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Finding Value in 'The Unfinished Swan'

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Thursday, Dec 13, 2012
The pursuit of extreme challenges and endless level progression makes sense for skill-based games with an arcade heritage, but The Unfinished Swan is after something else.

I admire a developer who gives their game a name that lends itself to snide remarks.  For example, take Giant Sparrow’s game, The Unfinished Swan.  if the game turned out poorly, the pithy one-liners would almost write themselves: “Unfinished Swan?  More like Unfinished Game!”  Thankfully, the game gracefully delivers a complete, cohesive experience.


Like other outstanding games, The Unfinished Swan’s major achievement lies in the way it links its authored story to its interactive systems.  The game is about a young boy becoming a more complete person, and the game’s mechanics reflect this journey while also inviting us to think about what constitutes a “complete” game.
  
Monroe, the game’s orphaned protagonist, knows little about his past or his family.  As players, every game we play starts in basically the same way: we don’t know much about the characters or the kinds of rules that govern the world.  The Unfinished Swan captures both the stifling and liberating aspects of this experience by dropping us into a blank canvas.  As Monroe starts his journey to learn more about his family, we stumble along with him.  Throwing paint into the white expanse reveals the landscape while also teaching us how far we can throw, how high we can jump, and how fast we can run.


Monroe finds himself in a magical kingdom ruled by an imposing king.  However, this all-powerful figure and the seemingly flawless landscape are far from perfect.  The king is a capricious and ineffective ruler, and his city is overrun by wild vines that alter the carefully planned architecture.  As Monroe begins to understand his independence, so do we.  Instead of simply revealing the architecture with paint, we alter it by covering it in vines and climbing up walls that were meant to be sheer cliffs.  We get our first taste of power and confidence.


These feelings are soon challenged by a trip into the darkness.  In search of answers about his mother and his relationship to the absentee king, Monroe navigates a forest full of unknown dangers.  Unlike most games, this sequence isn’t so much about defeating an enemy as it is learning to use your abilities to survive in the face of unwinnable circumstances.  We can never beat the spiders or the encroaching darkness, but we can use our paint balls to solve puzzles and light our way through the gloom.  We get to know our limits, and then we learn how to work around them.  All the while, Monroe is learning more about his parents’ failed relationship.  It’s a problem he must confront, but it’s one he can’t outright solve.


At the end of The Unfinished Swan, players gain the ability to create custom platforms and bridges in hopes of reaching the King’s isolated chambers.  At the same time, Monroe is coming to terms with the King’s (and his father’s) shortcomings.  Ultimately, the King’s creative powers were undermined by his obsession with perfection.  Rather than appreciate the people around him, he was fixated on starting over in hopes of crafting a flawless environment.  Once Monroe and the player gain that creative power, we are faced with the King’s dilemma: do we use our abilities to pursue messy (yet meaningful) relationships, or do we get obsessed with crafting a perfect environment, thereby leaving a trail of unfinished projects and neglected loved ones?  I imagine most people will want to finish the game, which requires choosing the former. 


Played at a steady pace, this entire journey can be completed in an afternoon.  I’ve read some criticisms of this brevity, in which some people felt the lack of additional stages or more elaborate puzzles detracted from the game’s overall quality.  I think this says more about ingrained expectations than The Unfinished Swan‘s achievements.  As I’ve argued, The Unfinished Swan‘s mechanical structure complements the game’s story.  It’s not a game about grinding for loot, developing twitch reflexes, or solving mind-bending puzzles; it’s about facing unfamiliar situations, understanding relationships, and then moving on with your life.


Research suggests that many (perhaps even most) players resemble the King when it comes to finishing games.  There’s no sense in burying a revelation in the back half of a game that no one will finish.  Nor is it prudent to try to jam dexterity challenges into a game focused on exploration rather than competition.  It seems that, in many ways, we’re still mentally beholden to the idea that for a game to be “complete” it must wring every possible permutation from its mechanical premise.  This devotion to “more challenge and more levels” makes sense for a game like Super Meat Boy, but The Unfinished Swan is after something else.


Instead of emphasizing mastery, the game leans on its metaphors.  It’s a fairy tale that seeks to explain the dynamics of love, personal growth, and why people sometimes leave things unfinished.  It does this through its plot, but also through systems that allow us to feel the gradual transformation Monroe experiences.  The Unfinished Swan possesses everything necessary to tell this story and is, therefore, a wonderfully complete experience.

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