Picking up on elements of Shel Silverstein’s work might not be the most common thing for a game designer to do, but Ian Dallas, the man behind The Unfinished Swan, certainly knows how to choose his references. It’s this skill, along with the ability to craft a game that’s both poetic and gentle whilst pushing boundaries, that’ll hopefully see Giant Sparrow go onto even greater things.
But first, a notice. This article contains spoilers. If you’ve not played and finished The Unfinished Swan yet, this openly discusses some of the points the game makes so you may wish to stop reading.
With Silverstein’s artwork generously echoed in the initial video section and the way the artist liberally leaves plenty of white space, it’s evident that the opening sections of last year’s PS3 exclusive owe plenty to the freeform sketches and cartoon-like sensibilities of the sadly long-deceased American artist. But there’s more to this tale than just ink and paper, and it’s one that deserves a closer look.
The game was (rightly) lauded for its innovative, original core mechanic. But aside from the often wondrous expression that the game’s magic paintbrush allows, it’s within the frequently littered storybook pages where The Unfinished Swan’s beauty truly lies. I’ve wanted to write about what the exposition is all hinting at since I first played the game, but a few recent moments of quiet reflection have finally kickstarted this blog.
The golden footprints point the way, a gentle hand holding from the titular creature.
The pages of the storybook point to a King desperate to make an impression on the world he inhabits, creating and bending the structures around him to placate both himself and his followers. His magic brush crafts a wife, created seemingly only to give the King a family, who then leaves to the ‘real’ world and gives birth to Monroe before passing away.
But not before she draws the hundreds of unfinished animals.
The twist is that once Monroe enters the world of the King, the realisation that Monroe isn’t going to follow in his father’s footsteps so accurately deeply affects the king. His legacy won’t be continued, and everything he’s crafted won’t stay around forever.
His life’s work, his dedication to perfecting his kingdom, is wasted. It’s pushed his wife away, and worst of all Monroe’s paint brush (from his mother) ruins the King’s hard work. The way this is demonstrated to the player at the end is genius, but it’s also clear that Monroe is made to make the same mistakes his father did, and as the game comes to a close it seems that the King struggles to find a great deal of meaning and purpose to his life.
Indeed, Dallas directly references Homer’s Iliad in The Unfinished Swan (and there are clear pointers to Alice in Wonderland, too), hoping that his Son will have a happy life and be a better person than he was. In the end, of course, Monroe actually ends up connecting more with his deceased mother, the Queen. He finishes the titular Swan, something his mother could never do, and that’s ironically done with his father’s paint brush.
The kingdom, in all its glory. And yet it's perpetually unfinished, and the King is never happy.
And all the while The Unfinished Swan presents Monroe with unbeatable challenges. He can’t fix his parents’ broken relationship; he can’t make much in the way of permanent change to the environment; he can’t defeat the spiders that dwell in the dark – all he can do is try to understand what’s happening and make the most of what’s around him. It’s a series of transient, fleeting moments, told through the eyes of a lonely boy with a troubled upbringing.
Monroe does gain the ability to craft and create, but this is all at the point when he’s learning who he really is and who he is in relation to the King. He can make use of the blueprints to build platforms and bridge gaps, but only to a location pre-determined and a path already decided. He has choices, but his decisions wrap around through portals and overly exaggerated staircases and towers, and only ever lead in one direction.
As the game draws to its thunderous close and the pieces snap together, the player is left with the sense that the plot has come full circle. It’s an immediately satisfying ending, but it’s also one that warrants considerable reflection. This isn’t a wholly original story, but it’s one told with delicacy and intelligence, with a huge amount of respect reserved for the player.
Details and plot points aren’t forced, the player largely left to pick up on the smaller details themselves. Outside of the storybook pages, pay attention to the mirrors in the game, for example, or the way that a simple shadow provides both focus and relief. There are moments of pure brilliance in The Unfinished Swan (like the endlessly looping Escher-esque room) but it’s in the game’s subtleties where the real attractions lay.
And the famous Journey reference? There’re actually two.