GamesBeat

The story behind the emotional center of The Unfinished Swan (in-depth interview)

Warning: This interview has spoilers.

The Unfinished Swan is one of the most creative titles to come out in a long time. Created by virgin studio Giant Sparrow for Sony, the game is an interactive fairy tale that begins with a blank white screen. You pull a trigger and lob black paint, which lands on a white background and uncovers part of the 3D space hidden there. So starts a tale of exploration. In that interaction is the fairy-tale like story of Monroe, a little boy who seeks meaning after his mother dies. She painted more than 300 images but never finished one. The orphanage allows Monroe to keep only a single picture of The Unfinished Swan, but it walks out of the painting one day, and he goes after it. (See our review for a full explanation.)
The story and its ending have stirred a lot discussion among players, who are offering different interpretations of what the game means. We caught up with Ian Dallas, the creative director, to talk about the genesis of this unusual game and its mysteries.
The game originated from a demo created by University of Southern California students in 2008. Sony picked it up and gave it the staff and funding to flesh out the game. The Unfinished Swan will go on sale on Oct. 23 as a downloadable on the PlayStation Network for the PlayStation 3. So far, the game has a mix of high and low scores on Metacritic, the review aggregator, with an average of 78 out of 100. That’s a little disappointing, as we ranked it at 88. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk. We’ll follow up with part two of our interview later.

ian dallas smallGamesBeat: You’ve got a few dozen reviews up there on Metacritic so far. You’ve got your rating now. How do you feel about that so far?

Ian Dallas: It’s surprising to see the polarized opinions people have about the game. What’s really encouraging is that for a lot of the negative reviews that we get, people still describe things that they like about the game. The game wasn’t a failure — it’s just that they wanted it to be a different game. I think they have different ideas about what a “good game” is.

It seems like, almost universally, the people who have problems with the game wish that it were harder and longer. Which is just not the kind of game we were making. I feel like if I were out in the world reading the reviews. … If I’d seen 60 out of 100 or whatever it is, I would have gotten the game anyway because I would know as a player, “I don’t really mind if the game doesn’t force me to replay the same area over and over to extend the playtime.” So it’s been an interesting process. Metacritic is its own kind of murky mystery as far as how these things work out.

GamesBeat: The thing you don’t catch in the final number that becomes the average is the idea that just about everybody appreciates the freshness of the gameplay. It’s something they haven’t seen before.

Dallas: Yeah. When you have a single number, it’s a little deceptively specific. It’s not whether the game is really good or bad. All the other axes … Whether a game is memorable. … To me, as a player, that’s what I look for. There’s no memorability [with] Metacritic. Everyone’s got their own opinion on what should go into that.

GamesBeat: What do you notice about the polarized comments, then? If there’s one set of negative views and one set of really positive ones, what are they polarizing around?

Dallas: For a game to be kind of a transcendental experience for people — not a distraction, but something that has emotional weight to it — that quality of memorability is what I would look for. It seems like they hit a point in the game, and they’re willing to go along with it. They appreciate that the game is about this sense of discovery and wonder.

You can see it in most of the reviews. When they’re positive, people talk about it in a very different way. They talk about how the game made them feel. Whereas the more negative reviews we’ve gotten tend to be very brass-tacks. They’re talking about the mechanics: “This area of the game should have been longer.” It’s much more nuts-and-bolts about the game. I think that comes out of the way different people approach games, the way they’ve been trained to approach games.

A lot of reviews expected it to be a puzzle game. For a puzzle game, it’s totally fair to judge it based on whether the puzzles were challenging, whether the mechanics were well explored. But that wasn’t really the game we were making. To some extent, it’s our fault for not communicating what this game was about. But that’s also part of what we were trying to do — to let people discover the game for themselves. Maybe we could have been, in hindsight, a bit clearer about that.

unfinished swan 2unfinished swan 3GamesBeat: You mentioned a lot of interesting things there. One of them was that some game critics seem to want to take what you have and turn it into a different game. It almost seems like you’ve come up with an interesting new mechanic, and it could be a platform for a bunch of games because everybody wants to throw paint around and have it lead to some different kind of game or story. It seems like a good thing, in some ways.

Dallas: Yeah. One of the comments that we’ve gotten pretty consistently from players is that they feel like this or that mechanic in the game could have been its own game. They’re angry that we only spent 20 minutes on something that they would want to spend two hours exploring in detail. That would be a very different game, though. That’s the way that most games work. Mechanics are difficult to come up with, so there’s a lot of creative and financial incentive to have a game that’s about a small number of mechanics where you look at it from all different sides. People are accustomed to that, and it can be very enjoyable.

This game has a very different approach. We’re more interested in what it feels like to discover a new thing. I think a lot of games are about what it feels like to become an expert in something. Unfinished Swan is about what it feels like to be a child discovering a brand new world. Everything about the game, hopefully, is done in a different way, because it’s got different goals. Unfortunately, the game is being reviewed as if it has the same goals that most games have.

GamesBeat: That’s an interesting direction there, too. When I started playing it, I was thinking, “Hey, this would be a great game to play with the kids.” But as soon as the subject of a mother dying came up, then that kind of ruled out my 9-year-old. … [Laughs] It’s about a bit more than a child discovering a new world. It’s more serious than that. I was wondering why you took that direction when you could have possibly gone toward a more “everyone” type of game.

Dallas: At some level, the game created itself. There was this initial mechanic of being in a white room and throwing paint around. For a long time, we were trying to figure out what kind of game this was going to be. The thing that I liked was this sense of … loneliness. It felt slightly darker. It wasn’t entirely positive to be confronting the unknown like that. It also came out of the initial spark of. … If this was an unfinished world, what is the most unfinished thing I can think of? And that would be, if a parent had a child and then didn’t have a chance to raise them.

It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to make a game that would be age-appropriate or age-inappropriate. We had these kernels of ideas that felt like they were interesting and appropriate to what we had in terms of the experience of being in this white space [and] throwing paint around. They’re like the seed for a crystal. Everything else grew up around that. Which was challenging because when you’re making a game that you don’t know much about. … If you know you want it to feel different from everything else out there, there aren’t a lot of models to look to. When we found things like this idea of an orphan whose mother has died, that seemed like a place to hang your hat — somewhere to start from and let the game coalesce around that. It was a very organic process.

GamesBeat: So you had the mechanic, and then you came up with the story, and everything else grew up around that.

Dallas: Yeah. Oddly enough, huge chunks of the game did not exist until relatively late in development. When you play the game now, a lot of the world and the story are centered around this king character. The king didn’t exist until maybe halfway or even two-thirds of the way through development. When we looked around and said, “Well, what are you doing as a player?” You’re basically exploring architecture. That’s what this game feels good at.

From there, once we had something we felt happy with, we looked at it and said, “What kind of story would make sense to encompass this stuff?” We had something that was the core of it — what it feels like to wander around this world. That was the gameplay we were interested in. The story was a matter of coming up with something that fit what we already had.

GamesBeat: So that’s a critical turn in development. What were some of the other turns that shaped the game most dramatically?

Dallas: The middle chapter of the game, the Unfinished Empire area, where you’re in this huge city. … Originally, that unfinished swan 4was supposed to be about a 15-minute piece of gameplay. You were going to find these magic vines, grow up to the top of the tower, and that would be it. Like a lot of projects, and like the key character in our game, things got bigger over time. At one point, I think it was two hours or so to get through that area. It’s been cut down to about an hour. It expanded as we found interesting things to do. The game wanted to breathe at that point. It wanted to be in a bigger space.

That was the area that we took for what we call a vertical slice. In game development, you take an area of the game up to what is essentially the state of the final game, just to make sure that everything else is going to work. That was, for better or worse, the first area of the game that we really sat down with and said, “What is this going to look like as a final experience?” The rest of the game grew up around that.

GamesBeat: Thinking along the lines of characters again. … Did you ever think about throwing in a lot of conversation with characters or lots of other characters in the game that Monroe would meet? An Alice in Wonderland kind of situation?

Dallas: Early on, there were some ideas for interactions with characters. We felt like that would be a good way to communicate information. It would fit with the Alice inspiration. But for various reasons, none of those ended up going into the game. We found that there was a sense of loneliness and isolation the game had early on that we actually liked. It felt different, but it also felt appropriate to the kind of world and the kind of story that we were telling.

Adding in a lot of other characters and dialogue … there’s a whole host of problems. It felt like it wasn’t something that would benefit the game a whole lot, and it would be a lot of extra work taking focus away from other areas of the game. We ended basing most of the story around Monroe, the player, and the king. We tried to economize. There may have been some character interactions that got collapsed into that one character, the king.

GamesBeat: So do you think of it as a first-person painter?

Dallas: Yeah, that’s the shortest description I’ve found for the slightly chaotic mix of experience that is The Unfinished Swan. It’s a first-person painting game.

unfinished swan 6GamesBeat: How about the sort of fairy-tale-like storybook sessions, where the narrator — I guess your aunt — takes over.

Dallas: That whole story came pretty early on in development. When I was looking around for models in the real world — things that feel like the kind of game experience that I wanted, things that evoke a sense of wonder — storybooks felt like a good source of inspiration. Shel Silverstein, Harold and the Purple Crayon, and any number of other stories were some of the references that we looked at.

One of the things that we liked about storybooks is that they had this hand-drawn feel to them that is very personal but also a kind of abstract quality that invites you to use your imagination to fill in a lot of the gaps. Shel Silverstein does a fantastic job of using a few lines to suggest a much bigger world. The cinematics that we have in the game, with this animated style and the lines moving around, was a way for us to give the game more of a handmade feel, in part.

We found that was difficult to do with 3D models. 3D models, just because of the nature of the technology, have these very sharp, polygonal lines everywhere. With the hand-drawn style, we were able to get a bit more of that feel in the game. It was something that felt appropriate to the broader themes of the game, like the sense of discovery. As you see this line drawing as a viewer, you’re not really sure what it’s going to become. Suddenly, it splits, and it becomes a giant. That felt simpatico with the rest of the game.

GamesBeat: What were some other influences out there on the story or the game in general? I could see a Portal-like section in the game. …

Dallas: I’d say the biggest inspirations were storybooks in general. Alice in Wonderland, Edward Gorey, Shel Silverstein — what those books feel like as a reader. Even just the weight of a book like that. You know when you pick it up that it’s not a huge investment. You can sit there and read it in the bookstore. That’s a core part of what it feels like as an audience member for that kind of thing.

So for Unfinished Swan, we put it into a storybook with very discrete chapters so players can see ahead of time … “Okay, I’m about halfway through.” It had that sense of, when you’re holding a book, you know about how far you are from the ending.

The other big inspirations were a number of filmmakers: Jim Henson — Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal have some concrete reference in Unfinished Swan — as well as Terry Gilliam. Time Bandits was something we looked at pretty closely. Luis Bunuel, also, and a number of surrealists. People who create these spaces that are unlike anything you would encounter in the real world but have this kernel that makes them feel surprisingly real and familiar.

unfinished swan 7GamesBeat: The story itself — is any of this very personal to you? Do you have any more personal stake in the different events that transpire in the story?

Dallas: I didn’t when the game started. It was just something that. … As a child, I’d always been very concerned that my parents would die. It seemed like the worst thing that could possibly happen. One reason that Time Bandits resonated with me as a young person and still disturbs me when I see it now. … At the end of Time Bandits, his parents just suddenly die. There’s no reason for it. It just happens. I think that’s pretty true to the way that the world works.

As a child, you have so little control. If you look at all the classic fairy tales, they’re about kids in unfortunate situations through no fault of their own. Being a child — or at least this is my memory of it — you’re beset by all kinds of forces that you don’t understand and that are much more powerful than you.

I guess it’s a long-winded way of saying that I centered the story on a boy whose mother has died because for me, that had always been something that resonated strongly. It was a concern that I had as a child, and it seemed like an interesting place to start for an emotional journey. There’s nothing sadder to me than a child losing his parents.

The weird, personal twist on all this is that halfway through development, my own mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness, although she’s still alive. So that gave me more of a personal perspective on the whole thing. As tragic as it is, I’m also a 34-year-old man now. At some point, your parents are going to die. Nobody is going to live forever. I’m really just thankful [for] the time that I had with her, and I’m glad that she was able to raise a child through to adulthood. I can’t imagine how horrible it would have been to not have had all those years.

unfinished swan 5GamesBeat: I’m finishing the game a second time around with my 12-year-old girl. She’s very fascinated by it. She’s still right in the middle, but the last time I did that with her is when we played Journey together. My kids were all just fascinated with that — both the look and the story in it. They don’t play a lot of games on consoles anymore, so for them to sit down for hours with one of these types of games is a big achievement on the creator’s part. 

Dallas: Thank you, thank you. I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to playtest more with a younger audience. We did a ton of playtests, but because we’re in the God of War studio, it’s much easier for us to pull 30- to 40-year-old hardcore game developers. Young developers don’t have a lot of friends with children beyond the age of four or five, too, so we just didn’t get many chances to test it.

It was interesting to see when we brought the game to PAX [Penny Arcade Expo] recently, though. Previously, we’d only had, I think, two 9-year-old boys play the game, and neither of them got out of the first room. They were so interested in painting stuff that they would say, “I’m gonna paint this whole world black!” They seemed to have a good time, but it was not the experience we’d expected people to have, so I thought, “Well, maybe this game is too advanced for certain ages, where they don’t have the drive to keep moving forward.” But at PAX, we had people as young as six playing the game and having no trouble at all moving through it.

GamesBeat: I think the first-person painter genre should have more than one game in it.

Dallas: [Laughs] I’d love to play someone else’s take on a first-person painting game. By the way, you mentioned you were playing through a second time. Did you notice the Journey Easter egg?

GamesBeat: No, where was that?

Dallas: I’m not going to give it away, but you have to look through a telescope somewhere. There’s a lot of things hidden in this game.


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