Sony has had a good year for original content. After hits like Journey, Flower, Flow and the PixelJunk series, even hardcore PlayStation aficionados like myself have gained newfound respect for PSN. Considering the fact that Sackboy is one of their mascots, Sony is proving time and again that the little guy can shine even amongst the veritable sea of triple-A, full-priced titles to come out in 2012. Their latest example is The Unfinished Swan, a bold effort from upstart developer, Giant Sparrow. A game company whose dream is to “make the world a stranger, more interesting place” is definitely on the right path with this adventure where the player literally creates their way through the game.
The Unfinished Swan is about a young boy named Monroe who has reached a very difficult time in his life. He was a happy child that lived with his mother and loved the many paintings she had created, despite none of them being complete. This becomes part of her legacy as she dies at the beginning and Monroe is left in the care of child services. He is told that he may keep only one of his mother’s paintings and he chooses his favorite, The unfinished Swan. Just as he is getting used to his new surroundings, he finds that the painting, or rather, the swan in the painting, has gone missing. As he examines the empty canvas he is drawn into an equally white and empty world. He soon finds that the world is not empty, just untouched; it seems that this world is a new canvas waiting to be brought to life with the color of the artist. Lacking the talent of his mother, Monroe makes his way by throwing ink about initially. Making a mess actually makes a path for him to follow and almost immediately he is on the trail of his missing swan.
Controlling Monroe is simple but trying to control the world you are in takes practice. You move about with the standard controls of an FPS, but you traverse the world solving visual puzzles and by making paths appear a la Mario 64. When Rich had producer Max Geiger on the show, I told him that the game felt like the debug mode for the deBlob games, but that I found it to be even more fun than those titles. When you think about it, this game is all about being a kid again and on many levels making a mess, just without getting into trouble for it. What does not become apparent right away is why you are doing this. Granted, you want to catch the swan which never stops running from you, but exactly why you chase the swan and what happens if you catch it are left for later in the game.
Probably the single craziest aspect of this game is that it is so beautiful, despite having almost zero graphics in some areas. A glimpse here, a peek there, and you just want to see more and more of it. So you keep throwing ink, or water, or growing vines or whatever. Giant Sparrow for the most part lets you decide how much or how little of this world you see. There is even an achievement for making it to a certain destination while throwing almost no ink. And just when the freakiness of seeing all white becomes familiar, the game turns you on your ear and throws you into complete darkness. You know, why not play upon the most common fear of children, right? Fortunately, Monroe seems willing to brave just about anything to hold on to the one tangible memory of his mom that he has.
The story behind the Unfinished Swan is full of contradictions. You have a young boy who is desperately trying to hold on to the memory of his mom, yet in doing so he lets go of everything a child would normally run to their mother about. Monroe steps into an imaginary and fantastic world in order to chase the only real thing his mother left him. What’s more is that this same child in essence embarks on a very adult adventure without help, without knowing what lies ahead and without knowing if he even can succeed. His journey is a leap of faith for someone who had every reason to have no faith at all. If you have enjoyed other PSN titles this year and/or are into obscure adventures, then this game is a must buy.
P.S. As a special holiday treat, play this one on New Year’s Eve when you are too drunk to drive home.