As part of Sony’s digital push, gamers have had the joy of playing the PixelJunk series Q Games or anything from thatgamecompany. I think Giant Sparrow could be next in line, and The Unfinished Swan is proof of that possibility. At least it could be if gamers are willing to imagine and let their inner child take over the controller for a while.
If you don’t already know about The Unfinished Swan‘s remarkable hook, you’ve probably never seen it in action. I certainly recognized it in Los Angeles before E3 and that was three years since Giant Sparrow’s tech demo struck me at GDC09. Still, I was curious to see if painting your environment held up as a mechanic or if I would end up never finishing The Unfinished Swan.
In The Unfinished Swan, players are able to navigate the space around them and throw balls of black paint. That’s it. That’s all you’ll need. The stark white landscape belies the depth of Swan’s world. As you throw globs of inky paint at the walls and decorations, you’ll uncover the path forward.
Players take on the role of Monroe, a young boy orphaned by his mother, a painter who never finished a single work. Monroe is only allowed to keep one painting after his mother’s death, so he chooses The Unfinished Swan. The rest of the game plays out in story book fashion, but part of enjoying Giant Sparrow’s game is sitting back, relaxing and turning the pages for yourself.
In fact, so much of the game has a wonderful, picture book quality. The narrative is told in your Rorschach inkblots as much as it is in the pages you’ll discover in the world.
The Unfinished Swan belies a maturity that many might not expect from the game, but the narrator has a childlike wonder that makes you want to sit down with a little one and let them discover everything for themselves. What’s more, Monroe’s grunts and small audible input helps to further transport you to a fairy tale land where you’re environment is what you make of it.
That said, I can’t shake the feeling that Journey has done all of this and done it better. As interesting as Swan‘s paint-outside-the-lines mechanics are, I felt like something was missing. There isn’t a moment in Swan that feels as wondrous and joyful as finding another Journey-er and communicating with them by chirps.
That’s not to say that the gameplay in Swan isn’t good. There are some puzzles so well-crafted, so subtly satisfying, you might not realize you’re solving a road block at all. Giant Sparrow doesn’t rest on their mechanic either, giving the paint you toss about a weight and a purpose, even after its original meaning is long gone.
It’s difficult to go too in depth, but several sections of the game turn your paint blobs into a tool of sorts, stretching what you originally thought possible with the mechanic. Giant Sparrow has crafted some true verticality in their story book world, and seeing where the adventure takes you can be breathtaking.
Several points allow you to look back on where you’ve been and many indeed took my breath away. I could tell where I got lost and started splattering the walls. I could see where a few drips of color directed me where to go and I marched forward with confidence.
While The Unfinished Swan has some incredible highs, both visually and mechanically, it doesn’t keep the player from feeling the lows. There are moments of confusion and there’s an odd reliance on collectibles. In both situations I felt a disconnect from the experience.
Balloons litter the landscape and tally up as you play through the story. You can revisit chapters and the convenient sections they break up into, but I couldn’t help but feel like the balloons should have been saved for progressive playthroughs. I became more eager to seek out the floating balls of gas than I was to discover bronzed letters that add to the game’s narrative. Journey is, unquestionably, the standard bearer in downloadable experiences and at least the collectibles in that game had the added benefit of utility.
Despite this minor set back, fans of thatgamecompany’s titles or even people with children will get a lot of enjoyment from The Unfinished Swan. It provides a promising outlook on the relationship gamers will forge with Giant Sparrow and continues Sony’s unending dedication to indie masterworks.
The Unfinished Swan is a storybook, more endearing and entertaining than those old picture books. If you’ve got a child, or still know how to get ahold of your inner child, there’s a lot to love.