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While initially seeming simplistic but stylish, I found a hidden depth to The Unfinished Swan that few games have matched.
Videogames are changing. The audience is maturing and distribution is slowly becoming more download based. This has lead to shorter, more concise narrative works that can be played in one sitting. Stat busting and character progression is slowly being replaced with impressionism and creative art styles.
This is a good thing for me. I wouldn't be playing games if developers had continued to focus just on young adults. It's games like Limbo, Flower and Journey that help reinforce this idea that games can be emotional. When I first saw footage of The Unfinished Swan I thought it would fall short, "too simplistic" I thought. I was wrong.
Journey and Limbo were liberating because of their light touch with their story. They developed ideas without text or narration. Beginning The Unfinished Swan I was met with highly ordered plot points. It felt far too structured, like I was following an emotional path as opposed to carving my own.
The tale, while initially explicit, is rather simple. A young boy named Monroe, who loses his artist mother, is allowed to keep one of her unfinished paintings. He chooses The Unfinished Swan, and is thrust into a dreamlike world when the painting comes to life and the swan disappears. The young hero follows the swan though the story, slowly uncovering the truth behind the painting and why his mother never finished her work.
The initial chapters involve throwing giant globules of inky, black paint against an entirely white environment. Only by throwing the paint can you give the world definition and progress through it. Although this does slowly develop and is quite playful it is never a huge challenge. I felt restricted and hemmed in by the linearity of both the story and the gameplay.
It was only at the very end of the game that something clicked and I could see what it was about. The concluding chapters took me from frustration to emotionally involved in a way I was not prepared for. You see, if you'll excuse a spoiler, your journey turns out to be not a mistake but a gift for alleviating Monroe's childhood fears. It's a love letter from a mother to her son to help him sleep at night.
It dawned on me that, while this was not my exact story, it was still familiar. Even though the journey of Monroe quickly becomes complex and personal his loss and fear of facing the world without his parents is a dread that we all face.
Yet for all this intention and structure The Unfinished Swan is not an overbearing game; it has a gentleness to it that allows you to ease into the character. In a strange way it felt quite cathartic, that it had somehow alleviated troubling memories. When I'd finished the game I felt stirred by the story. The difficulties and awkwardness of a child lost in solitude. The lack of direction (both literal and figurative) and fearful loneliness were huge sticking points for me in my childhood and what led me to bury myself in videogames in the first place.
Fearful loneliness were huge sticking points for me in my childhood.
While others found comfort and resolution in the lyrics of a song or the performance of an actor, I grew up alone in my room playing an old Amiga and trying not to think about the scary things in life. I wonder now whether that was the best idea for me.
However, when I look back over the course of my childhood, so many bad memories were eased by the comfort I found in videogames. In many ways, I can relate to the little, lost Monroe more than any number of great gaming characters I have projected myself on over the years.
The Unfinished Swan will mean different things to different people. It reminded me of the fact that while I was often alone growing up, I wasn't the only one pf my peers finding solace in the warm embrace of a videogame.
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