Trumpeting the Swan
Earlier this year I “reviewed” Journey, a game that will inevitably be discussed when talking about The Unfinished Swan. Those quotes are there because that review was more of a testimonial since I wanted to say as little as possible about the game itself. Certain experiences are greatly enhanced by knowing as little as possible going in. The Unfinished Swan absolutely falls into that category, but I’m going to carefully pick my way through and let you know why you should play this game.
A week ago I’d never heard of The Unfinished Swan, the first release from the heretofore unknown Ian Dallas and his studio Giant Sparrow. I was introduced to it in the form of an enigmatic teaser trailer that showed some eye-catching monochromatic art design and not much else. That was enough for me, as I worship at the altar of the quirky indie game and I’m always on the lookout for the next game where I DON’T have to shoot people. In fact, I had just come down off a steady diet of Spec Ops: The Line so what I needed was something a little more pure to cleanse my soul. I eagerly hopped into the game late one evening.
It’s true that you can’t talk about The Unfinished Swan without mentioning Journey (a fact that the designer gives a nod and a wink to in the game), especially since they both graduated from the Stanley Kubrick/2001 school of letting the individual guide the narrative. The better comparison would be fellow indie darling Limbo which shares both a theme and a (slightly) less abstract puzzle design with the Swan. Much the same way those other games don’t spend any time holding your hand, your first moments in the world of The Unfinished Swan will leave you utterly confused. In this case, you start the game staring at a completely white screen with no indication of where the walls, floors or ceilings are or if in fact those things even exist. It’s the video game equivalent of a sensory deprivation tank in many ways. Soon you’ll be fiddling with the controller and some semblance of what is happening will form. As soon as you think you have a grasp on things the mechanics will evolve and it’s up to you to figure out what to do next.
I’m obviously not telling you a whole lot about what the game really is. At its heart The Unfinished Swan is an Adventure/Puzzle game. The designer lists some of his influences for the game as Alice in Wonderland and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and that comes through as you explore the world. This is a solitary adventure that can easily induce a period of introspection as you navigate the largely benign world at your own pace, taking in the atmosphere that is dripping from every corner. For a world that looks like it could be generated on the original Playstation it does an amazing job of feeling like you can get completely lost in the universe they’ve created. While I was playing I felt a certain sense of wonder and inexplicable spine-tingling that was reminiscent of how I felt decades ago playing the obscure old DOS game The Colony which shares a lot of similarities with The Unfinished Swan.
Although Swan doesn’t quite reach the same sense of amazement and wonder I felt playing Journey it comes very close. The bits of narrative that are directly fed to you are well-written and evoke deep emotions if you let them, and you are given just enough environmental cues for the parts you are left to fill in for yourself. The puzzles never keep you stuck for more than a minute or two and they encourage you to explore both the world and the mechanics to get everything you can out of them. You can finish the entire game in 3 or 4 hours your first time through and much quicker if you run though it again to find all the hidden balloons. That may seem short, but this is one of those games that packs so much atmosphere and, in its own way, intensity into every minute that you feel satisfied when you get to the end. On top of that the mechanics, aesthetics, and pace of the game change up in such unusual ways throughout the course of the game and it feels like the game peaks a half-dozen times before you get through.
After my first run through I sat down with my 6 year old daughter and 4 year old son and played through again with them watching and advising me. They were completely enthralled every moment and peppered me with questions about what was going on. While the narrative and some of the gameplay was a little complex for them, they asked all the right questions and I watched as they processed some of the deeper themes of the game and came to their own conclusions about the meaning of the story. The Unfinished Swan takes its place as the first game I would recommend playing with your children because they can relate to the protagonist (a young boy), the puzzle solving won’t go over their heads and there isn’t any desensitizing violence at all. As a parent, I’m always cognizant of how games can contribute to ADHD and violent behavior if you don’t govern what kids are exposed to. I am thankful that there are games like this that can be an actual experience for the whole family.
If after reading this you still want to know more about the game before investing in it, I understand. Take a look at the 12 minutes of gameplay below. They cover the entire first level of the game and part of another midway throughout the game. They certainly don’t ruin the game, but they also don’t do the best job of conveying what the game feels like to play. You need a quiet environment and the control of the situation to really “get” the experience. I think it’s better to go in blind though. If you have enjoyed this generations cavalcade of “artsy” Indie games like Journey, Limbo or Braid you’ll love The Unfinished Swan. If it’s time to take a break from the genocidal killing you’ve been doing the last few months in Borderlands 2 think about giving this a try. If you’ve never played a video game in your life, think about giving this a try. The Unfinished Swan qualifies as an “experience”.
Don’t watch this if you already know you want to play the game!