Video Game Logic: The Unfinished Swan
Columns / September 28, 2015
The Unfinished Swan shows, doesn’t tell
Genre: First Person Adventure
Release: (PS3) October 2012 (PS4 & Vita) October 2014
Platforms: PS4, PS3 and PlayStation Vita
Remember when you were a kid, you could become so engrossed in a story you’d begin to imagine yourself as a character inside it? This is exactly what The Unfinished Swan taps into.
It’s tempting to argue that The Unfinished Swan is, in reality, not a game at all. This isn’t meant to diminish its fun or the other qualities that make it game-like, rather it simply feels more accurate to describe it as an interactive storybook that features a few video game flavours.
Beginning with the panels of a children’s book, players are introduced to Monroe—a young boy whose mother, a painter, is well known for abandoning every work of art she has ever undertaken. When Monroe is orphaned, he must choose just one of his mother’s works to take with him to the orphanage from amongst the gallery of discarded canvases. Naturally he chooses his favourite piece—an unfinished portrait of a glorious swan.
Simplicity is the hallmark of what makes this “game” work so well and flow so smoothly, where all the care and attention that is paid towards its traditionally-animated art design is woven into the game’s overarching story. From a first-person perspective, playing as Monroe is both a simple and enjoyable experience once you understand that, unlike most games, you are not expected to memorize an overwhelmingly long control scheme. The only tools at your disposal here are movement, voice control and the flick of Monroe’s paintbrush, which sends splattering balls of wet paint careening around the environment.
The ever-changing nature of The Unfinished Swan’s setting is what keeps you replaying levels across the game’s short but unapologetically sweet four chapters. In that space you wander across abandoned kingdoms and darkened forests, all in the search of the swan portrait, which has been stolen from you at the game’s outset.
The atmosphere is masterfully achieved here, as it unravels and ultimately envelops you like a warm blanket. Equally important is the score, which embraces minimalism during even the most climactic moments. The developers know that a light touch of sound design trumps a cacophony of unwarranted music every time.
The game also works wonders with its sense of scale. Through it you become a child, climbing its treehouse-like game design or finger painting your way through gobs of colour on a canvas that is the world before you. In this way, the traditional goals of leveling up and trophy achievements are no longer the focal point of playing, but rather easter eggs for those inclined to 100 per cent completion.
The Unfinished Swan is an adventure “game” wrapped in a mystery. With moments of Penrose-esque three-dimensional puzzle platforming, it’s fit to form optical illusions but is equally striking in its storytelling. It utilizes storybook narration to move the plot, and while some may see this as breaking the “show don’t tell” golden rule, it subverts your expectations just enough to demand detective-like examinations of your surrounding world.
Where some games manage admirable storytelling while never really having a great story to tell, The Unfinished Swan succeeds on both ends, and remains vague enough to allow players to draw thematic conclusions of their own.