Saturday, October 27, 2012

Stop looking at me, swan

I just finished The Unfinished Swan and I want to talk about it, but I want to talk about it in a positive way. That will require some distance and time that I do not have; as of right now it is solidly in the 'meh' category, a place that a two hour niche title cannot afford to be. For what it's worth I can tell that this game is a piece of work that someone is very proud of. It is focused and polished and honestly just as long as it needs to be. What it is missing is the emotional kick that makes other games like it so memorable. Without the gut check of Limbo, the exhilaration of  Journey or even the patronizing bombast of Braid all that is left is a game with one interesting idea that is abandoned after the first level.

Videos of The Unfinished Swan have all focused on the beginning: you are in a solid white area and the only way to see where you are going is to flick paint around. It splashes on objects in a realistic manner, giving you the feedback needed to spend slightly less time walking into walls. The very first section is a prime example of letting the player figure things out on his her her own: I was dumped into a solid white room with nothing but a targeting cursor to keep me company. No button explanation. No glowing arrow making the way to proceed obvious. I am embarrassed to say how long I waited for the hand holding to begin. It never did and I survived anyway, without even an AI companion named 'follow' to help.

Splashing paint around is fun in and of itself; using it to solve puzzles is better. They were times that all I could see where swan footprints in the distance. I would walk forward into a wall and have to follow a trail of black splotches to a new path. This kind of organic, sensible discovery is a lot of fun and it kept my interest while I endured some very forced children's book narration. A orphaned boy travels through an unfinished painting left to him by his mother, exploring a world of ink created by a very unstable king who may or may not be the child's father (who the mother left before he was born). The story is easily the weakest part of the experience. When the rest of it starts to flag the results are not good.

Before the first area is finished the fields of white are gone, replaced by very simple puzzles that I have seen many times before. There were jumping puzzles out of Portal, an area where I had to stay by the light or be eaten by spiders from a dozen other games, and finally a timed section where rising water forced me to climb faster than was comfortable. Nothing new, nothing inspiring, and nothing left to distract from the overly complex plot. Journey and Flower, Swan's closet peers, worked because the story was just as simple as the game's mechanics. Swan tries to cram too much into a small package, leaving no space for what people came to see. I wanted a few hours of an interactive painting. What I got was about fifteen minutes of that followed by the leftovers of an adult therapy session produced by a broken home.

I want to be positive because little games like this should exist. Complete games that I can experience in one sitting don't come around often enough and it pains me to say that I cannot recommend this one. The Unfinished Swan wastes the good idea it had and places far too much time and effort into explaining what would be better left alone. The whole game needs to take a lesson from its own first level: sometimes it is best to let the player make his or her own discoveries and decisions. I didn't need over wrought tutorials to explain how to play the game and I certainly didn't need over wrought explanations on what the game was about and how I should feel while playing it. 

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