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The Unfinished Swan and Papo & Yo exemplify the creative freedom of the PlayStation Network

Sony’s PlayStation 3 is home to some excellent platform exclusives, but few are better than those which can be bought and downloaded from the PlayStation Store. Weekly PSN releases are positively bursting with creativity on a regular basis. For every generic title, there are five or more that really challenge our notion of what an interactive experience can offer. Look at Flower, look at Tori-Emaki, look at anything that has the word PixelJunk in its title. I got to sample two other upcoming PSN releases at Sony’s recent holiday preview event: Pap0 & Yo by Minority, and The Unfinished Swan by Giant Sparrow. Both are very different animals and yet both serve to reinforce the notion that some of Sony’s most intensely creative products are coming from the company’s PSN developers.

Papo & Yo

Pap0 & Yo springs from the mind of Minority creative director, Vander Caballero, a former EA Games developer who left his position at the publisher to tell the upcoming game’s very personal story. Rooted in the realm of magical realism, Pap0 & Yo sends players through a surreal vision of Brazil’s favelas. The setting is meant to beckon back to Caballero’s childhood, as is the story. You’ll take control of a young boy as you solve a series of environmental puzzles, many of which are built around managing, directing, and at times outright avoiding your friend/pet monster. The beast is addicted to eating frogs, but he becomes enraged every time he devours one. The boy/monster relationship is a nod to Caballero’s own real-life upbringing and the unpredictability of being raised by an alcoholic father.

The preview event demo picked up at the start of the game, before you even meet the monster. Essentially a control tutorial, the intro plays out over a series of increasingly challenging puzzles that involves manipulating the environment in some fantastical ways. Sometimes it might be as simple as pushing a hand-drawn cog into a physical wall to make a set of stairs appears. Another puzzles requires you to set up a series of boxes in a straight line; each box’s movement is mirrored by a full-sized favela hut, so as you line up the boxes you’re also lining up a set of huts that eventually come together to form a bridge you can cross. Remember: “magical realism” is a key term here.

The opening sequence in Pap0 & Yo is built around pursuing a silent, young girl through the streets of Caballero’s Brazil. Like the game’s larger story, this too is based on the creator’s early experiences. The young girl is a nod to his first, unrequited love. As the young boy, you’ll always get closer and closer to her, only to be yanked away just when it seems like you’re going to finally reach your goal. There’s a quiet beauty to how all of this unfolds; the brightly colored environment of the fantasy favela contrasts in an artful way with the story being told, at least in this early chunk of game. If it’s any indication of how the rest unfolds, PS3 owners are in for a treat.

The controls for what amounts to a third-person platformer are also fine, with the nameless young boy responding quickly and smoothly to gamepad inputs. Of course, Pap0 & Yo is also rather close to being released now, so those controls had better be tight. The game arrives in the PlayStation Store on August 14, the third release in the publisher’s annual PSN Play promotion. You’ll be able to grab it for $14.99.


The Unfinished Swan

Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan is a very difficult game to preview. How you play becomes clear quickly enough, but how one section of the game plays might differ significantly from how another plays–something we noted when we first saw the game demoed a few months back. It’s all part of the developer’s state goal to deliver your first 15 minutes with an awesome game over and over again. Based on what I saw when messing around with two chunk of The Unfinished Swan — one from the beginning and one from roughly halfway through — it seems like Giant Sparrow is managing to stick to this core directive.

The game’s premise is fairly straightforward: you’re a young boy named Monroe who follows a swan that stepped out of a painting into a surreal fantasy world. The first time you fire up a new game, the all-white loading screen is eventually replaced… by an all-white screen. There is literally nothing to give you any sense of perspective. A tiny black circle rests in the center of the screen — your crosshairs, as you’ll soon learn — but there’s no text or tutorial or, really, anything to let you know that the game has begun.

Most players will realize that things are happening once they start fiddling with the controller. Pressing any of the shoulder buttons on your SIXAXIS sends a black glob of paint out into the world. When the paint lands, it highlights whatever environmental features it came into contact with. In the first minute of The Unfinished Swan you very quickly progress from cautiously sending out a spurt of paint here and there to endlessly jamming on all four shoulder buttons, with the streaming globs of paint slowly filling in the world around you. 

As you paint your world, it becomes clear that you’re seeing everything from a first-person perspective. The paint shows you where the ground is, where the walls are. It highlights park benches and stepping stones, stairwells and doorways. All along, you’re following a trail of gold-colored web-footed prints, evidence of the titular swan’s advance. That’s really what the first section of the game amounts to: you paint your world as you pursue the swan. There’s no limitation on how much paint you chuck, no buttons to press. Simply follow the trail until you trigger the next sequence.

I’m not sure what comes immediately after the world-painting, since the demo switched gears after I caught up to the swan that first time. Fast-forwarding ahead to roughly the game’s midpoint, I look around and see that the world is now fully revealed. It’s a sort of minimalist Medieval fantasy landscape; there’s a castle with turrets surrounded by a village of stone buildings, yet colors only appear to highlight specific objects. Much of the line-drawn world is rendered in black & white, and shades of gray.

In this chunk of the game, your shoulder buttons spit out water instead of paint. The initial puzzles I come across involve using the water to strike a series of colored switches. Monroe can’t activate them himself, but the force of the water hitting the levers is enough to activate them. It’s simple puzzle-solving here, using water to open gates and the like. Further along in this section, I come to a courtyard with a large, round planter in the center of it. The plant inside it — shown only in silhouette and clearly dead or dying — is key here. As you shower the thing with water, it sprouts lush, green vines. Using the water, you can grow these vines outward toward and ultimately onto a nearby wall. Once that’s done, you’re able to climb the vines to reach the next bit of puzzle, which involves more vine growth.

The mechanics in these two chunks of game felt very similar, but the manner in which each tool — water and paint — impacts your interactions with the world is what’s important. I wonder just how much variety Giant Sparrow will truly be able to cram into this first-person puzzler, but the examples provided in the hands-on preview certainly show a lot of promise. There’s no release date announced yet for The Unfinished Swan, but we’ll hopefully be hearing more soon.