So itís 4am, and Iíve just seen the final credits roll on The Unfinished Swan. Itís not often that a game leaves you so taken aback that you feel the need to take a good few minutes out to digest it all. The last time I felt like that was with Journey, which incidentally, Iíve decided to put on next so that my housemate, who sat and watched me play through the whole of Swan, every bit as captivated as I was, can see for himself what all the fuss is about.
The titles, in their own way, are comparable.
Swan was a little game where the world was white and youíd navigate by throwing black blobs of paint around (think the goo from Portal 2 for a good touchpoint), with not a single shade of grey anywhere to be seen, creating a stark and confronting visual, but an oddly compelling way to enjoy exploration.
Sony happened to see the project while it was at that stage and picked it up, partnered the fledgling developer with Santa Monica Studio (whoíve been brought in to push the quality of other unique and quirky games including the works of ThatGameCompany), and let the teamís imaginations run wild with a budget which matched their creative spunk.
I left my E3 demo of Swan convinced that the two mechanics they had on show there would be roughly half or more of the game in a nutshell. There was the black and white navigation level, plus a section where you threw water around to help vines grow so you could climb around a barely visible white city.
How wrong I was.
The full two hour experience tells the story of an abandoned little orphan named Monroe, whose only memory of his mother is an unfinished painting of a swan he was allowed to keep when being taken in at the orphanage. Thereís a storybook style fairy tale narrative fit for youngíuns, but by some bizarre and wondrous miracle of science, the little tale of the king, his hubris, his need for control and his many failed attempts at creating a legacy, is gripping even to an adult.
Then surprise number two came: the gameplay managed the same feat. While there are some moments later in the game where the tension is pumped and the pace quickens which I fear may be slightly too complicated or challenging for the very young, it being such a versatile title means thereís no reason a parent and child couldnít play together and both enjoy it immensely, but for very different reasons.
The developerís freshman title is a flagship for whatever is to come next Ė theyíve left a mark on the gaming scene which canít be undone, managing to seemingly grasp precisely what Iíd be doing, what Iíd be thinking and where Iíd be looking at each turn, proving it by throwing one surprise after another at me and occasionally doing things just to mess with my head, much like youíd expect from a classic survival horror.
In fact, for such a childlike fantasy world, itís impressive that it managed to genuinely frighten me in amongst having a steadily rising challenge which was never so far out of reach as to alienate.
The world itself keeps things very simple, letting the narrative, the light puzzle-solving and the joy of exploration speak for itself, resorting to using complex graphics only when it was necessary to serve a point. Itís all backed by a brilliant score which is used with similar restraint, adding an auspicious sense of menace where it needs to and keeping mum when it isnít needed.
I had the opportunity to ask Shuhei Yoshida, the head of Sony Worldwide Studios, if games like Swan and SoundShapes were a kind of messaging or branding exercise for Sony, letting them push what kind of things could be done on Playstation. On the contrary, he insisted, giving creative people the ability to make titles this obtuse, irrational yet joyful is part of their underlying mantra. While it can certainly be said that Xbox Live Arcade came out swinging in the early years, Swan represents another jewel in the crown of an incredible lineup of abstract and ambient games which canít be recreated elsewhere.
As a hardcore gamer (oh, bite me, Iím saying it), Iím astonished that Swan could keep giving me new things to grapple with in the puzzle department in a way that was genuinely new, never let its gameplay get old right up until the finish, keep me guessing the entire way through and end on a high note.
Itís a fairy tale game, and one I wish Iíd had keeping my company in my youth. As a responsible parent, you should get this game and play it with your kids. If you happen to know a responsible parent, use theirs as an excuse to buy it, then play it for yourself.
There are very few games which are able to buck trends with aplomb and do it this gracefully. Pick it up when you can and give it the time it deserves.