There is a very good chance that someday in the future we will look back at 2012 as the year when the traditional business model for gaming began to change. Later this year, we will see the release of the Wii U, and there are certainly several major games still due out to join the catalog of excellent titles from this year, but one of the biggest trends in gaming this year has been the increase in exceptional digitally distributed games, like Journey, The Walking Dead, and Papo & Yo. You can go ahead and throw The Unfinished Swan on that list.
The last year has seen the release of several incredible games that have been released via digital distribution, and that is a trend that shows no signs of ebbing. More and more developers are looking at the format as a way to release inventive and creative games that may not fit anywhere else, including on the expanding mobile platforms. Journey is a 3-4 hour game without a single word of dialogue, and yet it is one of the best multiplayer experiences of the year. Quantum Conundrum is a bit too short to compete with the full AAA release of Portal 2, but it is an admirable addition to the library of any puzzle fan. Neither, however, would fit on a mobile device, and neither would survive as a full retail release. The medium is growing, and an increasing number of games like The Unfinished Swan, games with an original slant and a heartfelt narrative, are going to be what drives it.
As an ambassador to the medium, The Unfinished Swan did its job admirably. The game is beautiful, the design is engaging, the story is charming. And even if you don’t enjoy any of those aspects, most will agree that it is a work of art.
The Unfinished Swan is the story of a lonely orphan boy named Monroe who notices that his mother’s unfinished painting of a swan is suddenly missing the swan. He investigates and finds himself in a world dominated by color — or the absence of it. Using a paintball like projectile, he begins to uncover the hidden environment around him, and in doing so learns about the king of the realm, a ruler that created his kingdom through drawings.
The story is told through several hidden narrative blocks you come across, each of which plays out like a page from a fairy tale being read to you by a soothing, maternal sounding narrator. Each of the game’s four chapters reveals more about the King and his kingdom, eventually leading to a revelation that will change Monroe’s life as well as your understanding of the game.
If you have been following the game, then you may have seen a portion of the opening, which is an entirely white world that you uncover and define with black paint. The setting borders on ominous as you see the outline of a monster swim by you in a stream, and the lack of pigment (with the exception of a few blotches of color that mark some significant moment or offer you direction) can be a tad unsettling.
But soon enough, the monochromatic canvas yields to a castle seen through defining shadows, complete with a maze and a bizarre geometry that is dominated by growing vines that you feed to help you through otherwise impassable sections. That then propels you to a world of night, with color accentuating and creating the form, and protecting you from the unknown. Color is a fundamental part of this game, and it is one that is used to brilliant effect, even just through its absence.
While adding paint to the world is the primary mechanic you use, it is just one of several gameplay offerings. The game is never complex. There is very little in the way of problem solving, at least until later in the game, when you create blocks that then are mirrored in another world, but that is usually just a matter of filling in the blocks rather than making any decisions. Along the way you will hunt balloons which you cash in for upgrades that offer a few new gameplay elements, but you can complete the entire game easily without unlocking anything.
The Unfinished Swan is not a game in the traditional sense, but rather an interactive narrative that has moments of gamesmanship. That doesn’t make it any less compelling though, as the story and design of the game have an undeniable charm that will make you want to uncover the next story panel and see the next section. It all leads to a final moment that is skillfully handled, and an ending that should leave you smiling.
The biggest issue with the game is simply its length. You can power through the game in 2-3 hours. If you meticulously search for every collectible balloon you can probably push that by 30 minutes to an hour, maybe, but that is the absolute maximum. With that truncated length also comes underutilized mechanics. A great deal more could have been made of the mechanics if there were additional time to explore them. Judging The Unfinished Swan by that standard, $14.99 might seem a bit steep. But when you consider the price of a movie ticket, paying roughly the same amount for 3 hours of interactive narrative that is emotional and beautiful, isn’t a bad deal at all.
Putting the length aside, the game is a triumph of minimalism. You won’t feel the thrill of completing a difficult puzzle or take pride in defeating a difficult boss — The Unfinished Swan isn’t that type of game. In fact, it isn’t really clear what type of game it is until you complete it and have time to digest it all.
The Unfinished Swan does two things it likely didn’t set out to do, but will certainly be pleased to know: First, it further legitimizes the medium of digitally distributed games, and could encourage even more developers to experiment. Secondly, it adds new ammunition to the cause of games as art. A bit more content that made more use of the gameplay mechanics would have helped push it further into the mainstream, but there is no question: The Unfinished Swan is a work of art.
Score: 8.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on a copy provided to us by the publisher)