Unlike one famous and respected film critic, we believe video games can be art. This year’s PlayStation Network release, Journey, is a prime example. Giant Sparrow, a twelve-person video game company based in Santa Monica, CA has added a title to the list of masterpieces in our favorite medium. The Unfinished Swan is a beautiful game, and it’s clear that plenty of hard work and a lot of heart have gone into this beautiful story book of a game.
Started as a student project in the University of Southern California, Swan was originally meant to be played on head-mounted displays. When demoing the game in Tokyo, Japan in 2009, the game caught Sony’s eye. Since then, the Giant Sparrow team has fully assembled, and the game has come along tremendously with aid from Sony. Most games with long development times often become scatter-brained, and deliver disjointed or unfocused experiences. However, this obviously isn’t the case with Swan, as it’s evident that all this extra time went into fine-tuning every aspect of the experience to make the fresh concept at its core work perfectly.
The graphics are unlike any we’ve seen in a game before. Swan lacks detailed textures, but this isn’t a negative feature. The game focuses on the use of color and extreme contrast as an actual gameplay element, and to fit the canvas and story book theme. The lightly yellow tinted white that serves as the game’s base color provides an excellent backdrop for the game’s settings and environments. Throughout the four chapters, environments change dramatically, ranging from blank white space, to shadowed mazes, to vibrant green overgrowth, to a forest at night. We’re vague on the settings purposefully. Indeed, the discovery of these areas as well as the transitions is some of the best parts of the game.
Revealed to the player in the form of pages in the picture book, the game’s story focuses on a young boy named Monroe, who will serve as your protagonist. Monroe’s mother is very fond of painting, though she’s never finished a single one. Upon her untimely death, Monroe is sent to an orphanage that tells him he can keep only one of her many paintings. He chooses his mother’s favorite, the unfinished swan. That very night, he wakes up to find that the swan is missing from the canvas. He grabs his mother’s silver paintbrush, and runs into a newly appeared door in the room. From this point, the story is revealed through playing the game, cutscenes at the end of every chapter, and through pages of the fairy tale that can be discovered throughout the game’s world. Without revealing too much, you’ll meet a selfish king, a house hippo, a very lazy giant, underwater creatures, fearsome spiders, and even more memorable cast members as you make your way through the game. The game’s writing fit’s a children’s book perfectly. The game’s rare dialogue is reminiscent of the LittleBigPlanet series, and has the same wit and charm. Monroe’s childlike exclamations at his surroundings and situations are believable and endearing. Again, we don’t want to spoil anything, but the story does end up being more than your average fairy tale, touching on emotional issues before its end, but never enough to bring down the beautiful, inspiring feel of the game.
After the game’s intro, players are introduced to a white screen, with no hint that they’re allowed to play yet besides a small circle in the middle of the screen serving as an aiming reticule. No amount of turning the camera or running around the small starting area will change the lighting or reveal any of your surroundings. This is made possible by throwing paintballs. In the first chapter, your paintballs are black. This contrast of the black paint against whatever surface you decide to toss it on will reveal your environment and allow you to proceed. You can use as little, or as much paint you desire, and in coating your surroundings in paint, you expand your understanding of the world around you, as well as create art. No one’s trip across the bride in front of the pond will look the same as another’s, because of the amount and aim of the player’s paintballs. It’s a good idea not to drench the area in black however; the world will be black in the same way that it was overwhelmingly white. Players should paint strategically, as it is the contrast of these colors that allows you to effectively perceive passages.
Gameplay grows more complex as the chapters, and environments change. The worlds become more detailed, and don’t require you to paint to reveal your location as often. Instead, paint is used to solve intricate puzzles characterized by different effects your brush gains. Though these are often multi-step, interesting puzzles, we were never stumped, and sometimes wished that they were just a bit more challenging. Platforming and puzzle-solving become the focus, now using the abilities of the brush to create planes, reveal your environment, grow weeds, illuminate darkness and activate physics based objects. The game feels almost like a paint-based Portal at times, which is by no means a bad thing. Just when you get tired of one use of the brush, the game will combine it with another, or completely change form to a fun, new objective.
The controls that allow you to perform all these actions are incredibly simple. The left analog stick moves Monroe, while the right analog serves to control the camera and aim the paintbrush. Holding the left analog stick forward for an extended period of time will give Monroe a minor speed boost. X is jump, and any of the shoulder buttons tosses a paintball. While simple, these controls will allow you to accomplish a variety of tasks and serves the player well during platforming. We don’t recommend use of the PlayStation Move motion controller unless you use the DualShock 3 or the navigation controller as well, as using the trigger to walk and the circle button to walk backwards serves to disorient the player and make platforming needlessly difficult. However with the movement taken care of with one of the other controllers, physically aiming the motion controller for paintball throwing is enjoyable.
The dynamic soundtrack is one of my personal favorite parts of Swan. The beautiful score sets the mood perfectly for Monroe’s story. Depending on the player’s position in the area, current action, and the events taking place nearby, the music will swell, raise or lower in volume, or have certain instruments become emphasized to perfectly accentuate every moment of the experience. The narrator of the story wouldn’t sound out of place narrating a children’s movie, and that’s perfect for the tone of Swan. There isn’t much dialogue in the game, but every voice actor performs admirably with just the right amount of gusto for a fantasy story.
The game is quite short at just under two and half hours, but it is filled with collectibles, unlockables, and secrets. That playtime isn’t including the enjoyable exploration that players could sink time into. While the game has no modes other than the main story, the "unlockables" section in the main menu is worth mention. By freeing hidden balloons in the story mode of the game, players can unlock "toys" to enhance their experience. These range from the ability to freeze paintballs in mid-air, to receiving a paint sniper rifle that shoot accurate paintballs straight to where you aim them. Besides being motivation for several playthroughs and collecting all the hidden balloons, these toys aid in user-created art in game, and allow more experimentation with the game’s mechanics. Speaking of hidden content, we’re pretty sure we saw a couple of easter eggs. Check out one of the many telescopes in the game to catch a shout out to thatgamecompany’s Journey.
The Unfinished Swan is an ironic title for a game that feels so solidly put together. Through the combination of its charming storytelling, colorful, high-contrast graphics, dynamic score, intuitive control scheme, and interesting characters, Giant Sparrow provides a beautiful, unique experience that never ceases to impress and is always entertaining. While a bit on the short side, and perhaps a bit too simplistic in its puzzle design, Swan is a game that will keep you interested and engaged the whole way through. You’ll smile and maybe even cry. And you’ll want to play again.