I’m increasingly falling in love with games that push back on the traditional ideas of what constitutes a good game in favour of experimenting with new ideas. Back in the golden era of gaming the only metric that seemed to matter was how long a game lasted for with things like story telling and game mechanics taking a back seat. This was the reason behind Nintendo, and many other games developers, making their games so incredibly difficult as to draw out the game experience over a longer period of time. Sometimes it worked, like in Zelda, and other times you got Battletoads, a game that still haunts me to this day. The Unfinished Swan is another in a long line of exploration/story telling games to be released this year that are the antithesis to those ideals and are, for what its worth, incredibly enjoyable to play.
You play as Monroe, a recent orphan who’s just been relocated to an orphanage. Your mother was an avid painter but she was terrible at finishing her work, leaving behind 300 unfinished canvases at her passing. When you were taken to the orphanage you were told that you could bring one, and only one, of the paintings along with you. Out of all the works you choose your mother’s favourite, the swan that was still left unfinished. One night however you awake to see the swan has disappeared from the canvas and there are swan prints leading up to a door that wasn’t there before. Upon entering you’re transferred to a completely white world and your adventure begins.
The Unfinished Swan’s art style is one of incredible simplicity with your first actual game play experience being thrown into a completely white room with no indication of where you are or what you can do. It was quite a jarring experience as I attempted to run around with no indication of actual movement. When I stumbled on the throw paint button (it’s the L/R buttons) I was greeted with a completely black wall. Moving back I then discovered the game’s main mechanic, your ability to throw paint around. For the first level this is your means of discovery but as the game goes on it morphs from simple discovery to all manner of interesting mechanics.
From a technical standpoint the graphics are quite simple with most things being fairly rudimentary models that aren’t textured. It fits in well with the larger narrative and if I’m honest I’m glad that you don’t spend the entire game lobbing paint everywhere to discover where you should be going as I found myself experiencing forms of snow blindness on more than one occasion. That being said the incredibly bare bones style works exceptionally well, drawing your eyes to details that you’d simply ignore otherwise. I might be a little biased though as I have a thing for black/white contrasts like this but my wife seemed to enjoy it as well.
As I mentioned before the main game mechanic is your ability to lob globs of paint at every surface around you. Initially this is how you find your way around but as you progress the game world will evolve to have proper lighting and shadows at which point your paint changes. The game is, at its heart, an exploration title so lobbing paint at every surface in your reach is usually worth it as you can never be sure when there’s something hidden in plain sight, especially with the lack of colour detail to help you discern when something looks amiss.
One example of this that sticks in my head is when I was walking down a corridor that was lit from the outside so one side was completely illuminated and the other side wasn’t. Since it was semi-long I was doing the usual thing of flinging paint right in front of me just for laughs when I noticed that the resulting spray didn’t look like it should. Turns out there was a corridor on the unlit side that was completely black which, had I not been carelessly painting everything in my path, would have been invisible to me. It wasn’t necessary to finish the game (it was one the ancillary aspects of it) but there are dozens of other examples like that throughout The Unfinished Swan.
The balloon system is the carrot that The Unfinished Swan dangles in front of you to tempt you into exploring every nook and cranny within the game world. The balloons can be used to buy toys in the main menu which help you in various aspects of the game. None of them are required to complete it, indeed I finished it with 33 balloons in my pocket, but some of them would have made things a lot easier. Their locations aren’t always obvious like the dark hallway in a dark corridor example I just gave but you can find a good deal of them by simply looking around and then sometimes taking the semi-creative path to the ultimate solution.
The later stages of the game introduce block construction as another mechanic which is very simplistic but does require a bit of nuance in order to get right. As you can see from the screenshot above I wasn’t particularly neat with my block construction, usually creating one and finding it was too high and then remaking it, and many of the solutions I ended up making worked out of sheer brute force rather than being an eloquent solution to the problem put before me. Still the developers behind The Unfinished Swan understand how to pace their games well and the introduction of new mechanics like this one was always done right at the point where the old one was starting to get tedious.
The story is quite magnificent as well, rating as a great children’s story that has enough subtext for adults to enjoy as well. Whilst its only told in fits and bursts between you finding letters on walls and then lobbing paint balls at them the way that the story ties directly into the environment you’re playing through makes it all the more enthralling. The ending is bitter sweet and satsifying and is something that I can feel myself sharing with others both young and old.
The Unfinished Swan is yet another great example of a game that can eschew complicated game mechanics in favour of a simple idea that’s used to its utmost ability. I came into this expecting a wildly different game since I hadn’t read much about it before plunging in and I was pleasantly surprised with what I got. My only minor complaint is that for a 2 hour game it runs $20 (at least here in Australia) which, while I feel is semi-reasonable for this game, will be a barrier to entry for many who may want to play it. Still for those who love a good story or a game that wouldn’t be out of place with Peter Molyneux’s name on it The Unfinished Swan is definitely worth a look in.
The Unfinished Swan is available on PlayStation 3 right now for $19.99. Total game time was approximately 2 hours with 33 balloons collected overall.