We're all familiar with the modern FPS conventions. Character movement with an analog stick or keyboard, a 3D 'look' with another analog or mouse, and often a jump and shoot button. Some games, like Battlefield 4, add layer upon layer of complexity, strategy, and high player population to take this control mechanism to its current extreme. This control method and design is now so ubiquitous that it is often just called the 'shooter' genre, snatching the moniker from the recently retitled 'shmup' classification in the common gamer vernacular.
In the common gamer mindset, this particular convention of game design is so entrenched that the occasional rethink and upset can lead to something remarkable. Perhaps the most popular recent example has been the Amnesia
series, which purposefully take away combat and focus on a helpless, tension-filled atmosphere to excellent effect. Plenty of other games such as the Thief
series and newcomer Dishonored
also put more thought into interacting with the game world itself instead of using the environment as a shooting gallery. Perhaps the greatest example of using the FPS design to give an open-ended, choose-your-own-adventure setup while still obeying the norms of FPS design has been the Deus Ex
series, the first of which is often still regarded as one of the greatest games ever made. In fact, from the Elder Scrolls
series to the Portal
games to RealMyst
, the FPS has proven far more robust than golden oldies like Quake
So when a game uses this design in a unique way, it still surprises because the modern gamer has seen so much variation with this interface methodology. Enter The Unfinished Swan
, a fascinating game/storytelling method/interactive art project. The opening narrative tells of a recently orphaned youth whose mother never finished her paintings. Taking a single, minimalist painting of an unfinished swan to the orphanage, the child notices one day that the creature has disappeared from the painting, and he begins pursuit.
Then, the screen goes white and no other clues, hints, or tutorials are given. Through sheer experimentation, the player quickly realizes that a button press ejects a round glob of black paint that splatters against the white space, revealing walls, objects, and an entire environment to navigate, with loose paths to follow. Too much black paint hurled against surfaces begin to obscure their details, since at the beginning the only thing giving definition to the environment is the contrast between the white space and the hurled, splattered paint. Color is shown sparingly, to call attention to a handful of objects or show the foot-paths of the absent fowl. Cue 'wild goose chase' pun.
While the color is almost exclusively black and white, the sound is also minimalist, with more environmental sounds heard as more of the world is revealed. A simple jump is the only other control besides the conventional move, look, and 'shooting' paint. More narrative is told as the game progresses by using the simple tools of the game and a storybook-like series of reveals.
The pace is slow, purposeful, experimental, whimsical, and best of all, playful. Other games of this ilk such as Dear Esther
or the recent critical darling Gone Home
have a moody, voyeuristic design, but the difference with The Unfinished Swan
is that the interaction with the environment figuratively and literally defines the game. Better still, it uses this original interaction method as a story device that feels intrinsic and holistic, instead of tacked-on or forced. Whereas some artistic game worlds are criticized for force-feeding standard game conventions into an otherwise complete virtual experience (the Bioshock
series are popular examples) The Unfinished Swan
feels like a complete experience defined by how its gameplay is intrinsic to storytelling.
If any of this sounds interesting to you, please take the plunge and grab it from the PSN. It's worth it just to see something different, interesting, and in my opinion, wonderful. Seeing a 'normal' game design used like this inspires me to continue believing that our hobby has far more to give us in the future, even using the familiar.