One of the most interesting challenges for indie developers at this point in the console cycle has been to entice players with interesting graphics on increasingly outdated machines, while working on a budget. We’ve seen some fantastic examples of visual design over the last few years, as well as quite a few redundant, derivative titles landing on our download services. The Unfinished Swan has proven, yet again, that we still have the capacity to be surprised by an art style, which is good because the art style is absolutely essential to this game’s success.
You are, in a way, an artist in The Unfinished Swan, the game world your initially-blank canvas. The opening section is pure white; a simple tap of any of the triggers sends a black splodge of paint out into the world, defining the walls and objects surrounding you. Your simple goal in these early levels is to simply navigate, filling in a world that gradually unfolds with more definition as you go on. Giant statues are painted in, stair cases become visible, doors are differentiated from walls – it’s an extremely unique, beautiful experience. Turning around and looking upon what you’ve created is stunning, and the hidden world you uncover is an extremely interesting one.
If The Unfinished Swan had continued this conceit forever, it either would have gotten dull eventually or made the game a pretty serious Game of the Year contender, it’s hard to say. Unfortunately, the game’s opening half hour or so (this is but a two hour adventure) is easily its most interesting and most inventive. That’s not to say that the three sections that follow aren’t great in their own ways, though; the art style evolves as you go, plateauing anew with each new section, making the game world a joy to explore and visit.
The second part of the game – the longest part – replaces your black paint with water, which is mostly used to direct vines through an environment so that you can climb up and over them. It’s more thrilling as a visual effect than it is as a gameplay mechanic, but watching your vines snake all over everything is continually exhilarating. The third and fourth parts skip back and forth between intermittently boring and cool ideas, utilising a lot of harsh blacks and glowing primary bulbs to create sections that are occasionally pedestrian, but also frequently gorgeous. It’s also in these final sections that The Unfinished Swan get the most unnecessarily gamey, introducing a few out of place nasties and some extremely light puzzle-solving, but they’re over very fast.
Like Dear Esther earlier this year, The Unfinished Swan is more like an interesting walk than a grand adventure, one in which you’ll be privy to some glorious landscapes and a charming, odd narrative, one designed to be questioned and examined. The story of young Maxwell, who is pursuing an unfinished swan who has escaped from the canvas of his beloved dead mother, is one of subtle Freudian psychodrama (as much as Freud can be applied to pretty much anything, the imagery and narration are faintly evocative of some fairly basic, crude old theories of his) and delightful whimsy. As with so many indie games featuring young children, it’s in part about ways in which the worlds of children and adults are separated and connected, and although you’d be hard pressed to argue that the game is making any sort of profound point about any of this trying to unravel it all in your head is a game unto itself.
The Unfinished Swan is entirely satisfied with being extremely interesting and lovely, rather than being the sort of larger, more crucial experience it occasionally seems like it might turn into. Its greatest ambitions are met with just enough enthusiasm and creativity to assure a fantastic experience, though, one worth pondering on just as much as it’s worth playing.