The Unfinished Swan
Rated E for Everyone, Playstation Network, developed by Giant Sparrow
“Of all his creations, the greatest was himself.”
A game that started its life as nothing more than an XNA prototype, The Unfinished Swan had a development time of two months and was backed by Sony’s Santa Monica Studios. This is an art book of a game, an experience more than anything else, akin to Flower or Journey. You play as a young boy named Monroe who can’t sleep and has recently lost his mother, a kind lady who spent her life painting but seemed to never be able to finish her works. So Monroe enters the dream that she began, armed with nothing but the ability to throw balls of ink at a world that starts as a completely white expanse…
In minimalistic style, you are given nothing more than the ability to move around, control your camera, throw balls of ink (or water) and jump. There are slow additions to this as the game moves on, but you start in a completely white space which after throwing a few inkballs, it shows to be Monroe’s home. Creating shapes and contrast by throwing ink down on the white surfaces, you eventually make your way out into a small farmland, and then a pond, and then find your way into a castle and beyond that even more creative and expansive locations.
While the game starts out with only giving you the ability to make out your world by contrasting black with white, there are four Chapters in the game, and each one is rather different from the other and incorporates a new way to interact with your environment. The world gains shape and form in the second Chapter, allowing you to throw balls of water instead of ink, and do creative things such as force ivy to grow into handholds for you to explore more areas. Then what you can throw becomes even more creative in the later chapters, where you use mathematical dimension to create shapes that you can use to jump on and move through areas.
I beat the entire game in about two hours, and just like with Journey and Flower I highly recommend making this a one-sitting game. While it can be really neat to come back to and unlock some of the Toys and play levels over, the overall experience is much better if ingested all at once.
Music and Sound:
The musical score in this game was beautiful and calming while never becoming distracting from the scenery or my goals at hand. I found myself really enjoying it if I stopped to focus on it, but outside of that it does its job to frame the emotions of a moment since there isn’t too much dialogue in this game (until closer to the end). The sound was very fitting as well, with everything sounding like it was supposed to. The plop of ink on the ground, the sound of rapidly growing vines or the creak of a wooden boat sailing through water, it was all very fitting and purposeful.
Of course the storyline is very simplistic and presented almost entirely through actions, but there are many ‘storybook pages’ that can be uncovered by throwing ink or water on a wall that contains a capital letter. Then the backstory of the King as revealed, as well as Monroe’s introduction and ending. Everything comes together in a very roundabout way, and I found myself more than a little impressed by their use of simplistic storytelling to bring forth a story that was actually quite interesting in the end. I’m sure subsequent plays will flesh out the story even more, but I really got a ‘Harold and the Purple Crayon’ vibe from the whole thing, which felt very fitting and satisfying. I found myself rather attached to Monroe and the King, and his mother by the end of the game.
The Unfinished Swan IS presentation. The entirety of the extraordinary experience is because of the strange way it brings traditional first person gameplay to you, and each new are is gorgeous and mysterious in equal doses. The areas are very complex and beautiful to look at, and none of them drag on in length. In fact I found myself wishing each level was longer, and I stopped more than once just to examine the scenery around me. I’m sure I’ll play the game again very soon just to look at the levels in more detail, and with more experienced eyes. I think the game is worth buying for the experience alone, and for sharing the experience with others if you can.
The aesthetic experience is enough to get at least two plays from this game, but there are also Balloons that you can collect in each level, and use them to buy ‘Toys’ from the game’s main menu that Monroe can use. These range from Concept Art to tools that help you find more Balloons, to silly items like a Hose or even a Sniper Rifle (really it’s just a way to throw the ink or water in a straight line, and kind of a poke-in-name at other FPS titles).
I knew I wanted to try The Unfinished Swan the moment I first saw it unveiled, but I kept myself mostly in the dark about the title until release because I wanted to be surprised. I know I already made reference to Thatgamecompany’s titles, but it really feels like that’s the experience they were going for. It’s video game minimalism at its best, and is the sort of experience that should change the minds of those who don’t understand that games can represent the best available storytelling in our current lives. The Unfinished Swan felt to me as if I was interacting with the kind of story book from my childhood, and looking at the concept art showed me that it was definitely a point of the developers to instill that sort of priceless nature into the player. As I said, The Unfinished Swan is worth the pricetag even for one play through as far as I’m concerned, because these sorts of gaming experiences only come along once in a while and they should be cherished as examples of video games as an art form. I’m very glad I played this game.