Eyes-on: Unfinished Swan
A game that's best played when knowing nothing about it? Yeah, we can get a 900-word feature out of that ...oh, er, spoilers within!
Chris Leggett | Thursday, May 03 2012
Test Platform: PS3
Developer: Giant Sparrow; Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
Writing about Unfinished Swan presents a dilemma: to explain even the premise of its gameplay constitutes a spoiler, as does its crucial first scene. They're not necessarily major, unforgivable spoilers. But the ideal way to experience Unfinished Swan is to know nothing about it when you first fire it up.
For those who wish to experience Unfinished Swan at it's 100% pure, unspoiled best, stop reading after this paragraph and know only that it's a creative and artistically unusual game in the vein of such alternative PSN hits as Journey and Flower. And perhaps let your knowledge of those games dictate your decision to purchase and play.
For those who must know at least something about the premise of this game before investing, read on.
Unfinished Swan is the tale of an orphan whose orphanage allowed him to keep only one of the 300-plus unfinished paintings that his late mother had left behind. He decides to keep her personal favourite, the Unfinished Swan. But one day, the orphan awakens to find that the painting is missing.
After a brief introduction outlining this story, the screen fades to nothing but a bright white. And then nothing happens. "Usually it takes players about five seconds or so of waiting around for something to happen to get nervous enough that they begin to start pressing buttons," explains creative director at Giant Sparrow, Ian Dallas. "And then, out of desperation, they finally start pressing the triggers, and then they throw a black paintball."
The paintball fires from the centre of the screen, bursting and sending black paint splattering over otherwise invisible objects in an all-white environment. Only at this point does the player get their first hints about the nature of Unfinished Swan. From a first-person perspective, the splashes of paint from the paintballs lobbed by the player begin to reveal a 3D environment, albeit in black and white only.
It all begins in a rather simple room in order to give the player a chance to come to terms with what is taking place. But it's not long before the environments become more detailed. Dallas elaborates on this further during a live gameplay demonstration.
"So now we're layering in some grasses and some bird sounds and a bench, which is kind of a big deal for some players, where you go from kinda, abstract, like, 'Who knows where you are? You could be on the moon' to suddenly, 'OK, I'm in a place where, some time in history, sitting has occurred.'"
It seems, then, that Unfinished Swan is a game about discovery and exploration, and that being kept in the dark, so to speak, is a crucial part of the game's appeal.
"Our goal is to inspire curiosity on the part of the player, and one of the best ways to do that is to not tell them anything," says Dallas.
Nothing is signposted for the player - not in traditional ways, anyway. There are no icons or objective markers that advise the player where to heador even what their objective is. But this is all revealed, eventually, in subtle ways. Faint squawking heard in the distance is the first clue, and as the player heads toward it, painting the environment all the while, things slowly unfold. But it's not just a simple case of blindly feeling your way through a mysterious environment.
"We're trying to create a little bit of danger," continues Dallas. "We found that players, even when the game was just a simple demo in a black-and-white space, there was an innate sense of fear that comes along with a game that inspires curiosity. If we're doing our jobs right and you don't really know what's out there, there's a part of the player that thinks, 'is there something that's going to eat me?' And in this game, definitely, there are things that will eat you. It's not meant to be a particularly brutal game, but we wanted to layer in enough danger to the game that players never entirely let their guard down."
Players will encounter other objects as they progress, such as coloured balloons that act as collectibles, freed from their binds with a well placed paintball. There are also the occasional golden objects that, among other things, indicate to players that they might just be on the right track. "We found that when the world was entirely black and white, there wasn't quite enough variety - that players started to get fatigued by only seeing black and white," continues Dallas.
The intentionally minimal back story is fleshed out as the player uncovers pages scattered around the game world, with a plot revolving around a character known only as "The King".
"We found that a lot of players really wanted to know at least some detail - that there's a level of minimalism that was just frustrating to people," explains Dallas. "The King is the guy who created all of this space. There's a little bit of exploration into the King's life. And each of these areas is, sort of, a moment in the King's history and you're following the King's path. Eventually the player will see the King as an older man and see the kinds of things that the King's building change."
But if the magic of that opening scene and the premise has been spoilt by simply reading about the game, know that Giant Sparrow has plenty more surprises in store. We're still very much in the dark with this one.
Unfinished Swan will release exclusively on the PlayStation Network. A release date has not yet been set.
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