The Unfinished Swan is one of the awesome indie titles on display at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). It’s too early to say that it is one of the absolute best at the show, but it’s a serious contender when it comes to innovation and creativity.
I saw the game, which is being built by indie game studio Giant Sparrow and published by Sony this fall, at a recent event for game journalists in Santa Monica, Calif. The game is part of an incubation at Sony’s Santa Monica game studio, and it’s not unlike the creative work by Thatgamecompany, the developer of Sony’s Journey and Flower games.
Ian Dallas (pictured above), co-founder of Giant Sparrow, said he and fellow students created a prototype for the title while in the game design program at the University of Southern California.
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“It’s a first-person painting game that begins with a white space,” he said in an interview with GamesBeat. “It took us about a year to figure out how to make it into a game. The best design ideas come initially just as a thought. We played around with it in our tool box to get it right.”
The game is about exploring the unknown, and it has a touching back story. A boy named Monroe loses his mother to illness. One of the keepsakes she leaves for him is an unfinished painting of a swan. Then the swan walks out of the picture, and your job, as the young boy, is to chase after it into a surreal kingdom.
“The feeling you get is thinking about unfinished spaces in life,” Dallas said. “What kind of world would be white? Maybe the kingdom you are exploring is an unfinished kingdom. To me, the most unfinished thing is to create a child and to leave before they’re done, before they grow up.”
The game begins in a completely white space where players can throw paint to splatter their surroundings and reveal the world around them. You start with black paint balls that you throw; they make a cute splat sound on impact and they show you a path. The paint hits objects in the 3D space, gives them definition, and brings them out of the whiteness into view. You can follow the footsteps of the swan to guide you toward your goal. At points along the way, you can look back to see how much territory you have painted.
“What really interested me was the feeling of not knowing what was out there and the capacity for evoking a sense of wonder,” Dallas said. “We had to take the mechanic and figure out how to evoke a sense of wonder. To do that, we had to change the game every 15 minutes or so. We did that by changing the world around the player.”
In the first level, you navigate through a building into the outside world, where you find a pool. Then you follow the swan’s steps to a point where you find more paths, eventually unveiling an entire castle. But painting objects with black paint is just a quarter of the game. You can also toss blue water droplets around and reveal green vines wrapping around a building.
“It’s kind of like looking for a needle in a haystack, and you know there is a needle to be found,” he said.