Article by FTG Contributor Robert Beach.
Imagine if you will, a game that leaves you in a perpetual state of nothingness – no direction, no indication of any existence. A blank canvas for you to paint with splotches of black ink, to unveil the world around you. That’s the Unfinished Swan to me.
In a remote little corner of Sony’s PAX Prime booth, there was a brief hands on demo of the minimalistic puzzler. I was always curious at how it would play; with the fear of repetition stuck in my head, I was open for anything. Then I fell for the PSN title.
A little exposition of the story never hurts, so here’s the premise before the gameplay. A boy’s mother was a painter, though she could never finish any of her work. Her favorite was the Swan. Once the boy was left alone in an orphanage, he could only chose one painting to keep with him, and the Swan was the clear winner. He sat in his room one day and the Swan was gone, and he went on a search to find it.
After the small exposition, you start off in a room where you can walk, jump, and throw ink balls. Before you figure out how to emit the ink, you have nothing to work with. Four white walls surround you, mocking your inability to do anything. You throw your first ball, and it’s just a stain. Throw another, and it’s an outline of a small crate. Every object in the world you unveil with a random toss of ink is a rush of exasperating emotions of the unknown. Truly, you could never expect what will appear.
The crate is fully visible with a couple of more tosses, but you still have no idea what to do. Next impulse is to cover the wall in black in the futile hope to guide you. Ironically, it doesn’t help your cause at all: what was white and covering your vision is now black. You must use the ink sparingly, giving enough of the environment to create a cognitive map to finally see an opening to the rest of that world.
Now I may be overstating the wonder of Unfinished Swan for someone who will mindlessly spam ink blobs and play it on the clock, which you shouldn’t do, The mysterious nature of the game is the fun. Once emerging from the room to a corridor to the lake, a straight path will not be the answer. The bridge is broken, and a fish swims up after the ink you threw in the water. Around the lake were plants and large rocks to jump on and reach whatever happens to be on the other side of the bridge.
The more I snoop, the more it looks like a crumbling castle, slowly weathering away within its self. The next challenge was to enter the building, but before that I hopped down and I stood in awe of my handiwork. From a distance, I saw the marks I made on the empty white land, the point where I just shot the ink in every direction to see where it would land, and the rocks that led me here.
Numerous times you encounter yellow/orange shapes that vaguely look like a swan bill or footprints, until further analysis reveals it as a giant chicken or a king’s crown. Placed in the middle of the room is the king’s head statue, and once again you have to find some sort of exit or way of continuing the Swan search. Up was the only way. After all the exploring and spotting the right flat platforms, you finally saw the creature, and there it flew away and ended the demo.
I became so engrossed in removing objects’ white cloaks I had to watch others experience it too, and compare my run with theirs. I’m never one for “art” games, out of their inability to be a game rather than a story being told to you (looking at you Dear Esther!). However, I was the one making up the journey and figuring out the world. Unfinished Swan will be a short experience that will have little to do in it, but what you do within it is magnificent.