NYR: Unfinished Swan

Unfinished Swan cover

There has been a fair bit of negativity throughout my reviews in the New Year’s Resolution series – and I can guarantee that there is still more to come – but I thought it might be nice to write about something that touched even a cynical curmudgeon like me.

Unfinished Swan snuck up on me unexpectedly last year; I had logged onto the PSN to get Journey and found myself downloading this little game by Giant Sparrow at the same time.

I played it for about two minutes and then completely forgot about it.

That remained true until last month when I booted up the PS3 again to play Yakuza 4, saw Unfinished Swan in my collection and ended up dropping the requisite four hours to complete the title.

It is fantastic, a true gem and it seems to have been criminally over-looked. It is easy to see why as Journey has been hogging the headlines and winning the BAFTAs as well as being the poster game for 2012’s console download generation.

It really is a shame because had it been any other year I feel it would have been Unfinished Swan’s.

You are told at the beginning that the narrative is about a young boy who has lost his mother. When he is sent away he is allowed to keep one item of hers: an unfinished painting.

The game starts with a blank screen, a reticle and nothing else. It took me a little while to realise that the game hadn’t crashed and that the R2 button fired little globules of paint that helped define the world and let you navigate the maze ahead of you.

It is hard not to get pretentious with this game but here we go anyway.

The traversal through each stage, from the blank canvas first level to the washed-out castle and later the dark swamp full of spiders, is a metaphor for the boy’s healing process as he comes to terms with the loss he is feeling. At least that was my interpretation of events. The surrealist delivery and the cartoon introductions to each area are very reminiscent of LucasArts’s last good published game: Lucidity. The key difference is in Unfinished Swan the marriage between gameplay and the story is more closely linked.

The game is beautiful in its simplicity; for this short 500-word piece I had to resist just filling it full of images of the game. None of them are technically potent but from the perspective of artistic minimalism every shot is breathtaking. Looking at an entirely white world that has been covered by haphazard splotches of black – that and seeing spires covered entirely in vines grown by your own urgings – is a delight.

Unfinished Swan 08

Unfinished Swan’s play time is fleeting but it is no less impactful for that. In fact I would say that the ability to sit through the entire thing in one go adds to the experience.

I am in danger of shifting into a discussion about game length and narrative design versus audience expectations so I’ll leave that for another time. What I will say instead is that if you have only played Journey then you owe it to yourself to get Unfinished Swan now.