I got off on the wrong foot with The Unfinished Swan, starting from its very first storybook page: that page begins with the sentence “The King was young, arrogant, and amazingly talented”, and that set up too many associations for me. Associations with my personal life: I spent a lot of time doing math contests as a teen, and those are full of the young, the arrogant, the talented. (I certainly qualified on all three counts.) Associations with my work life: the Silicon Valley startup scene fetishizes the young, the arrogant, the talented as well. And The Unfinished Swan was a finalist in the Student Showcase of the Independent Games Festival; based on that, it’s not much of a stretch to assume that some of the key people involved in making the game are young, they’re certainly talented, and arrogance on their part would not be unjustified.
So: the game is true to my life. This is good, no? Well, not so much, or at least not unconditionally: it’s territory that I can’t accept any more on face value either on artistic grounds or or political grounds.
I’ve been coming back to the concept of “adolescent games” over and over again for the last three and a half years: games where a boy becomes a man, discovers unexpected powers within himself, and saves the world in the process. A classic theme, but a theme that is far too overdone, and that in the aggregate I’m finding politically repulsive. And, yes, a theme about boys who are young, arrogant, and amazingly talented.
The Unfinished Swan is not such a game. It doesn’t present a world full of people who need to be saved; it doesn’t involve said savior leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. And it puts front and center the loss involved in such arrogant devotion to talent: as much as anything else, the narrative aspects of the game are about the King being estranged from his wife and son, the blind spots that his monomania has given him. So it’s entirely fair to say that it’s a critique of adolescent games, that it’s moving beyond them in important ways.
I suspect that, if the game had come out four or five years ago, I would have been significantly more forgiving of it in that regard, quite possibly actively impressed. The thing is, though: the last several years have brought forth a bunch of games about daddy issues (from both sides of the father/child relationship), as game developers are getting older and writing about the regrets that come from the time they’ve spent crunching on their games instead of being with their families. So The Unfinished Swan isn’t breaking new ground within video games in that regard: it’s the latest entrant into what is now something of a tradition.
And, as entrants go into that tradition, it’s not a particularly finely drawn portrait of such a relationship. Compare the King in The Unfinished Swan to Thane in Mass Effect 2: both made parenting choices involving pursuing their talents in ways that estranged them from their sons. But Thane’s choices and pain felt real to me in a way that the King’s choices never did; real enough that I ended up falling in love with him a little. In contrast, the loss in The Unfinished Swan felt to me like the words were there without the feeling behind them, without the details to make them real: a paint-by-numbers drawing instead of a portrait of a life.
But as much as I loved Mass Effect 2, that daddy issues theme is one that I’m also growing tired of, even when it’s done well. Why not a game about the Queen? (Not just about a woman rather than a man, but about somebody who makes the choices that she did instead of the choices he did.) What about somebody who sees these potential pitfalls in advance, who tries to avoid them without going too far in the other direction and subordinating themself to their child’s needs, who sometimes stumbles and falls in that attempt but nonetheless finds that attempt, that journey incredibly rewarding? (And rewarding in ways that don’t involve treating the child or the relationship as a puzzle box to be solved.) That would be a game that I would find true to my life, and a game that would explore relatively untrodden design space.
So, like I said: I got off on the wrong foot with The Unfinished Swan. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a good game: I was actually really impressed with it. The basic mechanic is one that I love, both for its freshness and for its metaphorical power. Just read through my paragraphs above, with their mentions of blind spots, portraits, and painting by numbers: the metaphors practically write themselves, the game’s mechanic and spare art style lends itself so very well to those discussions, almost becoming self-commentary. (And, to that end, any portrait of a relationship that this game could present well would necessarily be somewhat elliptical: this is not a game that wants to fill in all the details.)
Take, for example, the question of finding secrets in games. In the very first level, as you start splattering the walls, the question immediately comes to mind: are there secrets hiding in the white spaces between your paint splotches? And, if you’re the sort of completionist player that I am, this sets up a real tension, which you resolve by trying to fill in the blank spaces, putting paint everywhere. But, as you do that, the scenery turns from pure white to pure black: you can’t see the secrets that way, either, they’re hidden just as well in either case! So it’s a wonderfully wry commentary on my completionist behavior; commentary that actually got me to relax and accept the fact that I was going to miss some secrets.
The game’s spare art style was also reflected in its pacing. It consists of four scenes in four areas of the world; each of them is long enough for you to get a feel for that area of the world and for the associated mechanic, but each of them also ends well before you feel that you’re in any danger of overstaying your welcome. And, while these scenes are all distinct, they are drawn together by a narrative thread coming from the storybook pages and by a consistency of design.
In that regard, The Unfinished Swan reminded me a lot of Journey: almost everything in the previous paragraph applies to Journey as well, and in both cases it’s very much to the game’s credit. And, continuing the power of the visual metaphor, it also ties back to my orsay games post: that one powerful way of structuring a video game is as a series of paintings, each of which is a (view of a) scene to immerse yourself in.
So: more of that, please. And more games that take a first-person perspective and use it for something beyond raining bullets. But perhaps a view of some different lives next time?
- 4 August, 2013 @ 22:20 [Current Revision] by David Carlton
- 4 August, 2013 @ 22:20 by David Carlton