The Unfinished Swan’s Unfinished Thought

Along with Journey from thatgamecompany, The Unfinished Swan is probably the most affecting game I’ve played this year. Hell, maybe ever. It joins a very small group of games that I could just write about forever and ever (the others include—among others you can probably guess—Dark Souls, Red Dead Redemption, Deus Ex, and the aforementioned Journey). I’ve read and been told accounts of Giant Sparrow’s debut bringing players to tears, stopping them cold as they realize the world they’ve entered and how they are at the mercy of the game and yet everything is within their control. I never reached the point of waterlogged eyes, but trust me when I say that if I was not such an emotionally empty shell of a human, I might have wept.

Just a little.

The potency of the game likely has something to do with its brevity. Not even rushing through on my first playthrough, I completed The Unfinished Swan somewhere in the neighborhood of two or three hours. Perhaps that affects the cost proposition for some, but to me, it felt refreshing. It was a game that did what it wanted to do and didn’t water it down to fill some arbitrary temporal mandate, stretched thin with unsatisfying filler that doesn’t fit and throws a kink in the otherwise lovingly crafted rail. After all, no one likes their drugs cut with sugar.

Or water. Or I don’t know what I’m talking about. Come guys, cut me some slack. I’ve never been a drug dealer!

The Unfinished Swan‘s problem might be that it concentrates its doses a bit too strongly. As mentioned by designer Ian Dallas in a post at the PlayStation Blog, the mechanic most widely associated with the game—splattering an entirely white, blank world with black blobs of paint—”is actually just the first 15 minutes.” That, to me, is probably an overstatement of how quickly that section passes, but it is representative of the philosophy of the game’s final design.

Dallas says “things get really weird” after that, and it’s true. You’ll continue on to work with variations on that same splatter mechanic. Well, “variations” probably isn’t the right word. You can see from the PAX trailer that you’ll also shoot blobs of water to guide plant life, but there’s more. You’ll also be bumbling your way through a harrowing nighttime land of scares and then an abstract plane of crafting after falling through a drafting table, each one with its own, very distinct methods of gameplay. I don’t want to get into much more since half the fun of the game is discovering how to use those particular tool sets, but know that Dallas was right about the weird thing.

So you take the two-ish hours required to beat the game and divide it among the four chapters and you’ll get just a little over half an hour per shift in the gameplay, which is a god damn shame. At the end of each bit, I felt like each one could have gone on twice as long. Just as you feel like you understand the depth to which each mechanic could go, the game changes nearly whole cloth and you’re left just the tiniest bit confused. Why did it change? Are we coming back to this? God I hope so.

You never do. “Always leave them wanting more,” I believe is how the saying goes, but The Unfinished Swan leaves you wanting a bit too much. An early example in the monochromatic section is that the paint doesn’t really affect water (or what we’re led to believe is water). It just sort of plops down and sinks in an oddly fascinating way before being gobbled up by a fish or dissipating beneath the surface. It causes a mild revelation that though it is your best (and only) tool in the world, the black paint still can’t reveal everything to you. And then a frog you recently blasted—err, revealed with said paint is gobbled up by some swimming beast, so are there things that are already blackened in this white and eerie tableau? There are so many implications and unexplored nooks and crannies of the black and white world that as soon as you leave it, you’re still left pondering those mysteries.

The most egregious bit is definitely the last section where you fall into that blueprint in the, um, attic(?) of the previous chapter’s world. I don’t want to ruin it for you (though you can see a bit of each section in the Giant Bomb Quick Look, something Patrick should have restrained himself from doing), but an entire game could be built from this mechanic alone. In fact, some have and yet I feel like The Unfinished Swan may have done it the best and still explored the concept the least. About midway through that chapter, the game will brush against what feel like revelatory moments but then just walks away from them to show off even more half-explored experiments.

But it’s saying something when I believe that even in these underutilized moments, The Unfinished Swan exudes so much brilliance and creativity that it brings out a sensation and optimism in the medium within me that is normally reserved for games like Super Mario Galaxy and, well, Super Mario Galaxy 2. The difference is that in SMG and SMG2, those ideas are fleshed out and fully realized. They take those ideas as far as you would like to see them go and even further into territory you didn’t even know existed. The Unfinished Swan instead points you in a direction, shows you a thing, says “wouldn’t that be neat,” and walks off before you get to say “HELL FUCKING YEAH IT WOULD.”

Everything The Unfinished Swan gives you is engrossing. It’s enchanting and all-consuming to a fault. It’s as if the wrapping on a present were the gift itself—and what a gift it is. It is brilliant and shining and something you wish you had created so others could understand the beauty in your mind as you do that of Ian Dallas. Giant floppy bow and all, it inspires you to dream up what is on the inside, how beautiful and life-affecting its contents must be. Too bad you never get to open it. Too bad.

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