2012 will be remembered as the year of AAA art-house games on PSN. Earlier in the year, ThatGameCompanyâ€™s Journey simultaneously redefined the emotional spectrum of single player gaming as well as the very nature of multiplayer gaming. More recently, Papo and Yo turned heads by painting both story and gameplay mechanics with a brush soaked in such themes as alcoholism and child abuse. Now comes the heavily anticipated The Unfinished Swan from Giant Sparrow Studios, which in many ways, is a sister piece to the aforementioned experiences, yet one which paints with its own unmistakably magic brush.
The Unfinished Swan opens with the pages of a story book and it is an appropriate motif for all that follows. In simplistic and child-like illustrations, it tells the story of a young boy named Monroe whose mother passed away, leaving behind a collection of unfinished paintings. The orphanage to which Monroe was entrusted only allows the child to keep but one of these pieces. Thus, Monroe chooses his most cherished painting, that of the titular unfinished swan, the fine lines of her long and elegant neck interrupted mid-way between her head and body. One night, Monroe awakens to discover that the swan has left itâ€™s canvas, leaving behind golden web-prints that disappear into a door he had never noticed before. Monroe leaps from bed and follows them into a world of nearly blinding white.
Most will be confronted with that blinding white canvas at the end of the introductory cinematic and not realize that the game has handed over control.Â With the push of a button, Monroe can now hurl jet black splashes of paint from a first person perspective onto the canvas and thereby cause the contours, objects, and negative spaces of this new world appear, much like that of Frank Millerâ€™s Sin City. Unlike the hard boiled streets of Sin City, however, this is a world of wonder and amazement. As trees, frogâ€™s benches and soon, stairwells and castle walls materialize under the direction of your brush strokes, you soon forget you are playing a pre-programmed video game and instead almost convince yourself that you, yourself, are the hand this art springs from.
What follows is a brilliantly paced sequence of chapters illustrating Monroeâ€™s own Journey. Each chapter introduces, and then quickly takes away, a new brush mechanic. Chapter Oneâ€™s black ink hurling gives way to chapter twoâ€™s water-brush which can guide the very growth of thirsty vines so that Monroe might climb onwards and upwards. Chapter threeâ€™s brush guides Monroe through safe pools of light in a menacing darkness while Chapter fourâ€™s brush seems to spring from the blue-print of an architectâ€™s easel. Amazingly, Giant Sparrow shows a rare display of restraint here. Each mechanic remains just long enough to have your fascination and wonder sated and not exhausted, before moving on to the next.
As such, it bears mentioning that The Unfinished Swan is a brief experience, clocking in anywhere between two or three hours at most for your $15. While this may certainly put off some, the reality of it is that The Unfinished Swan is meant to be a child-like story book on par with Goodnight Moon rather than The Hobbit. For my money, this three hour experience of wonder is worth more than twice what the PSN is asking for.
Much like Journey, the lightly defined plot will begat debate and interpretation among gamers long after completion of the game. If you stare long enough into the stark whites, pitch blacks and radiant goldâ€™s of this world, such themes as death, divorce, and the sins of the father may begin to materialize for a moment much like shapes in a cloud, only to disappear when you look away.Â What story is there is told, in part, by a god-mother type narrator (whose American accent seems somehow wrong for the part), an incredibly impressive late-game performance by the King of this dream-world and, most importantly, the adventure itself.
For completionists, the environments possess hidden balloons that may be sought out to unlock fun but unnecessary bonuses. These balloons are hidden well enough that they encourage exploration and appreciation of the world Giant Sparrow built, without allowing frustration to break theÂ dream-spell. While I was able to find all of the balloons on my first play-through, they do add some incentive to play again for less rigorous gamers or those who were too entranced with the dream to pursue more video-game like conventions.
The graphics and sound at work here are simultaneously minimalist and utterly breath-taking. The sharp blacks and whites of the kingdom soon develop soft shadows and colors as the plot slowly begins to fill out its own shapes. In this way, the Unfinished Swan is unyieldingly true to itself: itâ€™s simplistic visual design begets increasing layers and layers of wonder until itâ€™s final page ends on such a visual and emotional high-note that you immediately want to begin again. For much like Journey, (of which keen eyed gamers will spot a brilliantly hidden nod), The Unfinished Swanâ€™s ending does not mean the story is all told. For whether you are now a child, or were one once, long ago, this is one story-book that is meant to be read over, and over again.
Fun Factor: While â€śfunâ€ť is the probably the wrong world for this experience, the Wonder Factor is through the roof.
Difficulty: Just as a good bedtime story is not difficult to read, so too here is the challenge negligible. Great Sparrow Studios set out to make a game all can experience.
Length:Â Three hours tops by almost any measure of completion.
On the Negative Side: The brevity may be a negative for some, although not for this reviewer.
Bang for your Buck: Objectively $14.99 for 3 hours of gameplay is a little steep. Subjectively, itâ€™s worth $29.99.