The Unfinished Swan
Regardless of their medium, every creator starts with a blank canvas; an inaugural point where there’s not a single note, word, lyric, or lick of paint yet applied and infinite possibilities lay ahead. It’s likely there was once a time when Giant Sparrow creative director Ian Dallas sat down to begin writing videogame code, and, staring at his own blank canvas, found what would be his greatest inspiration for The Unfinished Swan.
It opens with a simple premise, involving a young orphaned boy named Monroe who is drawn into one of his late mother’s paintings by the golden footprints of a half-painted swan. From here you assume Monroe’s perspective and are presented with a disorientating screen of pure whiteness; no indicator as to which button you should press, not an environmental clue as to which direction you need to walk, nothing but a small hollow black aiming reticule, inviting you to pull the trigger.
Lobbing that first ball of black paint, unsure about where in the ark of its trajectory it will eventually collide with the environment, is a delightfully disorientating act, with each splat bringing a new discovery, be it a spiraling stairwell, reeds of grass or a pond of water blocking your path. Only the glint of a few golden objects stand out on the stark horizon, serving as effective pathway markers. They’re less artificial than the handheld waypoint directors that have become something of a standard within adventures game these days, and are eye catching enough to naturally draw your gaze.
Videogames are so predominantly focused on building grander and more elaborate environments to awe us, that Giant Sparrow’s minimalist aesthetic is a bold, striking statement of intent from the outset. It’s an inversion of everything considered commonplace about videogame exploration: games typically give you a well-defined geography and challenge you to best it, The Unfinished Swan has a well-defined world, but it challenges you to find it.
It brings a feeling almost akin to the first time you wandered into the 3D lands of Super Mario 64 or the first time you stepped through a portal in one of GLaDOS’s test chamber, when existing in a videogame world so new and uncertain brought both wonder and trepidation about the afforded possibilities.
The purity of this paint based exploration soon fades away, however, as visible areas are introduced. A lightly shaded kingdom reveals those environments that held such wonder and mystery in the opening sequence, and, as a consequence, removes a little of the magic behind them. In moving away from the central paradigm-shifting conceit that defines the beginning of Monroe’s journey, The Unfinished Swan reverts back to classical videogame exploration – giving you a well-defined world and challenging you to best it.
Faint pastels of pink and blue pop against their achromatic surroundings, portraying a picture of sterility similar to the cityscapes in Mirrors Edge. It looks sublime, starkly composed and purposefully constructed, but there’s an inversely proportional relationship between the amount of environmental detail The Unfinished Swan reveals and the amount of wonder it evokes.
The areas that exclude paint-based geometric exploration are simply less original and exciting. Basic physics puzzles that involve platform manipulation are simplistic affairs with a veneer of difficulty so thin, it’s hardly worth it. And a dark forested area that challenges you to move between the safety of luminescent pink and purple fruits to survive is such a comparably common gameplay trope that it’s tiresome in contrast to the rejuvenating originality that occasionally pops-up in the form of blank paintable environments.
That’s not to say that they’re badly designed. The growth manipulation of climbable vines using water balls instead of paint is an interesting and unique platforming mechanic in its own right. And the condensation of multiple different mechanics into this brisk 4 hour adventure keeps their implementation fresh and involving. But the whole affair is decidedly linear beyond the mini-objective of collecting hidden balloons, which, for a game that gives you such a confusing opening premise, is surprisingly difficult to get lost in.
The tale of Monroe’s journey through a deserted kingdom in search of his mother’s half-finished, illusive swan is a thoughtful, suggestive parable of childhood imagination and the journey of all artistic creations. It’s softly narrated through paintable storybook pages lining environments and there’s always a narrative reason for the places you visit, with each task having a contextual purpose within the story.
But where Giant Sparrow’s narrative vision is clearly focused, The Unfinished Swan’s gameplay deviates rather rapidly from that opening castle of wonder. It never sticks with any of its admittedly varied and occasionally interesting ideas long enough to expand and iterate upon them in any meaningful way, and, after the twenty minutes, it simply never manages to reach the wondrous height of that initial gameplay zenith found in Dallas’ genius blank canvas opening.