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The Unfinished Swan

Not everything is black and white.

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.
Until you tap a trigger, that is, and a ball of jet black paint flings forward, splattering against whatever’s in front of you. At first, this is both shocking and beautiful, the harshness of the contrasting shades highlighting your path, but also uncovering otherwise unseen edges and shapes suddenly, and occasionally a creature.

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.
I adore games like this, and Giant Sparrow’s slightly chilling, and yet oddly inviting juxtaposition of creation, nature and man’s desire to craft, find a mate and ultimately thrive really struck home.

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.

  1. Paranoimia
    Since: Aug 2008

    I was intrigued by this, until I saw the price. At £9.99, I’m not so sure.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:03.
    • bunimomike
      Since: Jul 2009

      Wow, really? Journey was a similar price (I think) and that was truly stunning.

      Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:54.
      • Alex C
        One for all.
        Since: Forever

        Yep, same price as Journey.

        Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 22:01.
    • chocofunda
      Since: Sep 2012

      Journey was a stunning game and this looks like it could possibly be in the same league. The £9.99 I spent on Journey was by far the best buy I have made on PSN so this should be good.

      Comment posted on 15/10/2012 at 23:12.
  2. cc_star
    Team TSA: Writer
    Since: Forever

    Can’t wait!

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:04.
  3. tactical20
    Since: May 2010

    Next time my accumulator comes in, I’m gonna grab this, Limbo and Journey. Three games I definitely need to play.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:18.
  4. colmshan1990
    Since: Apr 2009

    Can’t wait for this!

    Especially looking forward to playing this with Move.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:21.
  5. sabbat7001
    Since: Jun 2010

    Sold. You watch. It’ll come to PS+ for free in 2 months lol.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:23.
    • Kivi95
      Since: Oct 2009

      Don’t think so ;). They either release a game for Free on a release day or they wait like 1 year atleast before it goes on Free for PS+.

      Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:39.
  6. TheLig
    Causing trouble is my business and business is good
    Since: Dec 2008

    Yep, looks like Journey. Pretentious and boring as hell.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:40.
    • Alex C
      One for all.
      Since: Forever

      Er. It doesn’t look like Journey at all. :/

      Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:48.
      • TheLig
        Causing trouble is my business and business is good
        Since: Dec 2008

        Sorry, sounds like journey. I just don’t like these “arty” games. I don’t find them fun and when I say this to people who do, it’s because I “don’t get it” or am “not willing to accept something different”. Nope, I want a fun game. This doesn’t sound it to me.

        Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:51.
      • Alex C
        One for all.
        Since: Forever

        Fair enough. :)

        Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:52.
      • Peter Chapman
        Team TSA: Editor
        Since: Forever

        people who can’t accept that sometimes you’ll just like different things are nobheads.

        I adored Journey but I can certainly see that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I don’t like Van Gogh’s paintings but I love Salvador Dali. Not a BMW fan but I love Aston Martins. Custard Creams before Bourbons (sneaky little biscuit, those) every time. Different strokes for different folks, right?

        Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 22:07.
      • teflon
        Community Team
        Since: May 2009

        You filthy biscuitist!

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 00:28.
      • Bilbo_bobbins
        Since: Jun 2009

        Peter, do you like to dip your ginger nuts in your tea? I do, I love sucking them afterwards

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 09:07.
      • Tuffcub
        On the naughty step.
        Since: Dec 2008

        Ha, didn’t deny Journey was pretentious and boring :)

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 09:53.
      • anthro
        Since: Apr 2011

        *gasp* Custard Cream before Bourbon??

        GET. OUT.

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 10:14.
      • yiddo
        Since: Jun 2010

        This isn’t even a case of opinion.

        Custard Creams > Bourbons. FACT.

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 16:22.
      • Forrest_01
        Since: Jun 2009

        I concur.

        Comment posted on 10/10/2012 at 16:37.
  7. R1MJAW
    Since: May 2010

    Looking forward to this, I’ve noticed you playing it for the last few days and I have to admit I’ve been a tad jealous.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 21:49.
  8. Peter Chapman
    Team TSA: Editor
    Since: Forever

    Great bit of writing, that.

    I’m intrigued again, after not really enjoying the brief time I had with it at EGX. I suspect it doesn’t do well on a noisy show floor with a snatched five minutes starting halfway through someone else’s game!

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 22:02.
    • Alex C
      One for all.
      Since: Forever

      No. Terrible situation, and probably detrimental to the game. Same with Journey last year.

      Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 22:12.
  9. Carl
    Since: Jan 2009

    Looks and sounds fantastic and definitely the kind of thing i want to see more of.

    Bought, and i look forward to Giant Sparrow’s next two games :) If they improve as much from game to game as TGC did, then the next two will be something even more special.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 22:39.
  10. TSBonyman
    Since: Dec 2009

    I’m already looking forward to this but that was a good read, confirmed my hopes that Unfinished Swan is going to be quite special.

    Comment posted on 09/10/2012 at 23:57.

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