You don’t play The Unfinished Swan so much as you experience it. It’s a title that’s less of a game and more a heart-warming — and sometimes heartbreaking — picture book come to life.
The game begins with a short cutscene — told in storybook format — telling the tale of young Monroe. Having recently lost his mother and sole parent, Monroe is forced to live in an orphanage. His mother, being a prolific painter — albeit one who never managed to finish a single painting — left behind dozens and dozens of half-completed canvasses. Monroe is told there is only room for one painting in his tiny orphanage provided bedroom, so he chooses the titular unfinished swan.
Monroe awakes one night to discover that the swan has escaped from the canvas and has made its way through a mysterious door; one he’d never noticed before. Being the only link he has left to his mother, Monroe follows the swan and is transported to a magical new world.
The game begins without you really realising it. As the cutscene ends and fades to white, it stays that way and soon — with the press of the R1 button — you are flinging black globs of paint all over this bright white world to find your way. The game is played from a first-person perspective and the in this stark, white world the only way to navigate is to fling black paint balloons into the Aether and gradually reveal the details hidden within. It’s an interesting concept and at first I found myself hurling enough paint to literally cover my surroundings, until I realised that complete blackness would be just as impossible to navigate as the pure white.
Gradually, the world is revealed and extra splashes of yellow appear in the environment, helping you navigate through the simple and tranquil garden. Progressing through the garden you eventually come across a kingdom, long abandoned by its King who had grown tired of his subjects’ demands, and like Monroe’s mother, left things unfinished. From the garden you travel through a labyrinth, a city overgrown with vines, a dark forest and eventually the King’s dreams.
Each new area brings with it a new game mechanic that stops the proceedings from growing stale and repetitive. In the vine choked city, Monroe has water balloons rather than paint. The vines eagerly and thirstily follow wherever there’s moisture, enabling you to create paths and ladders through areas that were inaccessible moments before. Later on, paint brings blueprints to life creating stairs, platforms and boxes to help traverse the world.
Like the ever evolving game play, the environment is ever-changing, initially adding shadows, then a splash of colour and eventually changing from day to-night and reversing the expectations of the world as it had been experienced thus far. The first time you see the world with shadows, the desolate beauty of the kingdom truly blows you away.
There is only one goal in The Unfinished Swan: move forward and catch up with the swan. Once in a while you catch a glimpse of the swan in the distance — sometimes agonisingly just out of reach — which only spurs you on to find a way to catch him. And when you finally do in the denouement, it’s an achingly beautiful moment.
Whilst the cause and underlying themes to Monroe’s story are genuinely somber, the tone of the game never goes there. Instead, Monroe’s journey is presented with wonderment and whimsy, the way in which children view the world, with wide eyes and open minds. The narrator infuses the story with a soothing, mothering sensibility and when she speaks the words fill you with joy and make you feel young again. Likewise, Terry Gilliam — yes that Terry Gilliam — voices the mysterious King, giving him a fabulous tone and timbre, absolutely suited to the story.
The Unfinished Swan is not without some minor flaws. Coming in at just over two hours total playtime, the game is very short. The climbing mechanics are also something you would find in a late 90’s first-person shooter and while adequate can be frustratingly clunky at times. The only other real issue is that once you’ve completed the story and replayed any chapters to find any balloons or story book pages you may have missed there is no reason to play again. The beauty of the story is in the discovery. Once all is revealed, the game – while still lots of fun – loses part of what made it great to begin with. A sense of wonder and mystery.
That being said, The Unfinished Swan is a truly amazing game and an absolutely wondrous experience on a par with Journey. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you are a PlayStation owner, do yourself a huge favour. Purchase The Unfinished Swan from the PlayStation Store, dim the lights and lock yourself away for a couple of hours. You won’t regret it.