The Unfinished Swan
Every once in a while, a game comes along that just completely blows away your expectations. When I sat down to play The Unfinished Swan, a PlayStation-exclusive downloadable title, all I knew was that it would be primarily in black and white. Having seen this monochromatic style before in Limbo, I was expecting another 2D platformer steeped in atmosphere. What I got was a complete shock, though certainly not in a bad way.
The Unfinished Swan opens with a book. More correctly, it opens as the book. The first thing you hear is a narrator introducing you to Monroe, a young boy who now lives in an orphanage because his mother - a prolific artist who never finished a single painting - recently passed away. Of the 300 paintings Monroe's mother made, the orphanage would only let him keep one, so he chose his favorite; the unfinished swan. What happens next opens the stage for a short but intensely satisfying adventure. One night, Monroe wakes up to find that the swan is gone from its frame and there is a new door in his room - one he had never seen before. Monroe goes through that door and steps into a completely white space to chase the swan.
Here is where the gameplay begins. All you see around you is white with a small grey circle in the center of the screen. You start pressing buttons because you aren't sure what to do, and you can hear Monroe moving around. It's not until you press one of the PS3's four shoulder buttons that something happens. With a "splat!" a small black ball hits the white wall in front of you splattering paint everywhere. Now you have a frame of reference and can see where you're going. Until that blotch of black paint is off screen. Then you're back in the white space and you have to send out a new paintball.
And so you progress around the level, using your black paint to reveal walls and other objects. At first, you might be tempted to just throw the paint everywhere, but that's not such a good idea. Just as an all-white space won't let you see where one wall ends and another begins, the same is true of all-black. In truth, you learn quickly that The Unfinished Swan is all about balance. Only the contrast between black and white let's you see enough to move forward - until you reach the end of the first level when shadows start to appear, showing those edges that had previously been hidden from you. Still, you have to use your paint balls because that white space returns whenever something is in direct light.
Now, The Unfinished Swan consists of four chapters, and each is broken down into multiple parts. As you progress from chapter to chapter, the world around you is given more form. First shadows, then muted colors, which are quickly followed by more vibrant colors, and so on. Also changing with each new chapter is the way in which you use your paint balls. In the second chapter, the black paint is replaced with water. The water is useful in two ways; you can use it in black spaces the same as you used the black on white and later on, it allows you to grow vines so you can climb walls and cross large gaps.
The third chapter takes place at night, so it's not readily evident what your paint can do here since it doesn't show against the black like water did. Instead, you have to use it to hit glowing orbs so they can light the area. Towards the end, though, the truth of what your paint can do in chapter three is shown when you step into a large blue portal. Here you will find blue sections of the floor or walls that you can use your paint on the create platforms that are still there once you leave the blue space.
The fourth chapter is much as you might suspect - a culmination of everything you've learned while playing and a closure to the story. Now, some people might complete The Unfinished Swan having not seen a lick of the story beyond what is shown by the narrator between levels. To these people, the ending might seem a little out of place and everything that happened during the game could come off as some little orphan boy's dream during the night. You see, through out each level are scattered golden letters. When splashed with paint, these letters reveal pages of the book which is the game and the narrator's voice comes on to read them to you, allowing you to learn more about the world of The Unfinished Swan.
What you learn from these pages does nothing to invalidate the interpretation of the ending to mean it was all just a dream, but it does make you think that maybe - just maybe - it wasn't a dream after all. And that's part of the majesty of The Unfinished Swan. All of a sudden, the story of an orphan who misses his mom takes on a whole new meaning. You realize that Monroe hasn't been chasing the titular swan; it's been leading him! What it's leading him towards, I won't spoil, although I will say that The Unfinished Swan closes in what is probably the most satisfying way I think I've ever seen a game end. Monroe takes up his paintbrush and does what his mother could never do. He finishes The Unfinished Swan.
Game: The Unfinished Swan
Developer/Publisher: Giant Sparrow, Sony Computer Entertainment
Genre: FPS, Adventure, Platformer
Release Date: October 23, 2012
Reviewer: Michael "candle" Mazzaferri
I was on the fence about buying this game. After watching your video I think I will have to pick it up and try it out.