The Unfinished Swan is one of this year’s most experimental, and creative games that has been commercially released. The PSN title was the first title from the team at Giant Sparrow, who had some support from Sony, but developed the game on their own. One of the key members of that team is Ian Dallas, he started Giant Sparrow, and serves as its Creative Director. Playing such an intimate role in a game like The Unfinished Swan, Mr. Dallas was able to give us some insights behind the scenes of this amazing game. Find out how certain aspects of the game, like the visual and audio cues came about, as well as how long it took to fine tune the splats of each of the paint balls. Oh, and we asked him about Adam Sandler and the swan, because someone had to.
MTV Multiplayer: Where do you start with a game like The Unfinished Swan?
Ian Dallas: The game began as a graduate student project. I was in the USC game design program and every week I was supposed to come up with a new interactive prototype. At the time, I was really interested in how people move through space, and one week I made this white room where you had to throw paint to see what was around you. The opening of the game is surprisingly similar to that original prototype.
MTV Multiplayer: How long does it usually take for players to figure out how to start the game, and what’s going on?
Dallas: I think our average in playtests is around 5 seconds. After that people get bored and start pressing buttons, then they hear the player moving around and press even more buttons. Finally they press one of the triggers, start throwing balls, and then they’re on their way. I think our record was someone who spent 2 minutes staring at the white screen and not doing anything. It just got really awkward after awhile, so we finally broke down and gave him a hint.
MTV Multiplayer: How challenging was it to fine tune the balls to reveal enough of the environment with each individual ball?
Dallas: The size of the splats was something that we kept tuning until pretty close to the end of development. Our goal was so that each splat the player threw would have a good chance of revealing a new clue about the rest of the world. For example, if they’re splatting a path in front of them, we wanted the splat to reveal not only the path but also the base of a tree just off the path so they could splat the tree and see they were in a forest.
To reach that goal, we also designed the environments so there’d be a certain level of detail and different sorts of surfaces near to each other. This could be complicated by the fact that since the paintballs make everything black, if objects are too close together and low to the ground then everything would become black and detail would be lost. We tried to use strong silhouettes and occasional unsplattable surfaces (like a pond) to keep things distinct.
MTV Multiplayer: How did the team balance the visual cues that are built into the game (the King’s insignia, the storybook pages, etc.) with the gameplay to keep the game’s focus on exploration without making the experience too vague?
Dallas: With a few exceptions I think every swan footprint in the game marks a point where we saw tons of playtesters get stuck. Basically, we started by having almost nothing in the world and watched players have a really frustrating experience stumbling through it. Then we gradually added things like swan footprints and the King’s insignia to help guide players.
It’s a tricky thing. Players get very frustrated if they have no idea where to go, but at the same time, if the path is too clearly marked, then it’s not interesting to explore. It’s just work following a trail, so we tried to use the visual accents to give players hints about their long term goals while leaving their near term goals mysterious.
MTV Multiplayer: Playing a game without depth perception is rather challenging – what kinds of challenges did that present on the development side?
Dallas: I think the challenges of navigating the spaces in the game ended up being one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience. As game designers, we’re often looking at how we can reduce frustration for players, but there are times where a little bit of friction or even busy work can be a positive thing.
In role-playing games, for example, players are often asked to manage their inventories, and at first that seems like something you should just let the computer handle for you. But if the menus are enjoyable to use, managing your inventory can be surprisingly fun and a nice change of pace from killing hobgoblins or whatever.
In The Unfinished Swan, players are building mental models of spaces with very incomplete information. That turns out to be something humans are really, really good at doing, which is part of what makes it fun. There’s a surprise that you can actually do this, even though you’ve never done anything like this in the real world before.
MTV Multiplayer: The visual style of the game is very minimal, but so is the music – how conscious of a decision was it to balance those two things?
Dallas: I think we arrived at a minimalist style for the visuals and the music for a lot of the same reasons. We didn’t make a conscious decision that they should be in sync, it’s more that we had an idea for what we wanted this game to feel like and everything else evolved to support that feeling.
The minimalism was also kind of self-perpetuating. Once we decided that we weren’t going to have any in-game tutorials and that we wanted the player to discover their goals from the space itself, minimalism became a very effective tool for subconsciously directing players to areas we wanted them to pay attention, both in terms of the visuals and the music.
MTV Multiplayer: The game includes an option to unlock all of the stages at once (if you collect enough balloons). This isn’t something that you see too often in story based games – what was the thinking behind it, and do you think players will just skip straight to the end?
Dallas: My guess is that almost no one (maybe 1%?) will choose to skip straight to the end. We put in that unlockable more as a statement than as a tool, really. It’s absurdly cheap, I think you could find enough balloons to buy it within 20 minutes of playing, and that’s the point. We wanted to communicate to players that getting to the end isn’t the point. Just like with a book, if you want to skip to the last page and find out what happens, you’re welcome to.
It’s also a nice escape valve too, so if someone is having a hard time or just wants to play an area they’ve heard about from them their friends then they can skip ahead if they want to.
MTV Multiplayer: Did the team look at other minimalistic games for inspiration?
Dallas: I don’t think so. Oddly enough, most of the minimalist games I can think of (say, Pong or Flywrench) are very focused on game mechanics and challenging players. Our game is more focused on atmosphere and creating a memorable emotional experience for players. I think Ico was our biggest source of inspiration.
MTV Multiplayer: How do you think players will react to the children’s book presentation of the story?
Dallas: Our hope is that it helps remind players of what it felt like to be a child, when the world was gigantic and mysterious.
MTV Multiplayer: Monroe’s reactions seem to be perfectly placed to sync up with the player’s thoughts – how did those come about, and how did the team figure out what to put where?
Dallas: A lot of that was our sound designer Mike Niederquell just playing around. We recorded a lot of extra dialogue at the recording session and Mike was able to find lots of cool places to layer those clips into the world.
Also, we did a zillion playtests and had a pretty good sense of where the emotional high points were for players, so we focused a lot on making sure those moments had dialogue from Monroe.
MTV Multiplayer: What do you hope players will take away from the game?
Dallas: Our hope is that the experience is memorable for players, both because it’s something they’ve never seen before, and because even though it’s a surreal and impossible world, there are elements to the game that resonate with the player’s own life.
Ultimately we want to give players tools to explore the world in a new way and hopefully change the way they see the world around them.
MTV Multiplayer: Did anyone make any Adam Sandler/swan jokes during development?
Dallas: Yes, I think it came up a few times.