Game: The Unfinished Swan
Publisher/Developer: Giant Sparrow/Santa Monica Studio
Genre: First-person puzzler
Describe This Game in Three Words: Beautiful beyond belief
Plot Synopsis: Monroe is a young boy recently orphaned. His mother left behind more than 300 paintings, not a single one finished. He took his favorite one with him to the orphanage, an unfinished picture of a swan. One night, he wakes up to find the swan gone, and follows its tracks into a magical world made of blank canvasses he must paint to proceed through.
Up Up: No title has ever made the case for video games as high art like The Unfinished Swan. It is the video game equivalent of Van Gogh's Starry Night, Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List or the Sisters of Mercy's Floodlands. If you don't play this game, you will forever wish you had.
Monroe wanders a completely white world, hurling balls of black paint to splatter definition on an otherwise invisible world. It's an amazing mechanic that forces a player to consider the world only in parts, filling in the amazing countrysides, gardens and castles by imagination. Along the way are handy, easily visible landmarks usually painted gold, as well as the swan's footprints. You will feel a little lost at first, but it's extremely simple to get the hang of.
As Monroe wanders through the land, a strange fairy story plays itself out. The kingdom belongs to an odd artistic king who was forever seeking to complete his masterpieces but was hampered by the citizens that sabotaged his bizarre decrees and unwavering artistic integrity. The journey itself is as compelling as the best children's book you have ever read.
What knocks The Unfinished Swan out of the park is the fact that it is a work of art that could only exist as a video game. You couldn't film this, compose it as music or describe it as prose. It's your exploration and experiences throughout the ever-changing landscape that are in and of themselves the emotional purpose of the game. This is existentialism through gaming, pure and simple.
Down, Down: Monroe could walk a little faster. That is literally the only complaint I can make about this game.
Left, Right, Left, Right: Monroe can jump, hurl paint balls, walk and that's it. The controls have all the simple elegance of Portal or Journey, and you will have no trouble mastering them instantly. I haven't tried the game with the PlayStation Move yet, but I can't imagine that the experience would suffer any.
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B, A: The Unfinished Swan is incredibly nuanced in its execution. Though the gameplay is lighthearted and simple (Thus far I have found it impossible to die, only water causes a restart and you clearly are just wet, not on a new life), it opens with a cutscene about Monroe's late mother that is heartbreaking.
As you move through the world, there are odd moments of darkness that give the game incredible thrill. In one level, if you look down at just the right moment, a strange, huge sea monster calmly and silently swims by. At another, red-eyed bats swarm out of total darkness toward you. I swear I saw a massive tentacle just visible through the fog in the distance. These touches make the almost empty world feel as real as any massively populated adventure like Sleeping Dogs or Xenoblade.
Play this game, and play it now. There are no murder mutants to shoot, no magic blades to wield and no battles to be had. Instead, you will experience a life-changing story in a way you probably haven't had since you read the book that became your favorite for the first time. The Unfinished Swan is the best thing gaming has produced this year.