Wot I Think: Contradiction

Goodness, it’s now a trend! After Her Story, we’ve now got Contradiction [official site] – a full motion video adventure murder mystery. It’s like 1994 all over again, but in significantly higher resolution. Unfortunately, Contradiction is a little more authentically like a 1994 FMV adventure, right down to poor design choices and deeply wonky tech. Which is a shame. A meaty murder mystery would be perfect for this format, and there’s the legwork in here for that to happen. Here’s wot I think:

A girl has been murdered in a small village, her body found by the lake. You play Jenks, an over-acting policeman, investigating her death and wearing an unlikely hat. Darting about the village, you interview/interrogate the locals, learning what they know about the not-alive Kate Vine, and a strange cultish organisation called ATLAS. The title comes from the game’s core mechanic – going through a suspect’s responses to your questions, and trying to find two statements that contradict one another. Yup, Phoenix Wright, only without the shouting and spiky hair.

It’s important to start with the technical issues here, because you will start by experiencing technical issues. The game runs, bizarrely, in a small, borderless window. There are no video settings at all, other than to flip it to full-screen, but oddly you can resize the window with your mouse cursor. It quickly gets worse: the screen for defining keys requires you to set every one each time you change anything, the tech options offer only a setting for “ambient music” and “video vibrancy”, and if you press a controller button (as the menu suggests you can) the entire game becomes impossible to play, forcing a restart. The awkward menu system, with options half off the screen either side, along with all else, heavily suggests this was primarily intended as a tablet game, rather hastily ported to PC.

Once you’re past that, and start the game proper, things start looking up. The murder mystery kicks in right away – in fact, you’re told from the off that some of the interviews have already taken place, and you’re clearing up leads that have yet to be followed. Whether this is by original intent, or a result of a tight budget (the game raised £4010 on Kickstarter), I’m not sure. And immediately there’s something of a sizeable relief regarding the quality of the filming. It’s sharp, high quality, and professional. (The audio slightly less so, with some scenes very poorly recorded.) And then, well, the acting’s pretty decent too.

It’s certainly unfortunate that the weakest actor of the bunch is the main character, Det. Jenks. He’s not bad, but rather incongruous to the tone of the rest of the game. His gurning is certainly distracting, but it’s more the exaggerated, playful nature of his delivery that seems both inappropriate for police interviewing, and out of sync with the down-played naturalistic approach of the rest of the cast. It’s a bit like The Doctor turning up on True Detective. That’s all-permeating, of course, as he’s present in every scene. But still, he’s fun, and most of the acting is good enough.

Less good, sadly, are some key design decisions. The game’s core contradiction mechanic is quite the jumble, and it’s introduced quite impressively badly. You’re directed to interview a couple at their house straight away, and at that point pop-ups appear explaining how you ask questions by selecting each item or note in your inventory, and then their filmed response is summarised in a few lines. You can select any of these lines, and then pair it with something said about something else, aiming to see the text turn green signalling you’ve spotted an inconsistency in their claims. Except, incredibly, in those first two conversations neither says anything contradictory! To get one of them to do so, you have to have wandered elsewhere in the game and picked up another piece of evidence. Just bizarre.

Then, the further you get, the more you have in your side-scrolling list of things to ask about, and the more statements there are in which to find discrepancies. It becomes mightily unwieldy, made worse by absolute stinking contradictions not being recognised as such by the game. Emma was familiar enough with Kate to know she hadn’t worn a necklace recently, but also says she rarely saw her. Nope. The landlady of a pub says she’s never seen the driving license of a young student before. Nada. This is made all the more frustrating by not knowing at any point if there actually is a contradiction to find – perhaps you need to go on to have another conversation with someone else, first? Perhaps something said to you here will prompt something new elsewhere, that then when brought back to the first person will cause one? But because there are no indications, no guidance to know if that’s the case, you end up spending far too long pairing up lines in the hope you’ll stumble onto something without being sure if there’s even anything on which to stumble.

That error extends to locations. Go to the lakeside at one point and there’s no one there. Go there again slightly later, with no prompt, no notion that there’s a reason to, and a vital witness is waiting. Meaning you have to endlessly traipse back and forth through the village, in the hope that something new might have appeared. (And again and again, find that a door can now be opened that couldn’t before, but yet there’s still nothing to do once you’re inside!) This is made all the more tricky thanks to the really odd decision to have all locations be seen from different angles and directions depending upon which way you enter them, without any ability to turn around or move the camera. It means there’s no consistency over which direction to move in from each location, meaning you’ll accidentally spin on the spot an awful lot.

It’s tempting to start listing other poor bits of design. Keyboard prompts contradict themselves on the same screen. Clicking any key will skip a cutscene, but bloody well won’t skip the endlessly repeated filmed sequences for changing locations. That it informs you an object cannot be used while you’re using it, every single time. But really, they’re just side matters when Contradiction fails at the most important element: the contradictions. It’s a long game – it’ll take many hours to get through without using walkthroughs. But most of that time is used up hopelessly traipsing about asking a single new question of the ever-growing cast of suspects, and then not knowing if any of the bloody enormous discrepancies they’ve stated are recognised by the game as counting. Kate was enjoying the business course, a man tells you near the start of the game. Toward the end he says he knew she was planning on leaving. Nada. Same guy announces late on that “students aren’t tested”, despite having only recently told you about a test they give the students. Zip.

It’s poor construction is incessant. Right in the final couple of hours, you’re yet again told by narration that you need to speak to a specific person right away, but won’t actually get anywhere until you’ve stumbled upon the right other person in the village to speak to first. And far too many times, key events will only occur if you go to a remote, empty location, that now has suddenly become plot critical.

A “tips” thing in the menu offers some guidance about where you should be going, but of course only ever feels like cheating. What the game desperately needs is a visual indication that there’s a contradiction to find at any point, to stop you so tiresomely trawling without knowing if you’re wasting your time. It also needs a huge tidy up, working controller support (since it doesn’t have any mouse support at all), and oh good lord, it needs more ending. Yes, you figure out the murderer, but every other thread in the story is left flapping around pointlessly. All the time and effort put into learning about most the people and the stories of the village are left woefully unfinished. Bah.

There are some great actors in here, and the effort gone to for the filming, and the extensive script, deserves credit. But the framework into which it’s all been put is deeply flawed. Which is a huge shame. Someone is going to get this idea right, but it’s not this time.

Contradiction is on Steam for £7.

13 Comments

  1. Archonsod says:

    Early on I had the same issue with the contradictions, but I found after the first chapter or so you get a feeling for the exact discrepancies the game is looking to highlight (and of course you also have the old fashioned method of simply trying everything with everything else). Worse is when you absolutely know someone is lying but can’t call them on it because you haven’t found the correct item to interview them about. The overall feeling was somewhat akin to wrestling with the parser in an IF game.
    On the plus side it’s nice that they have two separate ‘hint’ systems, one of which is unreliable – you call the chief for advice, which can range from the useful to stating the obvious, assuming he answers, and an actual cheat system (which apparently gives you a big clue). The main problem there is that you’re more often ‘stuck; because the game is waiting for you to go to a specific location and trigger an event (which you have absolutely no logical reason to visit at that point in time) and speaking to the chief doesn’t actually help with that. Didn’t hit any technical issues apart from the controller one (which according to the devs is a problem with the 3rd party software they’re using for it, so they’re waiting for a fix from them).

    Funnily enough the biggest issue I had (and the game is enjoyable, don’t get me wrong) is the ending. Without spoiling it too much you spend a lot of time investigating Atlas, who are built up into the big bad the whole game. Except that thread is left dangling for a sequel the developer pitches at the end of the game. It’s somewhat deflating to spend the whole game uncovering this sinister conspiracy only to end by solving a rather mundane murder case.

  2. caff says:

    Wish I’d read your review before buying it.

    Came across the same interface pains as you and started to slowly, methodically, beat my head against my desk before the groove became so deep I could eat my crunchy nut cornflakes out of it.

    However, Steam refunds. Yay!

  3. seroto9 says:

    “It’s a bit like The Doctor turning up on True Detective.” I’d buy that game.

    In fact, I’m going to start a Kick for that very thing before someone steals my brilliant idea.

  4. Oakreef says:

    So they’ve managed to take the old adventure game issue of screaming “JUST USE THE BLOODY CROWBAR ON THE BLOODY DOOR”* and applied it to making bits of dialogue match instead.

    * of course what you actually had to do was scare a cat into knocking over a stepladder to use to unscrew the lightbulb that had the key in it

    • mr.black says:

      I don’t have problem with something that has become a genre trope – that you have to go about the game solving it the way writers/developers intended. But the standard/my logic [i]must[/i] be acknowledged. “No, my doc told me to resist the urge of forcefully breaking the doors since that incident in pastry shop. Last I heard the grandma still can’t stand straight…” or “No, somebody will notice. There [i]has[/i] to be the way to enter without force!” or “Yeah, I could force it, but I’m too smart for that, I’ll find another way.” There has to be a reaction to something someone (or the majority of people, that’s why there are testers) thinks is the most simple, logical way of doing things and an effort has to be made to explain why their solution is better.
      I’ll gladly coax a dog into chasing the mouse, to get the cheese, to stuff it into my ears, so that I can burn the dynamite, but please, make sure the crowbar in my inventory isn’t sturdy and it’ll break, cause the doors are really tough!

  5. Darth Gangrel says:

    I love FMV in games, it’s a big part of why I have such fond memories of Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight. FMV makes a a game cinematic in a good way and Star Wars is certainly the right place for the cheesiness associated with FMV. The expansion to Jedi Knight, Mysteries of the Sith, had in-engine cutscenes which were much worse and not only because of the graphic limitations. The game itself was great as well and I’m not into murder mystery games, so I’ll pass on this, but I approve of its FMV-ness.

  6. JackMultiple says:

    I already played this game when it was called “Phantasmagoria”.

  7. spr00se says:

    “It’s poor construction is incessant.”

    The irony..

  8. jajunior says:

    I spent some lovely hours with “Contradiction”. No bugs, no “technical issues”. A lot of roaming, a interesting amount of thinking.

    With all respect, I desagree with your review.

    Thank you.

    • puzzlepiece87 says:

      No acknowledgement of all the examples he gave? Just “I disagree”? The least you could have said was “I was lucky, none of the technical issues listed above bothered me. I really enjoyed (these things about the game).”

  9. Premium User Badge

    DuncUK says:

    It sounds like this game has many of the same issues in interrogations that LA Noire did. I’d love for someone to write a good detective game that featured meaningful and logical interrogation, but all too often these things become a confusing guessing game of “what does the developer want me to do this time”. Perfectly valid associations are rejected by the game because the developers chose a particular combination as the One True Solution.

    LA Noire complicated matters further by having “play hardball” and “accuse of lying” as separate options AND had you analysing body language which was sometimes, but not always relevant. These games need to understand that conversations and meaning are fluid and non-absolute and recognise that instead of right and wrong answers that gamified interrogations instead need degrees of correctness.

    • cosmitz says:

      You should really pick up and play Wizardry 8, if only for the dialogue system. It’s amazing how many things that we think the industry is ‘stuck’ on have been solved before.

  10. Premium User Badge

    Risingson says:

    Ok, what is a contradiction is the review and the comments. For what it seems, it is kind of a middle point between L.A. Story (which received some criticism from here) and Phoenix Wright (which is loved by everyone, it seems) and has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Phantasmagoria or the rest of FMV adventures. And for what I’ve played, her story has barely any interaction and if it had been done 20 years ago, the same guys would have been blaming it for the decline of FMV adventures, the lack of interaction and so on.

    Now, making a big effort and trying to understand what happens with the game, it is, as usual, not a matter of design or the game genre (please, stop, STOP blaming the adventures), but a matter of SCRIPT WRITING. Which is what made (most of) Phantasmagoria 2 (that study on queer sexuality) much better than Phantasmagoria 1, for example. Thanks.