Great story, inventive gameplay, beautiful score
Too short, controls can sometimes be fussy
Being an adult, it is hard to find things that elicit the feelings of wonder and amazement that kids so often come across. I remember when I was young, I could keep myself entertained with an empty cardboard box–letting my imagination run rampant. It is sad to say, but the older we get, the more that magic disappears. However, every once in awhile, something comes into our lives that brings back that special feeling–in steps The Unfinished Swan.
The Unfinished Swan, a game by up-and-coming developer Giant Sparrow, had been in development for quite some time. It started back in 2008 when they first debuted an early concept of the game at Sense of Wonder Night in Tokyo. The then-unamed developers were contacted by Sony afterwards and came to terms on an agreement. Sony gave them office space and equipment with which to create the game, as well as advice from the well-known company, Santa Monica Studios (God of War). This “incubation deal” led Giant Sparrow to create a completely reimagined version of their prototype, adding more depth to both the plot and characters. And thus, The Unfinished Swan was born.
The game itself is nothing short of amazing–delivering on both gameplay and story. Players assume the role of Monroe, a little boy who has just lost his mother. What she left behind was a collection of paintings that she had created throughout the course of her life. However, she never actually finished any of those paintings. One night as Monroe is sleeping, one of his mother’s paintings, a swan, comes to life and waddles right out of the picture frame. Monroe follows it through a magical and mysterious door, leading him to a strange new world. Surrounded by an entirely white canvas, players use paintballs to discover the environment around them. What looks like just a blank screen quickly turns into a pond and garden, as players sling paintballs left and right. Black paint splatters everywhere, revealing trees and park benches. A giant frog appears seemingly out of thin air and leaps into water. Just as you start to feel excitement about the environment you are uncovering around you, a giant sea creature jumps into the air and gobbles up that cute little frog you just found, making you realize that this world isn’t as safe and innocent as you may have thought. What’s remarkable about this gameplay mechanic is the feeling it creates for the player. It gives you the sense of wonder and curiosity that a child roaming through this big world feels, as they discover things for the first time.
The game is always simply throwing balls of whatever around but Giant Sparrow does a great job of making the short four chapters feel fresh and new. One chapter has you splashing everything with water balloons to create a set of vines that you can climb. Another has you throwing the paintballs at a ball of light to illuminate the darkened woods. Perhaps the most admirable quality of the gameplay is how intuitive it is. Giant Sparrow does not give any directions but rather just tosses the player out into the game, letting them figure out how it works on their own. One gripe I have, albeit a very minor one, are the controls while you are climbing. Several times while I was climbing along the vines, I fell off because of finicky controls. These finicky controls make things like turning and looking upwards into the direction you are going a bit difficult. However, this wasn’t anything that I couldn’t easily deal with and it did not hamper my enjoyment of the game.
The presentation of the game is yet another thing to admire. The game is told in the form of a children’s storybook, which is wonderfully narrated by Juli Pari. Each level is a chapter in the book. Players can add more information to the story by finding pages hidden throughout the levels. Set to a beautifully composed score by Joel Corelitz, the music matches the quirky adventure of Monroe perfectly. The story is rich with metaphor and symbolism, the kind you would find in a college literature class. Though it comes off as “children’s book,” the story is quite adult. It has a deeper, darker meaning than what lays on the surface, something that older players will understand. As an aspiring children’s writer, this story greatly appealed to me. One thing I wish was that it was a bit longer. The Unfinished Swan, though fantastic as is, could’ve been a chapter or two longer. The final chapter seems a bit rushed and the story wraps up a little abruptly. The game took me about two hours to play, and that is because I explored a lot of the levels as opposed to just flying through them. This short runtime might make the price seem a bit steep, coming in at $15, and will probably shy most people away from it. However, I don’t think that should stop people from experiencing it. And I say “experience” and not “play” because that’s exactly what this is–an experience.
The game does have some replay value to it for those completionists out there, like myself. In each level there are a number of hidden balloons that players can find. These balloons are used to unlock bonus features known as “toys.” The toys allow players to do things like stop time, letting the paintballs hang in midair. Another gives players a paintball sniper rifle. Although unnecessary, these toys are a lot of fun and let players’ creativity take over, much like real children’s toys. The trophies in this game, and there aren’t many, are fairly easy to earn. One in particular, the only gold trophy, is a real challenge but highly rewarding. These trophies and bonus content should keep players entertained beyond the main story. And if you enjoy the game as much as I did, you’ll want to play it several more times, like rereading your favorite bedtime story when you were young.
Downloadable games like this, Playdead’s Limbo, and thatgamecompany’s magnum opus Journey, continue to further the art medium. These short-but-sweet games prove that not only can you present an entire story with fun gameplay in under two hours, but that you can pack an emotional punch with it as well. When people say “games don’t matter,” or that they are “a waste of time,” this is the game you show them–this is the game that will prove them wrong. Video games push people’s creativity and imagination. The Unfinished Swan is very much an important game because it gives people that childhood feeling of wonder, curiosity, and amazement that has since been lost over the years–a feeling that I strongly believe people need in their lives. Do yourself a favor, play this game and feel like a kid again.
Pick up The Unfinished Swan now on the PSN for $15