With a game this heavily steeped in mystery and discovery, I feel compelled to say that this preview does include some minor spoilers, plot details and spoilers from the rest of the game. I know that many of you have seen the latest trailers, so have some ideas of where things are heading, but some of you might prefer to tune out at this point.
The Unfinished Swan has come a long way since that very first trailer from 2008, throwing black balls of paint around a stark white world in order to discover what is actually there. However, this is intriguingly still how the game opens, and it’s still so very effective.
There is some exposition before you gain control, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland’s journey into a surreal world. It tells the tale of Monroe, a 10 year old who recently lost his mother. The orphanage that takes him in will only only let him choose a single of her hundreds of unfinished paintings and when the titular unfinished swan disappears from his chosen painting one night, Monroe embarks on an adventure to find him, landing you on this blank white screen.
There aren’t any hints on screen, though years of play testing and experimenting have shown that this doesn’t matter. If anything, it’s a marvellous way to get people to discover for themselves. Players in testing have generally got bored of this wait for something to appear on screen after just a handful of seconds, so soon enough they’re pressing buttons idly, and once they pull the trigger on their controller of choice, which fires the balls of black paint, they already know the controls. Within a few short moments players are already playing, exploring and discovering things for themselves without any prompting from the game.
Being able to drop people in with no information like this is special but from this blank canvas, Giant Sparrow soon diverge. Sounds start to filter in, the ribbit of a big frog who hops away to an unseen body of water when you pick him out with some paint. Moments later you encounter your second creature, a giant sea monster that gobbles up that frog before swimming off, leaving just the hint of potential that the game gets thematically darker later on.[drop2]
From sounds to colours, and occasionally you’ll see a few golden swan’s foot prints, gently giving you a little clue as to the primary direction you should be travelling in; a colourful balloon up high, acting as one of a number of collectable balloons; and a floating golden crown, atop the head of a large bust of the King of this world.
The question then, is why Giant Sparrow felt the need to break away from allowing people to just explore, the answer is that they really haven’t. If you think about Minecraft, for a second, where you’re similarly dropped into a world with no goals. Except that come nightfall the Creepers come out to hunt you down, so the goal is to build shelter and hide away in safety overnight. Even in the Creative or Classic modes without the Creepers, you’ll have come up with your own goals and plans.
They knew from the outset that the opening sequence would be just that, a brief opening sequence, so through years of testing and experimenting on their end, they found it better to have a small number of meticulously placed and directed hints. A few little psychological tweaks so that players then have these as touch stones from which they can break away and explore.
A few sign posts exist, like that crown which reveals the bust of the King. He is the one that built and shaped so much of the world which you are exploring and, in turn, your journey through the world reveals much about how he lived his life and who he was. The early areas are particularly unrefined for this reason, demonstrating his youthful exuberance, giving way to the more mature, practical and ordered style which are embodied by the grand city visited later in the game.[drop]
This city is so vastly different to the start of the game. Unlike the initial blank white spaces filled with unseen objects, here there is shadowing and shading at work, so that you can see and make out the geometry. You no longer need to paint to get around, and different gameplay emerges to take over.
Here it’s more about throwing splashes of water which encourage nearby vines to grow in a direction of your choosing. You can then climb along those vines in certain areas, giving you new ways of traversing and exploring the world around you. Just as you could with the paint, you can encourage the vines to spread all over the world, covering entire buildings with a mesh of tangled greenery.
In this way you too will be shaping the world in your wake, much as the King did.
This game and Giant Sparrow are showing great potential to follow in thatgamecompany’s footsteps, with a lot of parallels in terms of the three game deal they signed with Sony and the regular “Are games art?” discussions that spark up around them. Clearly this is a game to keep an eye on.