I began following The Unfinished Swan very early in it’s development, before Ian Dallas’ one man endeavour into virtual action painting was signed into a three game contract with Sony, launching him, and his team (Giant Sparrow), into indie superstardom. I awaited The Unfinished Swan‘s release like a giddy child, and I’ve had to deal with the disappointment of a game that doesn’t quite live up to expectations, but if we put the flaws of The Unfinished Swan to one side (don’t worry I’m getting to those), we discover a game that is far greater then the sum of it’s parts and a must-play for anyone who considers themselves even mildly interested in gaming as an art form.
‘Monroe’s mother had always been much better at starting things than finishing them’ begins the game. After his mother passes away, Monroe is left with only a single one of her unfinished paintings, the unfinished swan. When he awakes one night to find the swan gone from its frame, he chases it into the blank canvas it inhabits and comes across a legacy obsessed king and his unfinished kingdom; it’s a fairy tale story, revealed in storybook form set to a spritely soundtrack. The childlike aesthetic pierces through every element of the game, it’s never patronizing though but rather emulates the childlike wonder the game evokes in you at every turn.
The Unfinished Swan is a game about getting from A to B. What makes it interesting is the unique and novel ways the game has you travel through, discover and relate to the world in which you navigate. At first, the game has you in a completely white environment where you must cast blobs of black ink to unveil the scenery, but it quickly evolves beyond this.
There’s a palpable sense of childlike wonder as you negotiate the world of The Unfinished Swan. The astonished gasps of Monroe quickly come to mirror your own awe; as you navigate your white canvas world something as simple as turning onto a balcony, from which you can survey the Tate Modern-esque creation you’ve weaved, is breathtaking. It’s probably best to say as little as I can about this particular brand of art, but, suffice to say, these wondrous moments come in many forms throughout the game.
Despite the praise you may find yourself initially lavishing on The Unfinished Swan, if you found the term ‘double edged sword’ in a dictionary a picture of The Unfinished Swan would be a suitable definition. The approach Ian Dallas’ creation takes of reinventing itself at the turn of every corner, swapping between game mechanics as if they were a diversion rather than a core feature, is poorly implemented as unique ideas don’t receive the time and attention that should have been given to their development whilst, on the other hand, certain mechanics that grow tiring quickly far outstay their welcome. It’s an odd contrast to the fascinated awe the game evokes most of the time, which makes it all the more apparent.
Despite this, The Unfinished Swan has moments that touch upon the truly brilliant. The epilogue is a masterpiece that tackles such a fundamental human experience and recasts the child-like play of the game we just played in a stunningly meaningful light. It’s such a shame then that The Unfinished Swan leaves us with that bitter aftertaste of dissatisfaction; like hastily running from one art gallery to the next, the plethora of game mechanics we sample in The Unfinished Swan are too easily brushed of and rushed past. The Unfinished Swan clocks in at around three hours (maybe even less) and we just aren’t given time to truly appreciate the incredible experience the team at Giant Sparrow have crafted, just as they are not given time to truly develop the complexity and depth they are capable of.