On The Unfinished Swan (2012)
I have been reading video game scholarship since 2003, and I have always found the pieces dealing with criticism, both of ludic aspects as well as narrative elements, to be not only the most enlightening, but also the higher quality ones. Whenever a scholar from an older discipline would tell me that video game scholars were just “playing at academics” (although, granted, this has only happened twice), I would point at certain pieces that show higher-level academic work than many pieces of criticism dealing with older texts. Now, it is true that sometimes, when lacking certain terms, video game scholars borrow terms from other disciplines. In my own work I borrow heavily from the traditions of literary theory and education research. These past few years I’ve thought about how focusing on any single approach is extremely limiting – I’ve written as much. However, this week I came to the realization that when designers unlock the full potential of games, language is insufficient to describe in any real degree the experience that is engaging with a thoughtful video game, much less engage in scholarly discourse that truly explores the content of the title. The reasons for this is Ian Dallas’ ‘The Unfinished Swan’.
Before I start clumsily commenting on these two masterpieces, I should note that I have played games that have been groundbreaking and innovative in some way, and even written about some of them. But when it comes to the experience afforded by the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of The Unfinished Swan, I find that words do not suffice, so let me just blunder through a brief commentary.
This game puts the player in the shoes of a young boy, Monroe, whose painter mother just passed away. He was taken to an orphanage where he was allowed to take a single painting, and he chose The Unfinished Swan. One night, the swan disappears into the painting, and Monroe follows it. Now, the painting was unfinished – the only thing on it was the swan, so when the swan retreats into the painting, there is nothing on the canvas. And this is what the player first sees as play begins – nothing but white space. The player must navigate through this entirely white non-landscape by coloring it. The player throws blobs of ink that splashes around the white space and creates shapes. Players should be careful tho, as too much ink can make the entire world completely black.
As players explore this landscape, they will stumble into walls that tell the story of a king who wanted to create a perfect world, so he created a world where the only color was white. Settlers got sick of bumping into everything, so they pleaded with the king. The king then decided to give the world shadows. These developments in the story-within-the-story are then reflected in the game world: shades make navigation through the white space more manageable.
Each new story chapter forces the player to learn a new mechanic. Whether the player is using water to make vines grow, using temporary black ink to activate light bulbs, or creating geometric shapes to help spatial navigation, the puzzles are engaging and intelligent. The feedback loop between the play space and the narrative helps keep everything in focus and also adds to the sense of wonder and bewilderment that players initially feel when they throw that first blob of black ink at the white space and see that there is “something” there. And that is the purpose of the game (or at least one of them): to make the player feel that child-like sense of amazement that we forget as adults.
The ending of the game… well, I won’t spoil it, but it’s as engaging and intelligent as the game itself.
In short, The Unfinished Swan is a video game3 masterpiece that pushes what can be done with the medium in the same way that Journey, Flower, Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, and Heavy Rain (to name a few) previously did. The Unfinished Swan shows video games as an engaging form of content that can push the boundaries of human perception and human emotions even more so than any other media humans have created.
I guess the one sentence summary is something like this: The Unfinished Swan shows that video games are a higher art form than painting, sculpture, and other forms of media (except literature because I just love Blake that much).