Morgan Webb was on hand at San Diego Comic-Con to moderate panel for The Unfinished Swan, bringing together creative director Ian Dallas, level designer Ben Esposito, art director Hokyo Lim, and producer Max Geiger to talk about their upcoming "first person painter" game that will be released sometime later this year on PlayStation Network.
It was interesting to learn that Ian Dallas has a background as a comedy writer, having worked at The Onion and on Drawn Together, especially since The Unfinished Swan feels much more like an introspective art game like Flower or Journey. It was almost as surprising to learn that Ben Esposito was a poet, as it sounded like a joke, but he actually went to college for that. Now he's channeling iambic pentameter into artistic levels.
The panel itself was mostly focused on the artwork in the game, which is the mechanic by which players find their way through the game. At first that involves throwing splats of black paint in a completely white room, which is something you'll have to figure out on your own. During some of the playtests, they noticed that players would sit there for five minutes waiting for the game to tell them what to do.
According to Espositio, "It will never tell you what to do. People would eventually become frustrated and start throwing paintballs, which is exactly what we want them do to." There are more gameplay mechanics (and color) as you progress through the game.
Although the game features solid rooms that are revealed with paint and lots of silhouettes, meaning that artists don't have to worry about textures, Dallas said that the design is actually harder, because you have to focus on exactly what the players will be seeing. "You have to think about it in a much more abstract way," he said. Through the use of perspective and "weenies" (to use a game design term) that draw your eye to important locations and make you figure out how to get there.
To illustrate that point, they showed off part of the first area in the game, which is a natural and austere garden, and the second part of the game which is an "unfinished empire that the king has been building," complete with shading and colors.
As far as the name The Unfinished Swan goes, that comes from the fact that the boy you play in the game, Monroe, has chased a swan into a painting. Shades of Narnia, eh? This is also reflected in the game itself, which often resembles an unfinished painting. Art director Hokyo Lim has spent a lot of time perfecting the look of the art in the game, ranging from creating the right paint splats, "So many of them just looked fake," to some of the design that was inspired by concept artwork for Disney's 101 Dalmatians.
He also has a background in pottery, which has resulted in tons of pots appearing in the game. According to Esposito, "We didn't know about this fixation when we hired Hokyo, but it has even worked its way into the game as you encounter a character who is a potter."
Lim also uses color for different reasons in the game, with gold representing things that the king has created, and sky blue as a comforting and nurturing color. Apparently the king has a magic paintbrush, and he has used it throughout the game. Each different level of the game features a unique design, which have been created over "months and years of iteration." Which means time to check out what works and what doesn't, like clouds for instance.
Initially, there were clouds in the skies in the game, but according to Dallas, it looked too unnatural. Now the game uses blank white skies, which "felt more like our world." They cited Shel Silverstein's artwork as an influence, but have found that it has been difficult to render that in 3D.
As Morgan pointed out, basing a game on artwork and revealing it through paint splats is interesting, "But how do you make sure there's a game there?" That's the biggest challenge facing the development team, and Dallas remarked, "Everyone under the age of nine wants to splat everything. It's really sad for our programmers. Right now the game gets slower the more you splat, and we're working on that. We thought, 'No one would sit here and splat everything with paint', and we were wrong."
The Unfinished Swan has come a long way since being a grad student project, but they still have work to do. According to producer Max Geiger, "It's a great honor to be mentioned in the same sentence as games like Journey, but players and gameplay, that's number one for us right now." Currently, the team has plans to finish this Swan and have it out later in 2012. We look forward to splatting everything in the game as soon as possible.