'The Unfinished Swan' videogame review: Or, Jackson Pollock does 'Where the Wild Things Are'

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The Unfinished Swan – the newest indie-game release on the PlayStation Network from developer-to-watch Giant Sparrow — feels very much like a great children’s storybook brought to life. A prologue establishes the Sendak-esque backstory: You play a little boy named Monroe whose mother just died, leaving him nothing but an almost-finished painting of a neckless swan. One evening, the swan disappears. The orphan boy follows the swan into a magical world. Initially, though, the world is empty: The game begins in an abstract white space. Using the deceased mother’s brush, you throw little balls of black paint, which slowly illuminates the world around you.

Like Portal before it, Unfinished Swan uses a very basic gameplay tactic — point and shoot — and slowly builds outward from that mechanic in interesting ways. But Portal was, in a sense, deconstructive: The ability to teleport across a level was a savvy violation of the onscreen gamespace. Swan is, quite literally, constructive: By revealing the world around you, you seem to take part in that world’s creation. Later levels make this even more explicit: At one point, you’re able to use your paintbrush to build new parts of the game’s environment. At times like this, Unfinished Swan almost feels like a portrait of the process of making videogames — which is to say, a self-portrait of its own creation.

This makes Swan sound like an intellectual exercise — appropriate, since it started out life as a grad student project. But the game’s final act constitutes a genuinely heartwrenching gutpunch. What initially seems like a kind of semi-abstract quest narrative — a missing King, a fantasy world in disarray — becomes shockingly personal and profound. Like all great children’s books, Swan is really an opportunity to explore very grown-up themes: Loss, mortality, obsession, the creative process, the way that unfulfilled dreams linger in our memory like incomplete monuments in a graveyard.

Swan is an extremely short game, playable on a lazy rainy Sunday afternoon. The game’s basic aesthetic is very much in keeping with the necessary minimalism of the modern Indie Game Renaissance, but you can’t deny that some of Swan‘s blocky-primitivist settings feel…well, unfinished. And yet, the game has a cumulative emotional effect greater than almost anything I’ve played this year. It’s a small game that packs a big wallop; play it with your children, or with your parents, and be sure to bring a kleenex.

Grade: A-

(Available to download on the PlayStation Network on October 23. PS Plus subscribers can download the game tomorrow.)

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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