A blank canvas is such a wonderful thing. A world of potential, waiting to be created. The opening screen of The Unfinished Swan is purest white, waiting to be spoilt by balloons filled with darkest black ink thrown from our messy hands. Without shadows or colour walls become vistas and floors become holes, there is no definition, yet as these dirty splashes of ink drip across this canvas a new world awakens. A world of mystery, magic and naivety waiting to be explored. However this is just the first page of our story.
The Unfinished Swan is presented as a children’s book and that may best summarise the experience of playing. As you wander around this blank world in first person, through the eyes of an innocent child, you spray ink everywhere in the hope of hunting down the ever elusive titular swan. This first chapter is perhaps one of the most refreshing and enchanting experiences to be found in gaming. It is impossible to avoid childish giggles as you gleefully spray paint everywhere, like splashing in muddy puddles, watching this white world come to life. Maybe you will spill ink on a previously invisible toad, who then disappears into a pond only to be munched by mysterious monsters hidden under the white water. Perhaps some ink will land on a statue, twenty foot tall of a hippo with a gold nose ring. There is magic hidden behind the white canvas, and staring back across the world you have unveiled will force a huge cheshire cat-like grin upon your face.
Dotted around this invisible environment are pages of the story waiting to be uncovered. Narrated like a soothing bedtime story, these words unveil the background to this strange world. A king, with the power to create with his brush, yet obsessed with the beauty of pure white. Each page unveils a new perspective on the world being explored, creating a wonderful synergy between the plot and the evolving world before you. Stepping into the world of the The Unfinished Swan is rather like discovering a playable version of a Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl or Quentin Blake novel.
Sadly, as goes the adage, all good things must come to an end, and the wonderfully unique style of the first chapter disappears as the game progresses and the momentum of the game falters. By the second chapter our child is aging and the world he explores is already fully realised, his inky stained hands replaced with water balloons that leave no trace on the environment. This world is still intriguing and infused with childish magic, but the wonderful creative element is replaced with something dangerously akin to ‘my first Portal’ - a first-person puzzler for children.
These puzzles, such as spinning switches to rotate bridges, are understandably simple considering the more childish target audience, but their presence breaks the enchanting mood of the world and simply frustrate rather than inspire. There is a feeling that developers Giant Sparrow believed their enchanting world was not interesting enough to simply explore, and that it needed some gaming elements to justify its position on a console, yet their existence often feels over-indulgent, clumsy and unnecessary.
As we delve further into this world it takes on a more mature theme. Scary monsters with threatening red eyes hide in the dark, and this gloom must be lit up to stay alive, rather like certain sections from platform-puzzler Limbo but played in first-person. The beaming smiles of the first chapter are replaced with fearful frowns and while death is a matter of reappearing a few feet back, one cannot help but feel the jarring juxtaposition between these feelings and those found earlier. Perhaps more bizarre and unwieldy is the final area where inexplicably the player gains the ability to summon blocks - rather like the PC indie hit Q.U.B.E but heavily watered down. It is as if several games have accidentally merged into the same world and not one understands any other.
It cannot be denied that The Unfinished Swan is superbly produced in a way that only the assistance of major players such as Sony can provide. When the world is finally painted into place it is stunningly surreal and wonderfully childlike, with vistas displaying massive labyrinths and towers climbing to the heavens. The music is joyously bouncy, rising out of silence to emphasise dramatic changes in scenery or style, driving you onwards to explore. Although arguably it does not have the depth that music in games of a similar ilk (such as the soundtrack to Dear Esther) have managed recently, it still wonderfully encompasses the childlike feeling of the game. This sense of innocence and playfulness is also transferred to the controls in the form of the Playstation Move, where moving the wand around controls the movements on screen. It has no real effect on gameplay but does provide a novel and childish way of controlling.
Despite all the evolutions of style and substance, The Unfinished Swan is still a rather short experience with most run throughs amounting to barely three hours but this feels like a sensible length which fortunately does not outstay its welcome. The game is slightly elongated by the presence of hidden collectable balloons that can be set free to float off into the ether. These balloon tokens can then be spent on unlocking toys which offer the player some entertaining extra abilities, such as the ability to freeze time so that hundreds of inky pellets can be unleashed in one torrent, splattering across the world. None change the gameplay particularly but they do add an extra level of joy and hilarity to proceedings.
If the The Unfinished Swan is a coming of age story, then I wish we could hold on to our innocence, forever wandering through its magical white kingdom. Sadly, as we all know, growing up is inevitable and unfortunately the The Unfinished Swan does not take ageing well. The later stages of the game feel rather ironically incomplete and confused, as if the bright sparks of the early game faded into darkness during development. Unlike its other artistic compatriots on the Playstation, namely ThatGameCompany’s Journey or perhaps more relevant Flower, it fails to maintain the emotions throughout the entire experience, leaving us with a rather muted feeling at the end. All that being said, The Unfinished Swan needs to be played by anyone interested in the evolution of art in gaming, purely for the joyous bundle of excitement and magic found in the first chapter. This section alone is a testament to how wonderfully gaming has evolved into its own magical poetic art style, particularly this decade, but it is a shame it fails to maintain these ideas throughout the experience.
A world unveiled by splats of ink