Monroe’s mother never finished anything. Not even the world around you. It’s a flat, blank, white canvas, waiting for you to define what exists around you.
That’s how The Unfinished Swan opens…with nothing but emptiness and a reticule. What happens next opens up a very different door in terms of gameplay. You’ve explored in games before, but Swan — due later this year from indie developer Giant Sparrow as an exclusive downloadable title for the PlayStation 3 — takes things to another level: discovery. Starting right when you launch the game, you play to learn, to solve, to answer. It doesn’t feel like a puzzle game so much as a first-person mystery game. And by playing it, you slowly discover what this game is.
A little experimentation reveals that one button jumps, all others fling a black blob of paint that splatters on impact. Suddenly: a wall. The world takes on form and dimension. Coat the room, and you’ll find a corner, a hallway, a door. Go through it, splash more paint, and you realize you’re outside, on a wharf. You know that’s water beyond because the blobs splash in, leaving ripples on the surface.
No, you can’t plunge to your watery doom. “I thought it was a little too mean-spirited to let people walk into white water at the beginning of the game,” says Ian Dallas, Unfinished Swan’s creative director. “We try to kill people later.”
The plot revolves around a 9-year-old child named Monroe who’s deceased mother left him a collection of unfinished paintings. One day, the subject of one — a swan — escapes from the canvass. Monroe sets off in search of it through an Alice-in-Wonderland world ruled by a mad king. The levels represent snapshots from the king’s life, and as he was also a painter with a magic brush, they often represent his different artistic periods. The early levels are pure Salvador Dali, full of crazy castles and unreal contraptions. And balloons.
Occasionally, you’ll see a splash of color in the distance…yellow footprints made by a goose, the horn of a unicorn station, the crown on a bust of the king. Tantalizing clues sometimes lead to red herrings…yellow bird feet lead to a chicken instead of swan. And the swan itself occasionally flies into view, just out of reach.
Another level mixes it up with blobs of water in lieu of paint, but you’re still filling out the world, growing vines to progress and to discover the history of the stark, thorny castle you’ve wandered into. Each new discovery leads to another, and it’s all incredibly compelling. The swan seems to leads you with a destination in mind. Somewhere out there, the mad king waits.
You might get a slight musical queue, but otherwise Unfinished Swan leaves you alone to figure things out for yourself. You must be curious. You must want to discover. In that way, the entire game constitutes one big puzzle that you’ll only ever solve by playing through to the end.
Time will tell if the answers — assuming we get any — prove worthy of the journey. But even as an unfinished work, The Unfinished Swan feels immensely rewarding. You won’t ever find a better reason to play a video game.