning of Truth as well as chair of the Physical Research Society. The invite states:
The astronomically visible universe is but one possibility. Other universes may exit that parallel our own. The set of all possible universes is the multiverse. What significance does the multiverse hold for epistemology and eschatology? Do new universes spring into existence as a consequence of free will? Can entities cross over between parallel universes?
The idea of multiple universes and dimensions then is the crux of Contrast. Once Dawn has turned on the light house, Vincenzo’s Theater of Unreal starts. This magic act is not merely smoke and mirrors, but is in part a scientific demonstration about multiple universes. This demonstration represents some of the core themes of Contrast.
—Ladies and gentlemen! A physicist named Albert Einstein tells us that our universe may not be the only one. There may be infinite others, each slightly different from ours. What are dreams in our world, may be reality in those; to citizens of these other worlds, we are shadows. […] But in this world of shadows what seems familiar, may be dangerous. But what frightens you can also turn into something of surpassing beauty…
The Theater of The Unreal reveals Contrast for what it really is. Contrast takes place in an alternate world, and the shadows we see are the real world. The point of view of the game focuses on Dawn and Didi who operate in the shadow world or fourth dimension. This is why the human characters appear as shadows.
When playing Contrast, I was reminded of Plato’s analogy of the cave. As you might remember, Socrates mentions the examples of prisoners, who watch a wall all day. Behind them there is a fire, and people walk above it. The prisoners never see these people, but they do hear them talk. They falsely assume that the shadows they see are the reality. If one prisoner breaks free, and faces the sun, he will gain an immense sense of knowledge. The cave is an analogy for philosophy and knowledge itself, which leads to an enlightened state of being. This is what also happens to us when we play this game. We mistake the shadows as the real thing, but it’s a matter of point of view.
Similarly, the characters from Contrast are in a perpetual state of not knowing the limits of their universe. Possible enlightenment comes at the end, when the characters face Vincenzo (the orchestrator of these events, the puppeteer or quite literally, the magician). Vincenzo recognizes Dawn’s existence. He stretches his arm forward to Didi while he addresses Dawn: ‘It has been a long time, hasn’t it?’ His arm appears not as a shadow, but fully fleshed out and three-dimensional.
Didi is amazed: ‘How did you do that? I thought only Dawn could do that!’ The magician ignores his confused daughter as the screen fades to black: ‘Thanks for taking care of Didi.’
Vincenzo indeed has a similar ability as Dawn, but the family tree we found earlier in the game already emphasized this. How do these themes connect to Dawn? Let’s back a little bit in the final level, to a comment that Vincenzo makes to Johnny, when he pleas Vinzenco to take care of Kat and Didi. Vincenzo replies: ‘What would you have me do, mr. Fenris? Take her on my world tour? Take her to Shanhai, and Istanbul and those other filthy, and dangerous cities as some sort of apprentice?’
We know that Didi dreams of a life with Vincenzo, as his assistant. Perhaps in another universe – or a universe to be – this is the reality. I believe that Didi indeed becomes Vincenzo’s assistant and that Vincenzo and Didi herself move between worlds, and make their living of magic shows.
In other words, Dorothy, Didi, Dawn and Aurora are all the same character.
- Dawn is not merely Vincenzo’s assistant, or the subconscious of Didi. They are not closely related but the same character. The family tree and other collectibles in the game confirm this.
- Contrast is about different realities, and our point of view is the shadow world itself (where Dawn and Didi are situated), not the physical world.
- The multiple verse theme of Contrast supports the idea that Dawn is Didi. They both share the rare ability to shift worlds, which means that they both stem from the same family. Vincenzo raised his daughter to be his assistant, in this reality, or another one.
- To even push it further, it’s hard to tell what Dawn’s motives are. Does Dawn purposely go back in time to warn Didi? Indeed, as “Aurora”, Dawn had an accident. How do these events relate? Was this on purpose? Does she have to guard Didi on Vincenzo’s behalf or does she want to warn her for him? These questions still stand.
Other fan theories:
- Various theories posted on Steam
- Contrast theory which also postulates we see the PoV of the shadow dimension