Every artist—whether a writer, painter, game designer, or one whose creativity lies in some other medium—knows something about leaving work unfinished. The creator may spend months or even years thrashing around in an unrealized world, trying to make it presentable to an audience. The challenge is to not give up, to stay motivated and persevere until the elements fall into their natural spaces and the world takes shape. The Unfinished Swan, a PlayStation 3 exclusive from indie developer Giant Sparrow, is a short, sweet game that delves into this puzzle of creativity left hanging—an adventure where the place you’re exploring is only half-formed.
Under the guise of a children’s bedtime story, The Unfinished Swan tells the tale of a blond boy named Monroe who has just lost his mother and been sent to live at an orphanage. He brings with him a silver paintbrush that his artist mother left behind, along with one of her paintings: a swan she never finished. One night the swan comes to life and steps out of its canvas, leaving behind a trail of footprints for Monroe to follow into the curious world you must piece together to reach the end of his story.
This intro, along with other cutscenes that occur at the beginning and end of each of the game’s four chapters, are shown and narrated as in a children’s storybook. Short sentences in a black serif font are displayed on mostly-white “pages,” accompanied by simple black-and-white line drawings with occasional splashes of color, such as Monroe’s yellow hair and the swan’s orange beak and feet. As such cutscenes play out, the story is read aloud by a woman who would be right at home at story hour at the public library. Part fairy tale, part allegory, the narrative involves the king who rules the land where the game is set and Monroe’s dead mother, both artists with a habit of leaving their work incomplete.
This is a first-person game, navigated with the controller’s left analog sick to move and the right stick to pan the camera. After the brief introduction, you’re deposited onto an all-white screen with no tutorial or instructions, wind chimes and the occasional screech of seagulls providing the only clues to your location. Move the left stick and the sound of footsteps suggests that Monroe is on the move, but the screen remains entirely white. It’s only when you pull the right trigger button that the world begins to come into focus, because this flings a ball of black paint onto the blank canvas. As you’ll soon discover, this apparently empty world is in fact a fully realized 3D environment, but all of its elements are white. By flinging paint, you assign definition to the area around you and gradually begin to make sense of this unfinished place.
Paint spatters provide hints to where walls and other obstacles begin and end, which allows you to start exploring. The initial area at first seems like a maze, but soon enough your paint blobs begin to land on trees, a fence, and rocks, creating black outlines against the white backdrop. There’s also a pond nearby, where the paint “plops” as it lands and sinks out of view. Once you find your way through this initial area a garden takes shape, with Romanesque columns, stairways, statues, and iron gates among the obstacles Monroe must navigate around. The extreme contrast of the world that emerges under your haphazard paint flinging is striking and beautiful in its black-and-white simplicity.
In general, your goal is to follow the swan’s orange footprints, which appear five or six at a time along the path it's traveling. Sometimes you can see the footprints in the distance but need to identify obstacles before you can reach them, such as a pond that can only be crossed once you outline the log bridge draped across it. To uncover such gateways, you must fling paint strategically, teasing out the items positioned around you and figuring their spatial relation to each other. Brute force doesn’t work as well, since drenching an area in paint just turns everything black, as indistinguishable as when everything is white. (You can still find your way around after going nuts with the paint, but with a less clear sense of where you’re going.) Be more sparing with your paint, however, and the resulting spatters will hint at the shapes of objects, the relationship between black and white allowing you to see what’s not there. Although the gameplay evolves and the visuals become more defined as Monroe moves through the land, the graphics are always appropriately unfinished: 3D objects that lack the color and detail normally provided by textures.Continued on the next page...