The Unfinished Swan
Housed in Sony's Santa Monica studio, indie developer Giant Sparrow recently unveiled The Unfinished Swan, an upcoming PSN exclusive. The opening animation tells the story of a young boy named Monroe who has a mother that starts (but doesn’t finish) paintings. Among her 300 unfinished paintings, Monroe's favorite is the swan. The boy wakes one morning to find the swan is gone, and he sets out in search of the titular creature.
When players assume control, they're presented with nothing more than a white screen. Designer Ian Dallas explains that many players are thrown off by this novel beginning, and they begin hitting every button on the controller in an effort to make something happen. From the game’s first-person perspective, the R2 button causes Monroe to toss a black ball of paint in the direction of your small reticle. This supply of paint seems to be unlimited in the demo; players can toss as much or as little of it as they want. Painted surfaces and white space appear starkly contrasted; I've never seen a game feature an art style quite like this.
As these paintballs begin to cover the environment, the space around Monroe becomes clearer. Walls and ceilings are suddenly visible, and objects like fences and plant life indicate when you step out into nature. At one point, a gigantic frog appears when it is struck with paint. As you navigate the environments with standard FPS controls, this mechanic gives The Unfinished Swan a distinct sense of discovery.
Monroe finds his way to a statue garden maintained by a character known only as the King. Tossing paint around this area reveals large statues of a chicken, a piece of bacon on a fork, and the King himself. Dallas says the King is a recurring character throughout the narrative, appearing at various stages of his life. All we know about him at this point is that he was going through what Giant Sparrow referred to as his "Salvador Dali" phase, complete with pencil-thin mustache.
After painting a portion of the statue garden, Monroe walks up some stairs to an overlook. Here, he can see the entire path he took to get there. Everything is white except for the spots that have been painted, and everything from the initial room to the fenced path is visible. This interesting visual demonstration of player progression indicates what kind of play style was used. If you use paint sparingly, you'll see a few black spots dotted across a white background. If you prefer to cover your surroundings in paint, you'll see a more complete picture of where you've been. Initially hiding the world from gamers is a novel concept, and exploration the surroundings yields rewards like collectible toys. We saw an item on the main menu that was dedicated to these, but Giant Sparrow wasn't ready to show them off yet.
Monroe turns from the overlook and spots a red letter T, which he hits with a paintball. This expands into a full page from a storybook to tell a tale about the King. The narrative continually unfolds in this fashion as players progress to reveal plenty of surprises. Some gamers may draw comparisons to other artsy downloadable titles like Journey, Limbo, and Braid, but The Unfinished Swan plays like nothing I've seen before. When I asked Dallas if Monroe would ever earn new colors, he said they're focusing more on introducing new game mechanics, and declined to elaborate further. For a game that’s so focused on discovery, surprise is a large part of the appeal.