Posted on October 26, 2012 at 5:34 PM
What if you were dropped into a pure white room with nothing but a magic paint brush or a surreal painting? The Unfinished Swan takes the term "art-game" to heart. But is it all art and no game? Follow the swan footprints to find out.
Monroe's mother was a painter. She would paint lovely pictures, but she would never finish them. When she passed away she had painted over 300 paintings. When it came time for Monroe to go to the orphanage he was told he could take only one. He chose the Unfinished Swan because he knew it was his mother's favorite. He also takes his mother's paintbrush. The one she used for every painting.
One night Monroe is awoken from his sleep by the sound of a swan honking. He wakes just in time to see the swan go through a door in the wall that was not there before. Grabbing his mothers's paintbrush he follows. Emerging at the far end of a hallway, Monroe finds himself in a pure white room. The white is so uniform and clean that there are no shadows, no edges, and no discernible light source. It is like looking at a blank white page. Turning around he finds that the hallway he just came from has disappeared. Tentatively he reaches out with his mother's paint brush and learns he can flick black paint around. Using the paint he finds his way outside the building and finds the Swans footprints. Following them eventually leads to a castle where Monroe learns that this land was created by a King with a magic paintbrush.
Monroe eventually learns that the King liked the color white so much that he created the world out of nothing but white. Eventually people arrived and they asked that the king provide more detail to the world so they could find their way around. Monroe wanders into an area where the King had started providing shadows. As he wanders he finds that outlines and edges become more distinct. Monroe begins to notice that apart from himself, the Unfinished Swan and a sleeping giant who refuses to wake up; that there are no other people nor any sign of the King. Hoping to find a solution to the mystery Monroe continues to follow the Unfinished Swan as it wanders deeper into the kingdom.
Controls and Gameplay
At its base The Unfinished Swan is a first person puzzle game. Each area of the world has its own laws and the powers of Monroe's magic paintbrush change. The first puzzle is navigating a blank world by lobbing paint blobs around. As players move through the world and it becomes more detailed the paint gives way to blobs of water. With the water players can manipulate water paddles to open doors and activate switches. The water is also used on a virulent fast growing vine that players can use to climb walls.
You can use the traditional game pad or PlayStation Move. I personally opted for the traditional controller. The PlayStation Move controller worked fine, but with my set up any time I lowered my arms to a certain point the camera could not see the controller. Whichever controller you are comfortable with; know that they both work equally well. With the PlayStation Move you will need to use either the navigator stick or the control pad for part of your movement.
Graphics and Sound
Graphically The Unfinished Swan takes you through a surrealistic children's storybook. The first area is detailed with things you would normally find such as doors, steps, barrels, fences, etc.; you just have to find them with the paint balls you fling around. This area also has a sparse amount of golden touches and orange swan footprints. Slowly as you progress the world gains details, at first just shadows, but eventually it becomes very detailed and colorful.
The sound, like the graphics, starts fairly minimal. The music is quiet letting the atmosphere of mystery prevail. Sounds of nature in an abandoned place fill the void; birds, frogs, flowing water, the occasional wind chime, and of course, the perpetually just up ahead of you Unfinished Swan. The voice casting is excellent. The narrator has a sweet voice, like a young mother reading to her child. A brilliant bit of casting has Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam, as the voice of the King.
The Sony PlayStation 3 seems to be the console of choice for developers creating games that stray towards works of art. Giant Sparrow has certainly done that with The Unfinished Swan. While the game plays like a first person puzzle game, the story and presentation play out like a children's storybook on par with the likes of "Where the Wild Things Are." The Unfinished Swan becomes more of an interactive adventure story of wonder and exploration and less of a game. I am sure it will be a game that will come up in "games as art" arguments.
There is very little in the way of instructions and no tutorials in The Unfinished Swan. When the game started after Monroe follows the Swan through the door I thought it was just taking a long time to load. It wasn't until I started hitting buttons out of concern the game had froze that I hit the throw paint button. After that I worked out what I needed to do. That is the way it is for each area as the game changes. Exploring what you can do, where you can go, and what the limits are is the main theme. It is a game tailor made for players with a strong sense of curiosity.
It is also a short game. I was able to finish the story in about 5 hours. There are extras to unlock and hidden balloons to find that will stretch that time out. Even though it is short I can see kids enjoying it for much longer, especially the first area where they get to throw paint around. It's like a game of "hide and seek" as the paint reveals statues, stairs, even a poor frog and more as part of a castle garden area. The nighttime area might be a little scary for younger children, but Monroe is never in any real danger, nor is he ever "killed." There are creatures that will attack him if he dallies too long in the dark, but as long as he keeps moving towards lit areas he is fine. Monroe also can't swim so if he falls into any water he is teleport back to the nearest solid ground, coughing up any water he may have swallowed. It's all part of the exploring and finding the limits.
With a fun, whimsical, story, original gameplay, and a cute surreal style I give The Unfinished Swan a 5 out of 5.