The Unfinished Swan review
“He chose the Unfinished Swan that had always been his mother’s favourite”
The Unfinished Swan is one of those titles you can confidently push in critics faces when they scoff that video games are not art, it is quite simply a beautiful and staggeringly imaginative experience that any PlayStation player should check out.
It begins when a warmly-voiced female narrator recalls the tale of a young orphan boy named Monroe whose mother had just passed away; his only memento being his mother’s favourite painting, that of an unfinished swan. Seemingly overwhelmed by grief and loneliness, Monroe leaps into the blank canvas of the painting in an effort to finish his mother’s creation.
Then something extraordinary happens, you’re left with nothing on your screen, a completely white canvas with a tiny reticule in the middle reminding you that this actually is in-game. This stark, featureless landscape can prove somewhat disorientating in its nature, helpfully Monroe has an inventory of unlimited paint to help guide himself through this fantasy world. Hit one of the triggers or use the touchpad and you fling a black paint blob in the direction you’re facing, giving definition to a world that has none. Walls and objects only take shape once you’ve smothered them in paint, little by little you’ll fumble your way down paths before reaching more discernible higher ground. It is from viewpoints such as these will you be able to effectively reflect on your progress, after your entire journey is highlighted using the trail of black splatters you’ve left behind.
It’s a genius opening sequence and one that so effortlessly unleashes the potential of the concept itself, it’s here where the exhilarating feeling of giving shape to nothingness is most elegantly demonstrated. Moreover, the developer challenges the player’s artistry and curiosity, for instance will you fire paint in an ordered manner, traversing the landscape as quickly as possible? Or will you go crazy with child-like enthusiasm, firing paint at every wall and object? The strength of the art direction allows such a playground to flourish.
This deep creativity extends to the other stages too; each chapter is extremely diverse both thematically and mechanically, for example the first chapter conveys a sensation of blindness and isolation, but the following stages asks the player to restore life to the landscape through watering plants, giving the player a somewhat ‘god-like’ stature. Each environment seamlessly connects to the next, chapter titles appear on screen without pause, resulting in the game attaining a gentle fluidity.
The Unfinished Swan’s narrative meanwhile is structured much the way of a child’s storybook with cutely drawn cut-scenes and a warm motherly-like figure on narration. This style is mirrored in other aspects of the game such as the collectable ‘pages’ that are hidden in the environment, each acting as a passage of text, shedding light on the story as you progress. But the basic outline of the story is that an eccentric monarch constructed his kingdom all in white, following an exodus from the disapproving inhabitants, the kingdom lies abandoned and the king is nowhere to be found. It’s a nice tale with a lovely twist right at the end, although clearly angled for a younger audience; it nevertheless tackles some poignant themes albeit quite delicately.
Presentation-wise, The Unfinished Swan is absolutely breathtaking, the art style never ceases to wow despite how empty the world may be perceived to be. This emptiness however gives it an unmistakeable purity; every edge in the environment is meticulously sharp and clean. Furthermore, as you progress the colour palette for the environments becomes more vivid, such as the flickering purple lights in the forest, contrasted against the rolling darkness of the inky black sky. Highlighted paths are subtly highlighted through golden footsteps from the swan and the developers must be commended for the overall execution of their artistic vision, it’s never confusing for the player over where to go, sure you’ll fumble into walls a few times, but there’ll always be something that catches your eye at just the right moment to keep you on track.
It is short though, taking you little over three hours to finish the story and although there’s a few collectables to get and secrets to play around with, there’s no real pull to replay the experience once you’re done with it. Therefore those who seek to wring every bit of value out of a purchase as they can, may be left a little wanting on this title.
The Unfinished Swan is a brilliant, deeply creative adventure that delivers on its exceedingly abstract concept. The opening chapter is refreshing in its fantastical nature, challenging the player to engage with their own imagination. Despite its short length, the stages are incredibly varied in their design and the beautiful storybook structure it draws inspiration from is endearing. It’s a game that is ultimately about the pursuit of fulfilling fascination and exploration and one that certainly should not be missed.
+ Genius opening sequence
+ Incredible creativity
+ Warm storybook narrative
+ Beautiful artistic presentation
– Short length with little replayability