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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.

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