People play video games for all different kinds of reasons. Whether it’s to relax, experience a new world, or just escape this one, everyone has their own justification for picking up that controller. People relate to games on different levels, but that connection is what has kept gamers gaming for all these years. Very rarely does a game come along that makes you rethink not only those connections, but also video games themselves; Sony’s latest Playstation Network indie experiment, The Unfinished Swan, does just that – turning perception on its side. This release takes gaming outside of its comfortable box, and creates an experience unlike anything that has ever been done before.
The story begins as a boy, Monroe, is sent to an orphanage because his mother, a painter, has died. He is only allowed to take one of her 300 incomplete works with him, and he chooses her favorite, an unfinished swan. However, one day, the swan leaves the painting and Monroe chases after it, and, in doing so, finds himself in a completely white room, with no definition or shadow. This is where players pick up the controller and begin to play. The game is played from Monroe’s first-person perspective, and his only tool for finding his way is a paintbrush that allows him to “shoot” black ink splatters; think of it as a monochromatic video game interpretation of Jackson Pollock’s work. As Monroe follows the swan’s footprints, the story unravels through what storybook-like pages hidden on the walls. He discovers that everything in this mysterious place was created by a king who was looking to build a perfect world. The King has crafted different parts of the world to satisfy himself, or his subjects, but things never really seem to work out as planned.
The Unfinished Swan is a first-person painter, with Monroe’s “load out” being different colors and types of paintballs. What to use is each part of the world is handled entirely by the game, allowing Monroe the optimal type of ball to solve the puzzles of that area. Paint eventually turns into water (which allows Monroe to direct the growth of vines), which turns into blueprint boxes (allowing Monroe to create platforms). The gameplay is really what you make of it, even though you are locked into following a linear path that tells the story of Monroe’s exploration of this blank canvas.
The most striking aspect of The Unfinished Swan is its minimalistic art style. While the game starts off monochromatic, it eventually employs a more extensive palate of colors as the game progresses. Either way, the look and feel of the game help it to stand out as one of the year’s most original games. The team at Giant Sparrow have put a lot of thought into the art direction for the game, and what colors to use where, which becomes very clear as you move through the King’s works of art.
The gameplay in The Unfinished Swan focuses on puzzles for Monroe to solve so that he can continue to move forward, and follow the swan. Each puzzle makes use of the environment in different way, asking Monroe to use his paint to interact and “complete” the canvases, which will allow him to advance to the next section of the game. The difficultly of the puzzles really depends on the player’s ability to just try everything, since there’s no way to really “fail” in the game. If you keep trying different things, you’ll eventually work through the on-screen options and solve the puzzle. This leaves the gameplay as kind of shallow, but it helps keep the game moving quickly, allowing the player to focus on what’s really important about The Unfinished Swan – the story. If you want a real challenge, try finding and releasing all of the balloons that are hidden throughout the game. That’s where things get really complex.
If you’re open to playing something that more closely resembles a work of art than a battlefield, then there are very few things to dislike about The Unfinished Swan. In our world of $.99 apps, some may think that the story, while very satisfying, is a bit on the short side for the $15 price tag, even though it’s worth every penny. Others, may take some issue with the game’s ending, which (and I won’t spoil it for you) leaves certain things up to interpretation. However, this is just another way that The Unfinished Swan bucks convention, and helps to create a game that operates on a different level than most games.
The Unfinished Swan is an exquisite game that challenges gaming conventions, while crafting an entirely unique experience for gamers. From the minimalistic art style, to the way the story is woven into the gameplay, the team at Giant Sparrow seems to have hit a home run in their first at bat. It’s not often that a game like this comes along, and anyone with a PS3 owes it to themselves to take the time to sit down and figure out for themselves just what sets The Unfinished Swan apart from the pack. It’s a journey that’s completely worth it.