Games

Finding Value in 'The Unfinished Swan'

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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image