If Journey is the PS3’s grand epic – a sweeping, majestic tale of life and death – then The Unfinished Swan is the console’s bedtime tale. An equally ambitious but entirely different take on storytelling, splitting a gentle, melancholic (and desperately tragic) story into bitesized chunks of wickedly inventive adventuring. Told through the eyes of Monroe, orphaned and alone, the eponymously titled painting one of two of the boy’s possessions mentioned as the plot starts.
The other, as you’ll have no doubt seen in the various trailers, is a magic paintbrush. As the game opens, and your first person viewpoint is bathed in little other than pure whiteness and the most minimal of on screen displays, the player is left intentionally directionless. You have no bearings, no frame of reference, no sense of up or down, or left and right. The walls, floor and ceiling of the door you’ve just stepped through are literally invisible.
We're only talking about the game's opening here, but its art style is clearly still worthy of much discussion.
The game’s not designed to frighten you (at least, not yet) but it’s astonishing how it’s not actually the darkness that scares you: it’s simply the inability to see what’s in front of you.
Fumbling around is a purposefully tactile-less experience, the game making no effort to signal a bump or collision. Instead, you’re expected to paint your way through the wilderness, lighting your way with nothing more than black ink and glimpses of your sporadic guide that is the titular swan, its presence constant (albeit often well hidden) and its golden yellow footprints visible even against both white and black. They act as signposts in the bleakness, although they’re not necessarily the best (or only) way forward.
Footsteps creating a fresh path? Or the echoes of a long lost journey?
And so, as you slowly make your way through the first section of the story, the plot starts to unfold via pages of a book integrated into the environment, activated with a flick of paint, and other, more subtle references. Journey’s allegory was very much up front and visible, but The Unfinished Swan’s is rooted deeper, and kept under the surface until the end credits start to roll, despite the game’s altogether more obvious undertones delivered by the textual inserts you come across.
Some may prefer this, as ultimately there’s less left vague for interpretation, but just as with thatgamecompany‘s last title, the more you invest the bigger the emotional return at the end. An embargo is currently stopping us from talking about what happens after the game’s opening chapter until next week (and you wouldn’t want the story spoiling anyway) but suffice to say that things change quickly in The Unfinished Swan, and the mechanics alter dramatically over its length.
Rest assured though that not everything in this game is black and white.
The castle, your first real physical goal, is an imposing and yet oddly familiar, comforting sight.
Monroe’s character might be youthful and innocent, but the circle of life has a habit of making you look at things differently, and, when the titles started to appear at the game’s end, it’s true that I held back something that felt like a lump in my throat.
Not necessarily from the game’s plot – which is never really emotionally charged or pushed hard enough to make it impossible to avoid for those that just want to explore, but more the effortless way it was delivered – from start to end. Sometimes a game just works, and although The Unfinished Swan isn’t quite perfect, it’s a largely flawless, sweeping title that just glides with grace and poise from one part to another, constantly surprising you with new tricks and a couple of blissful cameos.
Understated, complex and yet packed with character and surprises. The Unfinished Swan is (somewhat paradoxically) another one of those once-in-a-lifetime titles that makes me remember how much I love about this industry. Every so often a game comes along that stops you dead in your tracks, and creating a new, innovative experience after decades of familiarity takes some doing.
Playing through The Unfinished Swan is a dreamy, otherworldly experience that’s literally without peer. It’s simultaneously fascinating, creepy, moving and thought provoking, but perhaps more importantly it’s also a coherent, confident game. The story of the Swan, as metaphoric and symbolic as that might be, is out on PSN next week for PlayStation Plussers, the week after for everyone else.
Our review, along with a full analysis of the game’s (optional) Move control setup, will arrive next Monday, the 15th of October.