Ian Dallas crafts a beautiful interactive storybook in his PlayStation 3 exclusive first-person puzzler, The Unfinished Swan.
- A playable children's storybook
- Beautifully designed world
- Strong writing offers lots of food for thought
- Bits of story development presented as in-game collectibles
- Price vs. length will be a sticking point for some
Remember Goodnight Moon? Where the Wild Things Are? Anything written by Shel Silverstein, ever? Stories such as these form the foundations for many a childhood, opening young people's eyes to imaginary worlds and ideas that help keep them sane as they learn the real truths of living in this crazy world.
Ian Dallas takes a crack at offering a similar sort of experience in the interactive space in The Unfinished Swan, a PlayStation 3 exclusive that is easily categorized as a "first-person puzzler" but which is much harder to actually define. It's more of an interactive storybook than anything else, a Where the Wild Things Are sort of tale with FPS controls. It's unlike any other game I've ever encountered. I couldn't help but wonder as I played what it would have been like to have an experience like this as a childhood bedtime story.
Stepping Into The Storybook
The allegorical story follows a young boy named Monroe, who ends up in an orphanage following the death of his mother. Monroe's mom was an avid painter, though she also had a terrible habit of never finishing what she started. Forced to pick just one painting to hang onto at the orphanage from among her hundreds, Monroe selects his favorite: an unfinished portrait of a swan.
The intro reveals that Monroe awakens one night at the orphanage to see that the swan is gone and the painting is now empty. He sets off in pursuit of the missing bird, stepping inside of the blank canvas and find himself in a stark-white world. This is where The Unfinished Swan's play begins, with nothing more than a circular crosshair on the white background to guide you as you chuck blobs of paint all over, slowing filling in the bits of the world around you.
The first chapter proceeds like this, introducing trickier, more cluttered environments and less obvious paths to follow. Each new chapter tweaks the gameplay to some extent. At one point, you're tossing water bubbles around to trigger a climbable vines growth. Later, you'll create actual three-dimensional objects in mid-air, using them as platforms to reach inaccessible locations.
While the challenge does ramp up over time, it's a gentle slope in The Unfinished Swan. Just like the best bedtime stories, you won't hand this off to a small child. Instead, you'll sit together and share in the experience. Monroe's touching adventure is the explicit focus, but the writing ventures into more cerebral territory as it ruminates on the nature of imagination, childlike wonder, and growing up. It's the sort of narrative that people interpret and write papers on.
Drawing Outside The Lines
I find it very difficult to analyze The Unfinished Swan from the mindset of a game critic. There is a game to play here, of course, but -- turning back to my original comparison -- it's like trying to apply a critical eye to a work like Goodnight Moon. You don't praise what works and pan what doesn't; you simply let it wash over you and then speak to how it made you feel.
The Unfinished Swan is similarly experiential. There's no real challenge here if you're a regular gamer. Maybe you'll find yourself stuck on occasion for moments at a time, but it's mostly just very basic problem-solving. It's the sort of play that a child could handle and learn from, and I can't fault the game for that.
I can, on the other hand, take issue with a sizable flaw in the overall design. As you explore the world of The Unfinished Swan, you'll occasionally come across a yellow letter stamped on a wall or some other surface. Throw a blob of whatever you're carrying at these letters and you'll reveal some text and an illustration, seemingly pulled right out of a physical storybook.
While the idea is certainly neat, positioning these bits of story as "collectibles" feels like a bad play to me. The Unfinished Swan is very much an interactive storybook, and the idea of potentially missing out on pieces of the plot simply because you don't see one of the letters runs counter to that.
Collectible balloons and the unlockable items you can purchase with them provide all the justification you might need to fully explore each environment, so it's a shame to see story lumped into that same category. It doesn't break the spell that The Unfinished Swan casts, but it does diminish the whole somewhat when you realize what you might be missing.
The Finished Swan
In case it's not clear, I loved The Unfinished Swan. It's the sort of experience that requires us to further refine the definition of the term "video game." While there are certainly elements of play here, I don't think that Swan qualifies as such. Instead, it slides in along the likes of Goodnight Moon and the Shel Silverstein library as the latest modern classic in the realm of children's fiction.