When I was little, I learned in art class that black is not a real color but all the colors combined and that white is the absence of color. Not long after this lesson, I found out the opposite in science class. Black is actually the absence of color because it absorbs the entire spectrum and reflects nothing; white is truly all colors combined because it absorbs nothing in the spectrum and thus reflects everything. While this realization was not earth-shattering, the differences between the two disciplines’ understandings of color nevertheless piqued my curiosity. The two concepts, after all, are not incompatible; they just provide different perspectives on the idea of this visual/perceptual phenomenon called “color.” This inconsequential bit of information crystallized into something greater than a school lesson. For me, it was a moment of growth, and I understood the world I lived in a bit more by an unexpected shift in perspective.
I had forgotten about this childhood moment of quiet enlightenment until I started playing Giant Sparrow’s The Unfinished Swan. The game begins with the story of Monroe, an orphan whose lasting memory of his mother (an artistic woman who had a hard time finishing her works) appears in the form of one of his mother’s paintings: the titular unfinished swan. Monroe wakes one day to find that the swan has disappeared, and he follows its footprints through a door he had not noticed before into a world of stark whiteness. A pleasant-voiced woman delivers this and other pieces of exposition with a tone that perfectly complements the storybook atmosphere.
The story itself is clever, as Monroe’s quest to catch the fugitive swan develops alongside a story about the former king of the world Monroe discovers. The narcissistic and dictatorial king has a fondness for longevity and lasting structures, and his quest for immortality is humorous instead of simply didactic. As his story unfolds via paintings and the woman’s narration, he becomes a loveable tyrant who simply wants to create a world where he will be remembered, alienating his subjects and his friends. It’s a sometimes sad tale, but it never really clashes with the overall light tone of the game.
After the brief introduction, the player confronts a white screen. Movement is impossible to gauge until the player figures out how to lob a ball of black paint into the colorless void until it splats onto something solid. The game gives no direction or instruction; only by pressing buttons and wiggling joysticks can you figure out how to move and throw paint. It’s a beautiful setup that makes no presumptions about the player’s being more familiar with game interaction than the young Monroe. The game makes the player grow and mature alongside Monroe as an equal by infantilizing the player and trusting him/her to learn to navigate the world.
And what a world it is. As you splatter black paint across the white screen with the reckless abandon of Jackson Pollock, the surfaces of benches, roads, architecture, flora, and fauna all come into view. Slinging paint reveals the latent life of a brilliantly designed digital environment, and the player will find him/herself gasping in wonder with Monroe as player and child come across magnificent vistas overlooking a vast labyrinth or an Escheresque castle. You’ll see the shadows of great sea monsters while throwing paint to uncover a bridge across a castle moat. You’ll cover in paint what first looks like a rock but is actually a frog that springs to life and leaps into a stream you didn’t even know was there. And you’ll see the ever-elusive unfinished swan in the distance and likely call out to it just as Monroe does.
As these landscapes change across the four chapters of the game, so do the mechanics. Though the paint-throwing mechanic was highlighted in the trailers and videos of The Unfinished Swan, it only takes up about a quarter of the game. The other chapters have you throwing water balls to direct creeping vines, creating scalable pathways to new areas. Or you’ll wander around darkened woods and lob balls at glowing orbs to briefly increase the light radius until you find another illuminated oasis in the suffocating dark. It’s a tried and tested formula to switch up gameplay to keep it from becoming stale, and the game mixes these mechanics well without becoming completely incoherent.
Few games, however, offer such strong narrative justification for switching up gameplay elements as The Unfinished Swan. I never questioned why or how Monroe’s paintbrush switched from slinging paint to spraying water because I did not need to—I was playing by storybook rules. There are no real head-scratcher puzzles because the game is not out to stump you. The game is built on principles of simplicity and diversity, switching game mechanics only to help the player follow the footprints of an unreachable swan. And it works beautifully.
By beautifully, I certainly do not mean perfectly. Sometimes the environment design is absolutely inspired, such as a room that will certainly make Portal lovers happy, but it has shortcomings. The third chapter, which takes place in a darkened forest, lacks the charm of the first two. The pitch-black forest scares Monroe, but it cannot quite draw that same feeling from the player. It’s neither bleak enough to be truly menacing, nor is it whimsical enough to elicit that childlike sense of wonder the previous chapters do so well. I am willing to grant that this is by design, that we’re playing a game about growing up, which would certainly warrant a bit of darkness. The gameplay, nevertheless, felt uninspired in this section.
There is also the issue of length, which could easily turn some gamers off, though I am not one of them. Clocking in at about two hours, The Unfinished Swan makes a difficult case for its price tag, but I cannot say I regret my purchase. There are balloons scattered across the game to collect, unlockables to purchase, and trophies to earn that increases replay value, but the game is so well paced that it never seems to overstay its welcome.
In fact, its short length fits so perfectly with its lesson about impermanence that I find it hard to consider it a fault. It is a video game built to mimic a storybook, after all. I’ve always thought that the best children’s stories are those not just for children but about children. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, for example, contains both a charming tale of a boy’s magical adventure as well as a psychological sketch of childhood anger and shame. The Unfinished Swan does something similar, albeit through gameplay. The game is just as much about a child’s search from meaning in a strange world as it is about the relationship the player has with a game. We learn about digital environments by inhabiting them, testing them, using the tools made available to us at specific times much like we do in our actual lives. Maybe along the way, just like Monroe, we learn that altering our perspectives or changing tools unexpectedly is the only way to move forward.
The Unfinished Swan is easy to recommend to anyone. Enough care and consideration has gone into its development to appease any gamer, whether he/she seeks a fresh experience with the medium or just wants to enjoy a wonderful story about a boy who finds himself in another world. Like any good book, it asks to be considered more than once, and, though you can never recreate that initial moment of wonder again, there’s still plenty to re-discover simply because you want to. You’ll find just as much to appreciate in this digital wonderland as Monroe does, and, if you’re lucky, you may even think back to a time when you were young in the world, learning about color.