The Unfinished Swan’s greatest trick, and its most successful, isn’t the elaborate technology behind the convincing paint splatters, or the exquisitely melancholic story. Rather, it’s the blissful lack of direction, interference and signposting. In essence, once the game is started the player is left with a blank canvas, the on-screen furniture limited to little more than a circular pinpoint, and absolutely no instructions.
This feeling is nothing less than freedom, a sense of pure independence that escapes the medium like nothing else before it. In fact, anyone going into The Unfinished Swan with next to no knowledge of the game will find themselves unsure of even the genre, the control method, the aim. And that’s something that’s not just prescribed by the dazzling whiteness of the starting area, but also everything around it.
The introduction, a beautifully freeform hand drawn animation, imparts little on the player other than a principal character (Monroe, a young orphan), his departed mother and the tiniest snippet of exposition (a single titular painting and an open door) – and then you’re plunged into nothingness, albeit an inverted depiction of what we’d normally consider an empty void to look like.
Moving the left stick makes subtle but telling footstep noises, the right stick does nothing audible. It’s left to the player to squeeze the trigger, and by doing so flinging a ball of black paint at whatever happens to be in front of you. The visual expression this creates is truly magnificent at first, the ability to cast permanent shadows and discover your surroundings in such a distinct (and, let’s face it, hugely fun) way gently threatening to spoil the focus of the game’s crucially important first few moments.
But, and this happens on an alarmingly frequent basis, The Unfinished Swan’s wonderful level design draws you back in quickly. Narrow corridors, initially bounced against by a wayward, excitable player, lead to an outside area, complete with a river, wildlife and a grand set of stairs. You’ll need that paint to find your way, of course, but there’s a surprisingly delicate guidance at work here, the game urging you forward without ever making it obvious. Audio cues present a general target, but golden footprints, left by the omnipresent (and always just out of reach) Swan, mark a more obvious set of breadcrumbs.
Monroe’s wandering has no physical goal, at least in these opening minutes, but it also comes without real danger or chance of failure. This is massively important, not just because this is a world where everything is initially invisible, but also because it’s equally as important to portray a feeling of isolation and discovery as much as it is to explain the game’s fledgling rules. By the beginning of the second section, as a huge labyrinth opens up beneath you and the game slowly introduces shadows, the statements have been made and the player is locked in, along for the ride.
As The Unfinished Swan progresses, at least three more times it manages to pull the rug from under you and dramatically twist everything around, and it’s all explained via a series of storybook pages, initially hidden but teased into life with a flick of paint. Paint which, over the course of the game, changes from black, to water, to an elaborate trick which would be a huge disservice to spoil. Suffice to say that the game never falters in ensuring that the player experiences and learns everything first hand, a blueprint that’ll no doubt see countless imitators.
So from a humble introduction that relies on little more than your spacial awareness (and if you’re really good, there’s a trophy for getting through the starting area in just three squirts of paint or less) The Unfinished Swan moves steadily on towards an ending that’s only ever hinted at. The gameplay mechanics remain firm throughout, but each of the game’s principle chapters present a clever twist on the formula, replacing the paint or the setting, and often introducing new elements into the mix.
Expect a climb up some scaffolding that’ll ensure there’s a vertiginous test of your platforming skills; look out for a dangerous trip into a pitch black forest involving red eyed arachnids and glowing orbs of light; a race against a rapidly rising water level and a roof top scramble with nothing to help you except an unpredictable, twisting, growing vine. The Unfinished Swan, as you’ll discover, isn’t just about black and white.
You can’t fault the developers for expanding the central device, of course, but it’s a reasonable statement to suggest that the first area in the game is the most exciting, the most innovative and the most enjoyable. Once the monochromatic, polar visuals are left behind and colour seeps in, some of the magic leaks away. The Unfinished Swan isn’t a simple game, but some of the elements presented after the initial chapter have been seen before, and although the package remains coherent throughout, it’s always when the game brings you back to basics that it feels clever again.
It’s not that everything else is padding – the game only takes two or three hours to get through after all, depending on the player – it’s just that some of the game simply doesn’t feel as tightly produced and honed as those opening few levels do. It’s never contrived, but there are a couple of elements that edge towards the developers trying to do too much.
That doesn’t mean for a second that Giant Sparrow’s PS3 exclusive has glaring problems – it doesn’t. Indeed, there are moments of pure genius (and possibly madness) in the game’s latter sections, and the majestic ending, complete with at least two wonderful hand-to-head reveals, is a real treat. There’s clearly a few recent games the developers took on board – two distinct references to Journey aside, there’s nods to Portal in there amongst others – and this only helps keep things fresh.
It’s also surprisingly replayable, perhaps more so than thatgamecompany’s most recent title. The presence of collectable balloons helps extend the game’s life beyond its natural length, the player able to dip in and out of chapters that clearly highlight how many of the hidden objects are left to find. Balloons act as a kind of currency, with an in-game Toys menu offering up the ability to freeze paint mid-air and unlock concept art as just two examples. Finding all the balloons unlocks a particularly pleasant bonus, too – one that’ll please those who have been waiting for the game the longest.
But The Unfinished Swan isn’t about levels, toys or balloons. It’s about a story, a story that grows with the telling and wraps the player in a heartbreaking tale of regret, remorse and the inevitable conclusion we all face. On the surface there’s a lonely child, an ambitious King and a perfect mother; but how much of this is real, and how much of it is just in the mind of one or more characters?
There’s something powerful about The Unfinished Swan. Initially it’s the unrivalled glee that the sprayed ink provides – something we’ve never seen before – but ultimately it’s about the ink on the pages of a bedtime story. An elegant, fragile tale that slowly grows from wide-eyed learning and exploration to a looming darkness. Tragic, powerful and thought-provoking, but also intelligent, witty and beautiful – Giant Sparrow’s debut is begging to be played.