The Unfinished Swan
(Sony Computer Entertainment)
US: 23 Oct 2012
If you have seen the original promotional test video for The Unfinished Swan, then you have a rough grasp of what the opening act of the game is all about. You are presented with a completely white screen, and you can throw paint to find the walls and other objects in the environment. The rest of the game bears little resemblance to that original teaser. The base mechanic stays the same, but the meaning and interaction with the environment evolves along with the world itself.
The Unfinished Swan is a fairy tale. The motherly voice narrating the tale begins by explaining how a child lost his parents, the father of which was never there. The child is sent off to an orphanage and is allowed to bring only one of his mother’s many unfinished paintings with him. He chooses one of a swan. He goes to bed only to find the swan has flown off. The boy gives chase.
This could almost be the set up to a classic Disney cartoon. And from there, the game takes you on a trip through the fantastical geometry of a kingdom whose ruler created it with a magic paintbrush.
At its core, The Unfinished Swan is a puzzle-platformer with a muted emphasis on both the puzzle and the platforming. The puzzles nearly always use your paintballs to create a path you can traverse. In the first third of the game, this is accomplished by revealing the path against an all white backdrop and later by growing vines and then turning on glowing plants. In each case, you are creating a path for yourself, while at the same time tainting the beauty that exists there already. While this is ostensibly what you do when pushing buttons, it is what you do while you are only moving that is far more interesting. You are observing the ruins of a civilization and are made to gaze in awe at the creations of this kingdom. These ruins are the Ankgor Wat or the Machu Picchu of this land, only they are mostly white and crafted from lines and ink rather than mortar and stone.
However, while you are always shooting a blob of something, the game switches up what the nature of those blobs are and what they do in the world. The game never fully develops what each mechanic is capable of as other puzzle platformers are want to do. You might find that with all their development, dare I say it, they are left… incomplete. Instead the game prefers to keep things moving along at a brisk pace, rather than tediously extending the game to show off the designer’s creativity with roadblocks to be overcome. You can slow down and admire the minimalist beauty of the buildings’ designs, but each section is rather quick and never causes a bottleneck stopping the player from proceeding. The Unfinished Swan isn’t a difficult game, but that statement is also misleading. It isn’t a game about challenge.
It is a game of environmental storytelling. The type exemplified early on by System Shock 2 and later its descendant Bioshock. The game doesn’t descend to the darkness of those games, but rather lifts some of the techniques they used to accomplish its own goals. In all of these game, you arrive after everything has happened, and you have to piece together the story from what was left behind. In the case of The Unfinished Swan, beyond the architecture itself, there are the pages of a storybook imprinted on walls in the environment explaining the history behind the architecture that you are seeing to discover and use as a means of determining what went before.
You are a kid lost in a fantasy land. You follow the unfinished swan from the painting of your departed mother. It leads you everywhere on a journey that is tied to your own personal sense of who you are and how you will move forward. But, that is an afterthought, a result of the game’s conclusion. It is not your story. It is the story of an artist who was king. You follow his path from his early career to the very end of his life. You see his emotional and artistic development through the creations he left behind.
The ending is brilliant. It isn’t a twist, but thanks to dream logic, you are able to see everything you’ve done from a different point of view. It doesn’t change what you’ve experienced but deepens your understanding of the events of the game. The thematic and character arc implications are far more important and more interesting than any plot details.
I don’t know what I was expecting after all these years after that first teaser trailer. It wasn’t this, but then again, some of the best things are surprises. The Unfinished Swan is a delightful game. It is short, only about 3 hours, and its all the better for it. This is a game that doesn’t need to offer more than it does to get me to want to go back and play it again. The experience of traveling through the kingdom and vicariously living the life of another and seeing how his story relates to our own is its own reward.