The Unfinished Swan is the story of an artist. The king has a magic paintbrush that brings to life anything that he paints. The world itself is his creation, and it is a very apt metaphor for the concept of the artist, a creator of worlds and ideas that brings these things into existence through his will and craft.
But we do not play as the King. We merely see the result of his work long after he abandoned it. We are interlopers in his world. We come along afterwards to see what he has wrought and discover who he was from his creations. We are given his background thanks to storybook pages found on the walls of his land, as if they are intended to serve as placards to pieces of art. We are walking through a museum exhibit of this world’s artist’s work. So what does it tell us about him?
We see an evolution in his work. At the beginning of the game, the player appears in an all white environment. It is the king’s garden and courtyard. This is where he began his creations. This is his work without influence, without a purpose beyond producing an idealized beauty. It is, in the King’s mind, the perfect ideal of art. There are walls and statues. There are stairs and a pond. But they are all invisible, as there is no contrast between any of them. To the naked eye, they are all one blank void. We are not looking at things, rather at the Platonic ideal of things.
Plato theorized that everything had an ideal state of being that all objects of that thing owe their nature to. We, as humans, cannot fathom this ideal state of an object. When we think of a chair, we imagine a chair. Perhaps one that we have sat in or have seen in a catalog. Regardless of what it looks like, what style or color that chair is, we can only think of a chair by imagining an non-idealized, real chair. The Platonic ideal of such is beyond our comprehension.
To the King, his courtyard is a form of Platonic art. It is perfect in its conception and unspoiled. The realization of an achievable concept made real. But then his subjects had to go spoil it by interacting with it. They cannot see it, nor can they appreciate it. A Platonic idea of art doesn’t work in the real world and cannot be interacted with properly. Where the King saw perfection, his subjects saw a nuisance. So the king sacrificed the perfect form of his art for the sake of practicality and for what is essentially for the sake of his audience.
First, he adds shadows. Then he adds color and then a sewer system, then water. One by one, he sacrifices the ideal form of his kingdom for the necessities of it. Everything new that he creates takes on these more complex and layered forms from now on. No matter what he does, the art in his head never comes out the same in the real world. The king’s frustration grows as his kingdom does. Nothing satisfies the King anymore now that he’s entered a more complex reality.
The King is like any artist who grows and learns from their previous amateur work. They develop their skills and their understanding of their medium. They become more complex people and in turn create more complex work.
In the second half of the game, we learn of two of his creations that were born from this period of his life. In his loneliness, he created a representation of a woman. Thanks to magic, like in the story of Pygmalion, she becomes real. The other work is a beast created from his frustration with the world and its refusal to bend to his will. He creates the beast as a way to curb the growing vines in his kingdom, though he instead threatens all of his creations with his hubris. The beast is the unintended consequences of his art. It hurts people that he cares about, damages his work and reputation. People leave him. All of this happens because he didn’t think the consequences of his creation through.
In the last years of his life, the King’s wife leaves him. He leaves behind his whole previous life’s work. It doesn’t interest him anymore because it no longer speaks to him. His heartbreak has changed him into a different person. One day, his muse speaks to him, and he sets out to create his magnum opus: a colossus of himself. But as time wears on, the King cannot finish it. The statue is taking too long, and he has too little time left. In the end, it is an unfinished, flawed masterpiece. It is the culmination of all his life experiences.
We see the evolution of the King as an artist through three distinct stages. It is no coincidence that the three main chapters are broken up over a day as a metaphor. Morning in the all white land, afternoon in the matured city, and twilight on the overgrown island where the king’s last work resides. First, He considers his work as a naive young artist, who creates what he thinks are perfect works, but are ultimately empty and devoid of meaning to his audience. Then we see the King grow, adding complexity and depth to his work element by element, most of them added by the whims and needs of his audience. He is unhappy with this turn of events because this is not “his” work, expressing only himself. But thanks to the new complexities of creation that he learned from that experience, he paints a woman, and it becomes his most deep and real creation. So much so that he falls in love with her. The artist has fallen in love with his own work, and it spurs him on to create anew. At the same time, losing her devastates him.
In the final third of the game, the player comes upon the work that represents his twilight years as an artist. From his experience, his love, and his despair, he begins a new project, his greatest creation yet. But it will never be completed. It will remain unfinished and stands as his last great creation to the world.
When you enter the King’s room and finally meet him, he tells you of his dream. His dream is a reflection on his own life. The player was only seeing it before as something pieced together from what was left behind. Now we get to hear his explanation of that work. What I find most telling is that he doesn’t focus on his work or how it made him feel. He doesn’t speak of his wife or his missteps as an artist. He focuses on the reaction to the world he created. He looks on his early days and is horrified to find someone has thrown paint everywhere. He looks on his city only to find it succumbing and crumbling to the vines. And finally, he sees his final masterpiece unfinished and unappreciated.
We are critics. We cannot see nor understand his early work, so we throw ink at it. We cannot traverse his city for long, so we spoil it with vines. We cannot see on the island, so we illuminate it. The game’s protagonist, the kid—and by extension, ourselves—are his audience. We criticize his work honestly. We can only be honest, because it is the only mechanic granted to us. The kid, Monroe, has the same reaction in his dream that the citizens of the king had to his creations. As the player, we conform to this opinion to highlight the reception of the King’s work because it is the only way that we can interact with the world. It is this criticism that the king takes with him in the end, not his life experiences, not the work he put into his world. Instead, it is the reaction that he received from the world, both good and bad. Now all he can do is pass on the mantel of artist to the next generation. He has left his mark, and now it is the kid’s turn to leave his.
Thankfully, the kid learns from the King’s mistake. The King never finished anything. Instead he leaves behind a lifetime of half completed works. The game’s eponymous swan acts as tour guide in this museum of the King’s life. It is forever a reminder that we are looking at a world only half completed, like the swan itself. The kid learns this lesson and wakes up to finish painting the swan.
The game feels underdeveloped. Each section is truncated and never fully explores what its mechanics can do. To me, this only reinforces the nature of the world as incomplete in itself. The sense that the game is unfinished and scattershot in its different mechanics mirrors the king’s own work and allows the player to feel that incompleteness through play. This creates a direct connection between the King’s art and the player. This also helps us step into Monroe’s shoes because he is also experiencing an incomplete work.