Eurogamer Expo 2012: The Unfinished Swan hands-on
It’s rare that a game challenges the fundamental way that you approach playing these days; it’s even rarer for that game to be a beautifully engrossing, polished experience on top of that. Giant Sparrow’s minimalistic First Person Adventure Painter feels exactly like one of those rarest of gaming experiences: an experimental title made by people who think outside of gaming’s often hermetically sealed creative box that just immediately works as a combination of gameplay, aesthetics and narrative.
The showcased demo started at the opening of the game, which began with a simple, heartfelt storybook cutscene about a young orphaned boy being drawn into one of his late mother’s many unfinished paintings by a swan. From here on you assume the viewpoint of that boy and travel through the painting in search of the enticing bird.
Initially the game stumped me, as I sat waiting for what I presumed to be a loading screen to pass and the game to begin. But of course it wasn’t a loading screen, but the games’ opening area, a confusing blank canvas of pure whiteness obscured geometry.
Your only method of interaction with this canvas is with a seemingly infinite amount of paintballs, which you can use to splatter black paint onto the world around you, providing some geometry unveiling visual contrast. Realising this I carefully began to progress, strategically dotting areas to map my boundaries.
There was very little guidance as to where I should go beyond a few golden swan-shaped footprints, so I experimented with every possible direction, only to find that there was only ever one correct swan-led route. After progressing through the opening corridors I jumped into what seemed to be an outdoor environment. The only way I could tell this was by the fact that a fence and some blades of grass spiked out when painted, and a few of my paintballs didn’t splatter but hung gracefully, slowly sinking into the floor as if bound by water.
After some more exploration I hopped across some stepping stones and came to, well, another invisible space. Here I spotted an enticing golden corkscrew in the distance, which turned out to be attached to the rear end of a stone pig. It turned out I was in a grand hall of animal statues, each of which had a golden object attached that pierced the on-screen visual sparseness and led you through the hall.
These were clearly intended to act as a guide to progression, and whilst they are understandably essential due to the inherently confusing nature of the games premise, I couldn’t help but wish that The Unfinished Swan left every single one of its secrets an invisible discovery just waiting to be happened upon.
The demo finished with me climbing a curved staircase onto a balcony which led into a side room where I fell down a small drop and caught glimpse of the swan’s rear end as it waddled off. It was an eloquent showcase for Giant Sparrow’s experimentation into how we explore space within a videogame. And one that challenged me to wrap my head around an inversion of everything I know about videogame exploration, turning every second of it into its own little discovery.
Playing The Unfinished Swan is almost similar to the feeling of being in pure darkness: slightly disconcerting due to the fact that you have absolutely no perception of your surroundings for a time. But unlike pitch-blackness, it doesn’t evoke a sinister feeling of fear, but one of cautiously optimistic curiosity, as every paintball you throw could potentially reveal something of interest, and that sense of continuous discovery through exploration is a delightful one indeed.
I just hope that this sense of wonder isn’t diluted by more structure and guidance in the later stages of the game because, from what I’ve seen, The Unfinished Swan could easily sit alongside fellow PSN exclusive Journey as one of 2012’s most original and evocative titles.