The Unfinished Swan is an odd duck. Last week at a Sony press event, I attended a demo of the game's first level conducted by developer Giant Sparrow. What I saw was very intriguing, but left a number of questions unanswered.
The Unfinished Swan has actually been in development since 2008, then accepted into the 2009 Independent Games Festival. Since then, it has been protected by the gossamer wings of secrecy. The demo marked my first real look at the game, and based on what I saw, I'm cautiously optimistic that it will turn out well.
The game tells the story of recently-orphaned boy by the name of Monroe. His mother was a creative and artistic soul, but also had a tendency to leave her work unfinished. Upon her death, the orphanage allowed her son to keep one of her three hundred unfinished canvasses, and Monroe settled on his mother's favorite work called (you guessed it!) The Unfinished Swan. One night, the Swan disappears, and Monroe embarks on a surreal journey to find it.
The demo showcased the game's first level, a sort of first-person exploration game that begins in a completely white world. Lobbing black globs of paint around the environment reveals the world's surrounding geometry, and layered ambient sound helps provide clues about the nature of the player's surroundings.
The opening level is clearly about discovery. Though its core objective is for the player to find the stage's exit, by exploring, the player can discover new information about this odd, surreal world. Embellishment about the narrative was minimal--as one would expect in a game where discovery is the primary focus--but the developers did drop some hints. Apparently, each of the game's levels are representative of the life and times of an enigmatic King, and Monroe uncovers more clues as the game unfolds. Optional bits of story found along the main path will also help flesh out the overall narrative. For example, I was told that the opening level of the game is reflective of the King's "Salvador Dali period" in which he was prone to creating impractical architecture. Statues were revealed in a garden-like area of the map, which also provided insight into the King's likes, dislikes, and personality. A giant statue of bacon on a fork indicated to me that the King, at the very least, had good taste.
A lightly twisting path to the first level's exit was uncovered, ending atop a hillside that overlooked where the player had been. Looking down at the blackened path was like looking down at a timeline of the brief adventure. It was hard not to reminisce over the fifteen minute walk one had just taken.
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A few more steps and a glimpse of the Swan later, the demo concluded. Were paintball-based exploration all the game had to offer, I'd be a little worried. While interesting for a while, it doesn't seem like a mechanic that could reasonably support a full-length experience. I was naturally pleased to find out that each level of The Unfinished Swan will contain different art-styles and gameplay mechanics.
It's understandable that Giant Sparrow is being tight-beaked about what comes next. Afterall, what fun is an exploration game if you already know what to expect? The Unfinished Swan has piqued my interest, and I look forward to seeing a different level of the game at E3 next month.