Spoilers for The Unfinished Swan
As some of you may know, I am currently playing through The Last of Us. So far, it is an amazing experience, one that is definitely worth your time. The AAA visuals are unmatched and the narrative strikes a chord with the player like very few games do. Yet, that game in inherently bleak, depressing, and dark. As such, I turned to some other games to act as palate cleaners in between my ’bouts with the darkness. It was with that mindset that I finally got around to playing The Unfinished Swan.
The Unfinished Swan came out in October of 2012, made by Giant Sparrow; another developer that had made a three game deal with Sony, much like thatgamecompany; makers of Journey. This was their first big endeavor and it was received to critical acclaim; even garnering some nominations for game of the year from different publications. Though compared to thatgamecompany’s previous efforts, Giant Sparrow’s first game tackled a far different theme, and introduced to a little boy named Monroe.
It was over the weekend that I was introduced to Monroe, his paintbrush, and the unfinished work that is the namesake of the game. It only took me around three hours to complete the tale, but when it was all said and done there was a well earned smile on my face. The Unfinished Swan is a game built around a pretty simple mechanic; the player, as Monroe, is able to use his paintbrush to affect the world around him. In the initial level you use black paint to reveal the world, in another, blue paint to create water. It is pretty easy game to pick up and play; but it is the themes and narrative that really shine and bring out the game’s best qualities.
Monroe is summoned into this world of paint and fantasy by following his mother’s painting of an unfinished swan. Through this very Alice in Wonderland premise, Monroe finds himself in tale that seems to be quite similar to the ones that his mother told him before she died. This secondary story is revealed through storybook panels found throughout the world, told by Monroe’s mother. Revolving around a king that is never happy with his current situation, the tale gives the player a glimpse into the mysterious world that Monroe travels through. It is a picturesque place, reminiscent of Escher paintings and minimilist works that naturally create a sense of childlike wonder. The player is left to affect the world as he or she will, but the less you do, the more magical it seems. You don’t want to sully the environment that you find yourself in; you just want to walk around the world and experience this magical place.
If the game was just those special moments of discovery, it would still be a good game. Yet, underneath the childlike exterior is a story about the loss of a parent, and one child’s way of accepting death and change. To me, and many others, that was where the game became exceptional. You don’t see these sort of narrative concepts discussed often, if at all, in games nowadays. It’s a touching story that resonates with anyone who has a relationship with their father and mother.
By the time Monroe finally meets the King at the end of the game; he and the player have discovered that the King is his father, his deceased mother was the Queen, and he is simply following in his dying father’s footsteps. Out of context, these moments don’t seem like much; but within the scope of the game they tell a story of accepting the reality of your parents’ lives. As children, we all believe that our parents are immortal; that they will be in our lives forever. We see them as kings and queens that rule our lives and the little worlds that we dwell in; yet at some point we have to realize that this can’t be true. Our parents are mortal, they can make mistakes, and will eventually leave this world; hopefully with a positive legacy behind them. Monroe’s journey to the king is the journey to that realization; the journey that we all go through at some point in our lives.
The Unfinished Swan is a game to be experienced. It takes a couple of hours and leaves you with a feeling that warms your heart. The story alone is worth the journey; but even from a gameplay perspective, that fact that you are not interacting with the world through the barrel of a gun is refreshing. If you have the time, $10, and a Playstation 3, you would be remiss to not play this. It was a joy and few games are now.