The Unfinished Swan Preview -- A Stunning Adventure in the MakingBy Rob Manuel - Posted May 02, 2012
Starting out with nothing, The Unfinished Swan lets you explore a mysterious world one paint splatter at a time. Four years after showing the game at IGF and Sense of Wonder Night in Tokyo, the game’s creator, and now creative director of Giant Sparrow, Ian Dallas, sat across from me in a small office in the Sony Santa Monica Studios.
And we began, as you may guess, with a blank screen.
“Most people just sit here for awhile. They think something’s wrong with the game. They move around, and they can hear the footsteps. Like something’s going on,” Ian begins. “And then…”
A clump of black paint smacks against the now visible wall. Little by little with every clod of black goo, the world forms around you to reveal walls, pathways, and finally, bits and pieces of the world coming to life around you. There’s a clump of grass. A cart comes into being with every dark splotch. Exploration here is an active pursuit. To find where you want to go, the player leaves a mark and with every mark, a new bit of the story unfolds for you.
We turn a corner in the game after a short climb to see the trail of black ink showing where we’ve been. Like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal in digital form, you cannot observe with out interacting with the environment. Bits of paint open gates and blow through walls that were once standing. Observation not only directs you where to go, but actively changes the world around you.
But even on a blank canvas, a story gives us the context we need to find the goal. This story starts with a death. Monro finds himself alone in the world after losing his mother after a sudden illness. His only memory of her lies in the half finished painting of a swan. After one day finding the foul missing, he follows the yellow footprints into a blank world.
Ian gave only a little info on the new world laid out before us. Towards the middle of the demo, we find the central figure of this blank world, the king. With the occasional webbed footprint to guide us, the story of the world itself focuses on the king and the choices he made. With every splatter, the world reveals a new clue, a new twist in the story, and at times, a new danger.
After finding a frog beside the lake, we watch as he hops off into the formless water only to be swallowed by a dark creature in the distance. Ian points out that a little danger is necessary to keep players on their toes and focused on the road ahead.
The minimalist sounds in the environment from your lonely steps walking over the dirt roads to the distant sounds of a bird somewhere in an unseen tree guides you just as much as the visual cues. Ian points out that the team used to be able to coast through the original title on audio the alone. With visuals being sparse, the player needs to use all of their sense in order to find their way through this world.
The demo continued with bits of gold popping up here and there in the world. A couple of gold feet turned out to be attached to a weather vein. A loop of gold hanging in the air turned out to belong to a statue of a pig, which happened to be conveniently next to a statue of bacon. Some people dedicate statues to heroes. This king honored his breakfast in stone.
Paint over a golden letter and a bit of the story unfolds in front of you like that of a storybook. We see again the fairytale influence seep through. And as we end the demo, falling through a hole in the world, we catch a glimpse of the unfinished swan waddling away in the distance.
With only four chapters, there’s plenty to explore in just the first third of the first chapter I witnessed in that room in Santa Monica. At the end of it, Ian said that after this point in the game everything would change. Some sections will require you to paint the world while other sections let you see for miles around you.
Much like the game, Ian’s journey from lone developer to suddenly a part of a group of dozen others working along side him took many twists and turns. Even the game often needed to explore its own space in order to find its voice. From potential horror title to something a little more dramatic, Ian finally found the true spirit of The Unfinished Swan in what it does best, exploration.
After a long a long journey for Ian, the team at Giant Sparrow, and a swan with no neck, we’ll finally get to finish this adventure when The Unfinished Swan hits the PSN sometime in 2012.