While the most common purpose of video games is to entertain, it’s not the only one. The interactivity aspect gives games this unique power and opportunity to bring various concepts into reality – concepts that one could not present in traditional art, be it static (music, painting, sculpture) or dynamic (movie). Because games happen in time and you often have control over your experience, interesting ideas can pop up here – like how you perceive “yourself” in the game, what you see and hear, how you react to it, what you feel. Games are not “real” in a sense that they don’t happen in your perceived world. They rather happen in your head. They test your brain’s ability to deduce and learn “rules” and adapt to them – and then see what happens. This time, I’d like to describe a game that takes this challenge to a new level.
“The Unfinished Swan” is the title. And even the title itself can tell you a lot about the content. You see, most video games’ titles are still quite descriptive, catchy, bombastic or simply juvenile. “Quake”, “Doom”, “Super Mario”, “Diablo”, etc. When you see a title like “The Unfinished Swan”, you can definitely expect something unique, a personal and artisanal piece of work that aims high. And it’s true in this case.
I really like games that deliver a deep story or unique personal, emotional experience. Surprisingly, I’m delighted with The Unfinished Swan, though it doesn’t really focus on either of these. Here, you have another experiment, something different, in a way that’s not extrovertedly “mindblowing” but rather introvertedly “fascinating”. The Creative Director of Giant Sparrow, the studio that created The Unfinished Swan, says that what’s really important for creators and gamers is actually not whether the game was good or bad (and if so, how much, etc.) but rather whether it is memorable. I like this thought. It allows you to fit many different games, different experiences under your umbrella, without narrowing your personal perception to “this and that” games. Is The Unfinished Swan a good game? Probably, though there will be people who will not like it. Is the game memorable? Definitely. You may not like it, but you will remember it.
Why, you ask? Look around you, close your eyes. Imagine yourself being in a world where everything is completely white. And I mean completely. So white that it’s like a canvas. You don’t see light, you don’t see any edges, textures, nothing. There’s no shadow. It’s like floating in white nothingness – you lose the perception of space, direction, distance. How would you orient yourself in such environment? How would you train your eyes and your brain to regain anything you can hook on, just in order to make a few steps and not bump into a wall? The solution that The Unfinished Swan puts in your hand is … a paint gun. You’re equipped with a tool that can generate blobs of black paint and send them out in a parabolic trajectory. This is your way of seeing the world again. In that absolute white, you spatter black paint all over the place and you observe results – where did the paint fall? What does the splat look like? Does it uncover any edges? Does it fly farther when you shoot this direction or that one? And slowly you’re starting to discover everything around you in this new, imperfect way.
While the core experience can be described, it’s somewhat hard to explain what’s going on in your brain during the process of figuring out the space around you. At the end of this entry, I’m sharing a gameplay that will hopefully give you the idea. It’s weird, it’s definitely weird. But what really amazes me is that how little information we need to rebuild and project. We can just cling to a couple of shades or edges and our brain performs this great work of spatial mapping. We all know this – when you wake up and go for a sip of water to the kitchen, you have very little light to work with. You see some edges, you remember the setup of the room, you probably reach out with your arms to look for walls. Sure, you sometimes trip over a shoe on the floor, but you eventually reach the fridge without major health loss. So this is an interactive walk, because you can touch, you have feedback you can base upon. In a game, you cannot really touch, so instead, you paint. It opens your mind to a thought – “Wow, I can actually do that!”.
But apart from the scientific value, there’s also esthetics factor involved. In the end, you use the paint. On white surface. So it actually is painting. In a twisted way, because you don’t paint what you want, instead you uncover, you “unpaint” the predefined world around you. But the nature of this process still leaves you some space for your own “artistic touch”. It’s not really a game of “just uncover everything and proceed to the next room”. If you paint everything black, you will just invert the situation – and still won’t be able to see anything. The same goes for actual painting. When you have a white canvas, you can put something on it. But if you cover it all in black, then you just end up with a black canvas – but it’s still not a painting. But if you go somewhere in between, you have the chance to create something great. However, creating a picture this way is “static”, because you just move your brush, you don’t move yourself that much – you project what’s in your brain onto a canvas. In The Unfinished Swan, this is the “painting in movement” experience. The world around you is projected into your brain. I’m not that familiar with art to compare this result to the work of actual painters, artists – the closest thing that comes to my mind is the impressionism movement. But decide for yourself.
There is a background story for all of this, but it’s my impression (see what I did there? :) ) that it has been added at a later stage, it’s not integral with the gameplay and it’s hard to guess who it was intended for – adults or kids. But it’s an interesting attempt. It tells a tale of Munroe, a young boy who lives in orphanage after his mother died. She was a painter, but she never finished any of her work, leaving Munroe with a lot of paintings, from which he keeps one – a painting of a swan, that is – you guessed it – not finished. One day Munroe is having a dream that will begin this inner adventure of discovering himself. The authors of The Unfinished Swan tell us the scale of the unfinished. And the “most unfinished” is when you give birth to a child, but you’re not there to raise him, to answer all the questions and to take care of him. Starting a life is just a part of the painting, a part of the swan. Shaping new life is what makes it finally whole. So Munroe is robbed of the chance of being finished by his mother. He has to finish himself alone – and that would be the journey through the unpainted world. Unfortunately, the story is inconsistent. It tries to be funny, when there’s little to laugh at, it tries to be mature, when it clearly isn’t. The initial metaphor is interesting and could leave a lot to interpretation, but its execution is shaky, leaving the player confused at the end. But then again, the game is not really about the story.
Music of “The Unfinished Swan” is subtle, ambient. In a world, where your vision is scarce, music plays (aha! again!) a guiding, soothing role. There are cymbals, some hang drum, the violin. It will lead you patiently through your journey so that you might feel a little bit less lonely and maybe a little bit more finished.
More about The Unfinished Swan –
Here’s the actual gameplay –