There is nothing in any direction. No color, no sound, no sense of perspective or depth. It is a blank canvas of white, with no up or down, no clues on where to go, and no hint at what you should be doing.
And so begins The Unfinished Swan, one of the most promising digital downloadable games due out this year.
Following in the footsteps of titles like Journey and Limbo, The Unfinished Swan has created something unique in gaming. The mechanics aren’t exactly like anything else out there. Comparisons to other games can always be made, but for the most part, The Unfinished Swan is unique in its gameplay.
Following the death of his mother, young Monroe is bound for the orphanage. His mother was an artist of sorts, at least in spirit, and she started over 300 paintings but completed none. Given the choice to keep just one, Monroe elects to hold on to his mother’s favorite painting, an unfinished swan. When the swan comes to life and disappears into an incredible and unbelievable world, the boy follows.
When confronted with a world that is marked by its total absence of content, Monroe begins to define the surroundings with paint. The more paint you use, the more definition that is applied to the world. Look down in the first-person perspective and shoot/throw the paint, and you will highlight a road or path. Look to the sides and fire away to reveal walls, furniture, and the trappings of civilization. Head outside and cover the ground to reveal a pond, teeming with life—some of it hostile.
In a very loose sense, the game is similar to Junction Point Studios’ Epic Mickey, which also featured a paint mechanic that highlighted hidden, and unfinished paths. But the similarities end there.
The game begins with a monochromatic world, highlighted by the odd burst of color signifying something that demands your attention. That may be a direction marker, designated as a pair of glowing swan feet, or it may be an indication of a piece of art that narrates a bit of the story.
The world being shown represents the kingdom of a man that painted his world to life. The sections will each represent a different point in the King’s life, from his days as a young boy through his ascent through the years, but how he and Monroe are connected is still a mystery that will be solved during the 2-3 hour, single-player game.
The section being displayed at a Sony event last week was from the beginning of the game, and the only colors displayed were white, black, and a few bits of yellow. With color—or the lack thereof–playing such a central role in both the gameplay and possibly the narrative, it seems probable that more colors will be introduced through the game in one form or another—something that developer Giant Sparrow isn’t denying.
The Unfinished Swan began as a prototype that found its way to the Tokyo Game Show, where it caught the eye of Sony. From there developer Giant Sparrow was formed, and with 12 people working from its Santa Monica office, the game has been in one form of development or another for three years. Those years of work will reach a climax some time later this year when the game is released as a PS3 exclusive via PSN.
The comparisons to Thatgamecompany’s Journey are, and will continue to be, unavoidable. That’s not exactly a bad thing, since Journey is an incredible title (and one of our favorite games of the year so far), but the similarities between the games are fairly general.
Both properties are coming from indie developers nurtured by Sony, and both games will be available on the PlayStation Network and exclusive to the PS3. But the real similarity between the two comes from the sense that both titles put an emphasis on the idea of video games as art.
There is a sense of wander and originality in The Unfinished Swan that Journey also had. The game demands that you respect it, and process what you are seeing and doing. It is not a representation of a hyper-realistic situation that you could experience in life, like a gun battle or a sword fight, instead it is a self-contained world that creates its own rules specifically for you to explore them. Games like this are about the total experience rather than the moment to moment thrill.
With months to go before its unspecified release date alter this year, and not even a playable demo available, it is a stretch to claim that The Unfinished Swan is a video game that could be art. Throwing that label around without a complete understanding of the property even borders on irresponsible. But all the trappings are in place, and there should be enough to generate and sustain a level of excitement in discerning gamers looking for something new and fresh, until the game is released.
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