It’s impossible to miss the thematic ambitions driving Giant Sparrow’s endearing first-person puzzler. They’re exhibited with all the subtlety of a bright orange beak against white feathers. The Unfinished Swan simulates the evolution through which a creative work progresses, and prompts us to reflect on the beauty already evident in the first halting steps of that journey.
The set-up involves an orphaned boy named Monroe, whose only keepsake from his late mother is a swan painting that she adored but never got around to completing. Waking one night, Monroe notices a magic door, takes his mother’s paintbrush and steps through into the world beyond.
Once you’re deposited in Monroe’s first-person perspective, the temporary limbo the artist feels when confronted with a blank canvas is evoked with a unique gameplay device. Aside from the tiny reticule at the center of your vision, you’re completely snowblind. No tutorial comes to the rescue. When you finally get bored and start mashing buttons, you realise that pressing either trigger on the DualShock controller sends a black globule of ink arcing through the air and splashing against the scenery. The paint’s behaviour will be familiar to anybody who enjoyed the mess and splatter of Portal 2’s gel stages. The Unfinished Swan’s painting is more Jackson Pollock than Rembrandt in this regard.
The game deserves kudos for establishing a context for gameplay that doesn’t fall back on the trusty workhorse of mass slaughter, though it’s worth noting that Monroe’s magic paintbrush behaves more like a paintball gun than anything else. Tellingly there’s even an unlockable ‘sniper rifle’ option that gives you extra precision if you can locate all the balloon collectibles in the game and hit each with an ink ball. (You know what would help hit all those balloons to unlock the sniper-rifle perk? Alas, yes, a sniper-rifle perk.)
The black splotches outline the contours of walls at first, followed by park benches and trees and curious animal statues. You’ll quickly realise that you need to feel your way through the world by negotiating the negative space created by the scattered ink blots. This inspired sequence lures you deeper into the world by aggressively subtracting information. It’s one of the most memorable opening stages in recent memory, full of promise. Sadly it also happens to be the high point of The Unfinished Swan and, once it concludes, the three to four hour unravelling begins.
After the opening garden section, the black ink globules are inexplicably swapped out for water droplets. These new projectiles enable you to grow climbable vines and trigger switches that figure into a set of fairly generic navigation puzzles. Having established in the opening cutscene that Monroe wields a magic paintbrush, arbitrarily replacing its paint-like projectiles with water droplets breaks the game’s internal logic.
Later the ink returns but its splotches fade and vanish after a moment. Once the need to use it to orientate oneself within the world goes away, the game quietly deems it a nuisance. Then in its most head-scratching turn, a blueprint-styled environment near the game’s conclusion uses your projectiles to raise geometric columns. The zone is so abstract and cerebral, it disrupts the storybook spell cultivated so sensitively up to that point. The game’s touching story about a hapless king who brings life into being with a paintbrush has to work increasingly hard to knit the game’s experimental mechanics into a coherent narrative.
If The Unfinished Swan didn’t do such a marvellous job of tantalising players with its patiently evolving visual signature, it would be easier to sense the messy whiteboard of ideas churning beneath the surface. It’s not that the game feels unfinished, just ungainly. What appears to be a swan during that opening stroll through the garden evolves into an admittedly handsome breed of chimera.
For high-res images of The Unfinished Swan’s beautiful but stark world, click through to our screenshot gallery.