The Unfinished Swan: a few beautiful moments and ideas that fall short of a satisfying PSN game
The Unfinished Swan begins with a child trying to find a painting that was left unfinished by his mother, who has passed away. He finds himself in a land of pure white, with the ability to splash ink on his surroundings to reveal the environment. The first moments of the game are filled with a sense of wonder and discovery, and the ability to learn so much about the objects around you with so little visual information is quite the trick. This is a gimmick that could have sustained an entire game, but unfortunately The Unfinished Swan leaves the rails as more mechanics are introduced.
The game is split into four chapters, and each one introduces a new mechanic. Some of them make little sense, or don’t lead to meaningful interactions with your environments. Others are brilliant and are simply thrown away before they’re allowed to blossom into a full-fledged levels. There are many good ideas at play here, and a few bad ones, and it feels like the team at Giant Sparrow needed an editor to separate what needed to be left on the drawing room floor and which should be given more time and care. Ideas are introduced to the player and then thrown away before they have the chance to make much of an impression.
There are a few moments, here and there, where the wonder of the game’s opening moments is repeated, but the overall story arc fails to connect in a meaningful way. I don’t mind short games, and I don’t mind games that offer more of a story than a game play challenge, but I do expect to walk away from that sort of narrative experience with a feeling of satisfaction. Unfinished Swan left me frustrated at the lack of development for many of the mechanics, and that feeling was mixed with disappointment at the story’s resolution. There were many questions left unanswered, and many disturbing things hinted at throughout the game and, again, these narrative issues aren’t explored in a satisfactory way.
I’ve been working the game’s story over in my head since I’ve finished it, and I’m still unclear about what it’s trying to say. The little boy, Monroe, states he also feels unfinished in the opening scenes, and his journey does seem to argue for the rewards of creation, but his one moment to sit down with the architect of the world doesn’t offer much in the way of catharsis or revelation. It’s hard to talk about this aspect of the game while still avoiding spoilers, but I felt contempt for a certain character through most of the game, and then near the end that character was treated with much more care and empathy than expected. It felt apologetic, although that kindness didn’t feel earned by anything in the game.
I hope the team at Giant Sparrow continues to make games, because there are parts of The Unfinished Swan that are proudly experimental and brave. The many pieces don’t come together to create a satisfying whole, and that’s a disappointing result from a game that had so much promise. This isn’t a failure as much as it’s a near miss, and hopefully a learning experience.
The Unfinished Swan will be released on October 23 on the PlayStation Network for $15, and PlayStation Plus subscribers can buy it on October 16.