Review

The Unfinished Swan

I Ink, Therefore I Am

The Unfinished Swan paints a picture of self-discovery.

By Derrick Sanskrit • October 24, 2012

Childhood is complicated. We all start off so naïve, and we choose to remember youth as a time of innocence, but childhood is also often a time of fear, guilt, shame, perversion, and unease. Innocence is really just an absence of knowledge and experience, and the things that we don’t know are both exciting and terrifying.

The Unfinished Swan begins in an environment that is stark white, with no visible details whatsoever, the greatest example of the pure innocent unknown. Your surroundings, like a child, are a blank slate. You toss ink balls in order to reveal your surroundings—the much-touted central conceit of the game—and it is in this simple act that maturation begins to take shape. The splattering of paint is the same visceral thrill one might remember from finger-painting as a kid. It provides instant gratification as well as a way to express your literal place in the universe—you have been here, and here, and over there.

The Unfinished Swan

At the same time, though, there’s a growing sense of guilt that your actions and your experiences have tarnished the purity of everything around you. Frogs and fish that reposed in their anonymity are stained, recalling the birds caught in offshore oil spills, and they are easy prey for the predators that lurk in the vast whiteness. You only have to get a bit carried away with “revealing” the landscape with ink before everything is lost in a wash of darkness—just as invisible as before, only now it’s the fault of your own lack of restraint.

And that’s only the first chapter. As you trek forward, your world becomes both graphically and emotionally darker. Monroe, the protagonist, embarks on a storybook adventure that sees him confront his fears, his desires, his past, and the ramifications of his actions—all as a means of coming to terms with being newly orphaned. The only other personalities in this fantasy world are an incredibly lazy giant, the selfish and impotent King—whose own pride eventually overtakes his world—and the motherly narrator, who at times comes across as judgmental and capricious. And then, of course, there is the swan, a symbol of a mother’s love that is always just out of reach, mocking Monroe and goading him along, at times so impossibly large as to be terrifying.

The Unfinished Swan

Of course, it’s easy to look back on one’s youth and see the darkness of it all, but in the moment the experience of being a child—experimenting and learning new things—offers a great deal of fun. The King’s abandoned city is a playground for young Monroe, who gets to run through its canals and climb its trees. After generally making a mess in the first chapter, Monroe gets to spread ivy—some semblance of life—around the cracked and barren walls of the kingdom. Monroe also tries his hand at building, with a few puzzles that feel like an especially good session on your bedroom floor with a bucket of Tinker Toys or Lincoln Logs.

Even when things are at their very darkest and most unsettling, there are traces of hope and undoubting wonder tucked away into the corners of the world, represented by collectible balloons. It’s especially telling that the balloons don’t pop when struck—rather, they make a satisfying “BOOF” sound and are dislodged from where they’d been tethered to the world, wafting into the sky to have their own adventures. Real-life children are often upset to see balloons disappear into the heavens, but our boy is content to witness their untainted beauty for a quiet moment and return to his quest. Monroe never once gets upset with the metaphorical swan, never questions its intentions, and never gives up in his pursuit. It’s beautifully naïve in a childlike way, more joyous than futile.

The Unfinished Swan
Developer: Giant Sparrow
Publisher: Sony
Platform: PlayStation 3
Price: $15
Rating: E

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1,363 Responses to “I Ink, Therefore I Am”

  1. Chum Joely says:

    I’m playing this game right now, one chapter a night at bedtime, actually.  I’ve just finished the third chapter with the ivy.  It’s a pretty game, and the story is kind of neat, but it actually seems a bit unfinished itself.  The gameplay isn’t particularly varied (although the ivy-growing mechanic is pretty cool), and the overall look is kind of unpolished.

    I’ll wait to finish it before I make my final verdict, but right now my take on it is, I’m glad I got it (and $15 is not unreasonable), and glad that developers are doing this kind of game, but it’s not what I would call “great” (so far).  Of course, I also played Limbo for the first time this week, so the bar is set pretty high (ironically enough, ha ha).

    • doyourealize says:

      That’s funny you say you play a chapter at bedtime. From what I’ve seen of this, I feel like the game would give you a kind of serene feeling that would be perfect right before you turn in. I haven’t played it yet, so I could be 100% wrong, but I imagine the sound of the game to be either crickets and water (or paint)-plunks, or just soft strings, maybe both.

      What I’m trying to say is, when I see and read about this game, I think of bedtime.

      • Chum Joely says:

        Oh yeah, the whole thing is framed as a children’s storybook.  The different game segments are literally called “chapters”, and you see a book flipping to the next page when you finish a chapter. You even uncover individual pages of the book (little bits of exposition about the storybook-like environment you’re in) at checkpoints along the way.

        Besides all that, the feel is indeed calming, sort of “warm and fuzzy with a cup of hot cocoa” as I saw it described in one review… and your guess about the soundtrack is pretty accurate too!

      • Enkidum says:

        zzzzzzzzz…

      • Joel of Arc says:

        How much of a “game” is it, versus interactive storybook? The first trailer made it look like there were some maze or puzzle elements to it, but everything I’ve seen/read since makes it seem more like something you walk through.

        I honestly wouldn’t mind either, but for my own sanity I don’t want to be starting paint-splatter puzzles right before bedtime. But if it were more Dear Esther-esque, I’d be right there with you.

        • The presentation, that is the trappings for the sake of narrative, are that of a storybook, but this is very much a game where you are in control. There are set pieces, for sure, but it’s no more linear than Mirror’s Edge or Half-Life. And paint splatter is really only the first quarter-to-third of the game before moving on the other ideas and mechanics.

  2. Enkidum says:

    Any thoughts on the appropriateness of this for kids? Looks like something mine (7 and 9) might like, even just to watch me play through it.

    • Early on I thought it was something I’d love to see a kid play. By the end I thought it was something I’d love to see a kid play with a responsible adult guardian nearby.

    • Chum Joely says:

      Totally appropriate for kids as far as the content. The parts (mostly at the beginning) where you are completely surrounded by white and have to splatter paint, then mentally fill in the bits you don’t see, could be a little tricky for them to actually play through, especially for a 7-year-old, but I guess that depends on the kid.

      I gather that there are some mildly scary bits later in the game, involving giant spiders coming at you in the dark (haven’t got there yet), but I think this game is constitutionally incapable of anything really offensive or problematic for kids. It pretty much plays like an interactive bedtime story.