Version played: PS3 (PlayStation Network Exclusive)
Publishers: Sony Computer Entertainment
Developers: Giant Sparrow
Time played by reviewer: around 4 hours
Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan was a surprise Eurogamer standout for several of the AMOLAG team based on the demo on display (actually, the game’s opening level) – with Al going so far as to make this his game of the show. How then, would the game measure up to these expectations? In short, it’s an enthralling, engaging little fairytale that, while not without it’s flaws, manages to overcome these and deliver something both poignant and mystifying.
The story begins, like many fairytales, with a loss: Monroe’s mother has died, and his only memento of her is a painting – incomplete, like all of her paintings – of a swan. One day he awakes to find the swan missing from the picture, and sets off to find it through “a little door he hadn’t seen before”. Beyond this door, he enters a world with no colour – a sheer blankness that becomes almost overwhelming on a large screen. In this void, you discover The Unfinished Swan‘s basic gameplay mechanic – the ability to throw blobs of black paint. At first, almost snow-blind, these get launched in all directions, exploding off walls and ceilings in great Jackson Pollock-esqe splatters. Gradually, however, you realise that there are objects in this world with you – the paint begins to pick out shapes, edges, vertical and horizontal planes. A bench here, a fence post there. This gradual revealing of your surroundings really contributes to a sense of wonder and exploration – you’re chucking the paint around, excited to see what’s going to appear out of the whiteness next. And yet, you need to be cautious – over-spreading the paint merely coats everything in black, hiding the edges and simply inverting the problem.
Amidst all of this you begin to pick out the Swan’s footprints, a shock of yellow in an otherwise monochrome world. These footprints act as a beacon for Monroe, leading the way when you lose your bearings in the white world. Following the Swan, the story begins to unveil itself through a number of storybook-style murals. As much as I’d like to get more deeply into the story of The Unfinished Swan, it’s almost impossible to do so without spoilers and as the sense of wonderment that the game and it’s various levels are absolutely fundamental I’m going to play it on the safe side…
One of the concerns that was discussed following Eurogamer was whether the paint mechanic alone would be enough to sustain interest over the duration of the game. This is mitigated slightly by the fact that this is a short game – even with my (lack of) gameplay skills, I breezed through in around 4 hours. It could certainly be argued that this is missing the point – it’s definitely a game that is more about the telling of the tale, and what’s more the length makes it more child-friendly (of which more later). Game length apart, there are a number of other gameplay mechanics introduced during the game. Sadly, none of these have quite as much an impact of the initial paint-flinging levels. The second act of the game has a slightly irritating puzzle-solving technique (just about justified by the plot) whereby you have to splash water rather than paint around in order to get vines to grow up the sides of buildings, enabling you to climb. I ended up just spamming the fire button and hoping the vines went where they were meant to. This is compounded by the fact that the climbing physics just aren’t very good – they’re floaty, unconvincing, and rarely give you confidence that you’re about to do the right thing. This would be understandable if it was a deliberate attempt to ratchet up the tension levels but sadly it’s a mechanical problem that would be off-putting if the story itself wasn’t so engaging.
Once past this act, however, The Unfinished Swan moves into it’s endgame with some genuinely atmospheric and unsettling scenes that introduce yet another (light-based) mechanic. This is far more interesting, and introduces a sense of threat that’s hitherto absent from the game. It’s also at this point where the story takes a far more poignant turn. Impressively, the game’s writers manage to instil a sense of melancholy from the surroundings and even the puzzles themselves. I don’t mind admitting that by the time the storyline reached it’s denouement I was in bits (hey, I’m sleep-deprived). Without spoiling anything, I was really reminded of some of Studio Ghibli’s work – there’s a real emotional core here, underneath all the quirkiness, and a strong sense that childlike innocence is a redemptive, restorative power. As I mentioned above, there are parts of this game that are very child-friendly – and parts that might be a bit more heavy going, although this could certainly be attributed to a Hayao Miyazaki-type refusal to treat children like idiots!
In my opening paragraph, I described The Unfinished Swan as a “fairytale” and in many ways it functions better on this level than as a pure game. There are several “game” elements to it that, if not broken, are at least, y’know, dull – and yet these are elevated by the story, which turns the whole product into something charming and beautiful. Like many fairytales, and the work of writers like Roald Dahl and movie-makers like Pixar, this is multi-layered – it works as a cutesy little adventure but simultaneously evokes a profound sense of loss and sadness – and yet, ultimately, hope. If you hadn’t guessed, I loved this game despite its flaws – it rewards going into it with an open mind and the willingness to just go along with it’s foibles. The Unfinished Swan deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.
In honour of the unique styling of Unfinished Swan you’re going to have to throw paint at the above article to reveal more. That means clicking on the page. Don’t be shy!