Contradiction and Calvino Noir Review, Analysis, Critique
Engaging with familiar settings and story genres in a game can be pretty exciting; watching a literary or cinematic tradition unfold in the context of a game breathes new life into classic forms of fiction. By tapping into traditional story genres, developers can use a shared language of expression to communicate decades or centuries of ideas in a heartbeat. John Marston trotting horseback across the American frontier while a colossal steam engine powers past him in Red Dead Redemption (2010) speaks volumes about time, place, and character.
Of course, there are just as many instances of games employing famous genre hooks simply for the sake of following tropes and tradition. Heavy Rain (2009) and Until Dawn (2015) aren’t exactly examples of a cinematic tour de force, but there’s something incredibly comforting about engaging with these scenarios in what is this new and exciting medium we call games.
In the end, though, how developers marry classic genres to their game is crucial. Understanding what makes a story genre work on paper is altogether useless if it doesn’t jibe with a game’s gameplay loop or design. With that in mind, let’s look at two games from 2015 that rely heavily on genre tropes to engage their audience: Contradiction and Calvino Noir.
The live-action —or FMV (full-motion video)— title Contradiction is stone-cold whodunit murder mystery set in a small town. The parallels to Murder She Wrote, Midsomer Murders, and Nancy Drew are inescapable, with a cast of characters ranging from the enterprise tycoon and his son, played by Paul Darrow and John Guilor respectively, to the barkeep and a drug-addled recluse acted by Melany Gray and Daniel Alfieri. It’s a loveable ensemble of archetypes put on with an exemplary balance of camp and self-seriousness.
Like the residents of Jessica Fletcher’s murder capital of America: Cabot Cove, the town’s naïveté is critical. When your player character, detective Jenks (played by Rupert Booth), stumbles across a sacrificial bonfire inside of the Rand family mansion, he —and all the other townsfolk— need to share the same ambivalent, “you know… I really didn’t think much of it.” In large part, this is because serialized murder mystery is the game show of crime drama; you are absolutely supposed to scream out whodunit well before any of the other characters have put the pieces together.
I want to be clear: the schmaltzy fun of Contradiction is pitch-perfect. The game’s goofy elements are, in essence, flavour text. One character pours himself a glass of scotch in the early evening and is seemingly still drinking from it three or four hours later without the glasses emptying or him showing any signs of inebriation. The town bar always sounds packed, but there’s never a soul in the place. There’s a version of this game where these calculated accidents are too much, but Contradiction comes off as altogether genuine — exactly like the campy work it’s homaging.
Perhaps most importantly, while Contradiction’s gameplay is by no means groundbreaking, it’s an altogether fitting way to have the player engage with its fiction. You explore town looking for clues, and once you’ve found some, you present them to townsfolk in search of —you guessed it— contradictions. To be blunt and reductive: it’s an Ace Attorney (i.e. Phoenix Wright) game, but there’s another hugely popular game it bears a number of similarities to: the board game Clue. Through its half-century (and some) of success, I think it bears out that Clue is, in fact, a pretty effective gameplay representation of an investigation. Putting players in a position where they need to listen for patterns in their peers’ line of questioning while working with their own clues to deduce whodunit is an effective way to translate the narrative tradition of the inspector role into play; and I think this is an important element of Contradiction’s ability to blend FMV with its gameplay. Unlike L.A. Noire, Contradiction’s core gameplay loop isn’t rooted in its cutscenes; you could theoretically play Contradiction with just the script, along with pen and paper. It sounds obvious, but having the script be the bridge between gameplay and narrative works extremely well to create a detective role for the player.
On the other end of the spectrum is Calvino Noir.
There’s a lot of hard work and craft that went into developing the 2D noir stealth game set in the criminal underbelly of Europe during the 1930s. The game’s vision is especially clear in its first few minutes: a man in a trench coat waltzes through the rain into a speakeasy with thick, smoke-filled air, and loud jazz. It’s gorgeous, and —for a moment— you feel like you’re there.
So it’s a shame that Calvino Noir never manages to support its fiction or world building with gameplay mechanics. In fact, Calvino Noir feels like a textbook example of a game whose themes do absolutely nothing to inform the gameplay — or vice versa.
To be brief: the majority of Calvino Noir’s stages are completed by moving towards the objective marker, either avoiding adversaries or waiting to sneak up behind them to knock them out. It’s incredibly bare bones: you don’t have an onslaught of gadgets or tools, guards don’t notice other guards who’ve been knocked out, you just avoid enemies or engage them. The game’s most damning design is that —more often than not— you’ll need to steer three different characters to the level’s exit at the same time. Ostensibly, you have one character who can knock out guards, one character who can unlock doors, and one character who can operate switches, or in other words: you have three characters who make up one full person. It’s also worth noting that —in my experience— these characters tend to get stuck on stairs or walls behind you, meaning that you’ll need to switch between characters to reunite stragglers with the rest of the gang. It’s brutal. Contrast Calvino Noir with something like Monaco: What’s yours is Mine (2013), another stealth game which distributes different abilities between multiple characters, and you can see how these mechanics can successfully play into the genre or feel of a game. Now, there are a number of reasons why Monaco is a more successful (for example it’s a multiplayer game, so dolling our abilities between players has a certain logic to it), but it also creates scenarios where character’s individual abilities can be used to set up chain reactions. One character might be creating a smoke screen so another can hack a lock, or one might create a hole in a wall so another can take out a guard more efficiently. These scenarios are complex and nonlinear. Calvino Noir’s situations on the other hand are static: the whole group reaches a locked door, it is unlocked by character #1, the next room is filled with guards, they must be killed by character #2, the room after that has a lever which must be pulled by character #3. It’s tiresome, boring, and it emphasises how shallow the mechanic of switching characters actually is.
As a noir, Calvino Noir just isn’t very interesting. The settings and characters are made up of the individual components of noir (the femme fatale, the train station, the fog of night), but never finds the thrill or spirit of the genre. Masterpieces in the cinematic tradition are composed with beautiful cinematography, and dynamic language, but they’re also violent, sexual, and pulpy. Most of Calvino Noir’s dry narrative delivery is handled by talking heads, with big exposition dumps between chapters. Theoretically this structure works if the writing is absolutely top notch —as is the case with Gunpoint (2013)— but here it’s used to communicate high stakes action with little to no enthusiasm.
What’s disappointing is that beyond its shallow, repetitive design, is a game that’s trying. It’s easy to see that Calvino Noir has a burning desire to be something — to be a game with emotional punch set in a the seedy world of crooks and thugs. Unfortunately, whether by early mistakes in pre-production or a lack of time to re-design core tenants of its gameplay, Calvino Noir feels generic. There’s nothing here that communicates noir beyond its aesthetic and direct references to the time period in the script. For all the lengths the game’s art, sound, and overall production go to in terms of setting up a mood, Calvino Noir’s actual content —its gameplay and narrative— don’t captivate the imagination or effectively echo the noir experience.
- "What would you say if I did THIS." An all-time top catch phrase.
- There's a huge demographic of people who would love this game and don't have access to Steam. Very happy to see it available on iPad.
- I'm laughing with it not at it. But *do* play with a friend if you can.
- I'm extremely curious how long it took to shoot everything. Colour correction goes a long way here.
- I can sympathize with it. It breaks my heart that the result is so unappealing.
- Dialogue can be pretty rough, "I thought you seemed like a selfish man, but now I know that's not true..."
- Guards don't react to bodies — unconventional in a confusing way.
- V.O. is good. Art is good. Individual aspects are, in fact, up to snuff.
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