Exploring Nothingness in The Unfinished Swan

Sony trades sandy for sterile in its latest downloadable game, The Unfinished Swan.


The Unfinished Swan

Highlight the page below to explore our first look at Sony's latest downloadable art game.

Close your eyes and look around. Go on, we'll wait. Now open them. Dark, wasn't it? No matter which direction you looked, everything was uniformly blank. Game developers often use plain environments when designing level layouts and spaces. But what would happen if instead of adding detail, you stood in a world lacking texture or depth? A single, flat colour appears to stretch endlessly in every direction, but could be no more than a few feet in front of your face. There's no way to discern distance, so perhaps you're teetering on the edge of a huge fall, or standing at the base of a looming tower. Welcome to the world of The Unfinished Swan, Sony's latest foray into arthouse games, and a former, student project the publisher hopes to turn into its next big downloadable hit.

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But what is this place, and how did we end up here? Forgive us if we go a little light on the details, but because The Unfinished Swan, like Journey before it, is a game designed around player exploration, we don't want to spoil any of the surprises. You play as Monroe, a child left alone after his mother passes away. Her lifelong passion was art, and, while she loved to paint, she didn't ever finish any of her works, amassing some 300 paintings left in various states of completion. Monroe is given the choice of taking just one of the works with him when he's sent to an orphanage, and he chooses the namesake Unfinished Swan.

We were dropped into a sterile white space. Creative director Ian Dallas explained that many of the studio's play testers stood around, waiting for something to happen or wondering if this was still a loading screen. There were no crosshairs to aim, no visible character attributes to gauge our proportions, and no clear objective. A chime sounded, and, like Pavlov's dog, we sprung into action, invited to interact with the place around us. The game is playable either with the standard first-person shooter dual analog sticks or using the PlayStation Move wand. Trigger presses fling out globs of viscous black paint--and it was only once our guide began to liberally dose it out that we saw the space take form around us.

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Our first thought was of Michelangelo's David, a complete "something" lurking within an abstract "nothing," waiting to be revealed one splash at a time. But, while painting is a means to an end, it's not the primary aim. Paint acts as the conduit to drive exploration, rather than pushing you to cover every inch of it in an opposing shade. It's the stark tonal difference between the black and white that provides definition; were you to simply cover everything with as much paint as possible, you'd end up where you began, just in a different colour.

Walls rose up as we splattered and sprayed the paint; the revealed width and height of the place drew our path, propelling us forward along the corridor. We discovered a bench, tall, swaying trees, a frog, and a pond. Not everything in this mysterious world was friendly, however, and we watched as the frog hopped into the water--only to be consumed by a breaching sea monster. It's an odd sensation, paralysed by not knowing if the step ahead leads to a gruesome end or the next obstacle to be faced. But something compels you to push on.

This is a bleak and sanitary world, so the orange footprints of the swan we chased or a simple yellow shape hovering in the air would let us know we were on the right track. It's as close as we got to a compass or checkpoint, and, by painting, we discovered huge sculptures, created by the creator of the world we were investigating.

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This is the king's place, a dreamscape manifestation of his own frame of mind, and one that we were told will adapt to reflect his own evolution as a character over the course of the game. Some of his favourite things were there: a unicorn, a hippo, and a giant piece of bacon--which was a tad macabre when it was so closely placed near a bust of a happy-looking pig. Perhaps it was an ominous warning of what was to come?

Pathways twisted and turned; vast, palatial walls and staircases rose out of the nothing in front of our eyes; and long, sweeping walking tracks gave way to narrow scaffolding catwalks. We stopped periodically to admire our own handiwork from a position of elevation, as a trail of painted mess stretched out behind and below us. This isn't your typical downloadable title, but it does share some common game features with its contemporaries. There are items to collect, such as hidden balloons and narrated storybook pages that fill you in on what's happening around you. Some were left in plain sight (as plain as white objects in a white world can be), while others were hidden behind false walls, which could be knocked over with precision-placed paint.

Levels are quite short, and our demo ended as we tracked down our living, moving swan. As we stepped towards it, we dropped into a pit, with the scene fading to black--but this was only the start of the adventure. With so much of this game hinging upon discovery, the development team is wary of leading players, sharing too much, or setting up any expectations. Ian Dallas explained that it will be the same sort of length as Journey and that the team is committed to keeping the experience impactful through its brevity. The sorts of experiences gamers want and what they're willing to pay are moving targets, but we're interested in The Unfinished Swan's concept and eager to see how this exploratory escapade plays out. Look for it later this year, exclusively on the PlayStation 3.

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