The Unfinished Swan offers the player a blank canvas to explore with his paintbrush. With a story of inspiration and determination, the game proves that there is always hope and time for discovery during difficult times.
The Unfinished Swan allows the player to step into the shoes of Monroe, whose mother recently passed away. All he has left to hang onto from his mother is a painting she created of a swan, that was left unfinished. Although suffering a tragic loss, the team at Giant Sparrow, did not want the game to contain an entirely dreary feel, but rather one that plays on the adolescence of a boy out on a voyage of discovery.
In an interview, the Creative Director at Giant Sparrow, Ian Dallas, answered some of my questions and talks about what message he wants to player to walk away with, the inspiration behind the game, and how difficult it was to introduce such a sensitive subject in The Unfinished Swan.
What message would you like to convey to the players that play The Unfinished Swan; What message would you like for them to take away from their experience with the game?
Dallas: I hope that players learn to see the world in a new way. And I hope they come away with a couple of really memorable moments that are like snapshots from an impossible vacation.
I don’t think the game has any specific message it’s trying to convey. Our goal was evoking a sense of curiosity and wonder. To do that we tried to create a space where players had no idea what to expect and were in a state of perpetual discovery. It’s a chance for players to experiment with how it feels to confront the unknown.
I think The Unfinished Swan did a very good job at tapping into a tough subject to discuss with children about deaths in the family. How hard is it to implement topics so touchy, like death and orphanage, and still be sensitive about what emotions they can play on?
Dallas: It’s definitely tricky for me personally since my background is in comedy writing. There was a strong temptation for me to make things funnier. I was worried that if everything was played straight that it would come across as melodramatic. We started with a more (darkly) humorous tone and then gradually whittled that down to a fairly minimalist style because that felt like a better fit.
The story and tone both evolved quite a lot over the course of development. We started with the core idea of evoking a sense of wonder and then created spaces and moments that we felt like did a good job of that. Once we could walk around the world and get a feel for it we gradually extended the story to match what we’d created. We tried to work with the grain – so the story was supporting the experience we already had rather than trying to bend the experience to fit a preconceived story.
One of the things we noticed early on was that the game felt very lonely. You were walking through vast spaces and there was no one to interact with. It’s funny that in games with a lot of combat you rarely think about how the enemies who are trying to kill you are also providing a form of companionship, but when you remove them you notice. Anyway, once we realized we had this lonely, somewhat cold element to the experience it felt appropriate to have the story hit on some of those same notes as well.
There was some inspiration behind the story of The Unfinished Swan; It sounds like it could have drawn on a personal experience. What was the inspiration behind creating a game with such a deep message?
Dallas: The original inspiration was a very basic design problem: how do we explain why there’s a world that’s entirely white? What sort of place could that be? I hit on the idea of an unfinished kingdom and then spent awhile thinking about all sorts of unfinished things.
It seemed to me that the most unfinished thing in the world is a child whose parents will never have a chance to finish raising them. So that’s where the backstory for the player came from. It’s something that I’d also thought about a lot when I was a child, what it would feel like to lose both of my parents.
It’s a pretty horrible thing on both sides which is why I think it still resonates for me so strongly now that I’m at an age where I could have kids myself.
And I’ve always been personally drawn to hopeless situations where people are doing the best they can anyway. Like Macbeth facing off against Macduff even though he knows he’s doomed, or Hector going out to fight Achilles. There’s something so sad but at the same time hopeful too because they’re not giving up. That’s where the idea for the ending came from.
I also listened to a lot of interviews with Terry Gilliam and Werner Herzog, who were both inspirations for our King character, and tried to imagine how this man’s life was going to end.
After playing The Unfinished Swan, I can see that this is a different type of game. This is not the typical pick up and play game; it is a bit deeper. Can you share with us some games that maybe helped motivate you to create this different type of genre that steps out of the norm?
Dallas: The game that inspired us the most was Ico. I think Ico did a fantastic job of creating a sense of atmosphere as well as giving you time to appreciate it. A lot of games look amazing in screenshots but when you actually play them you’re so focused on shooting robots or whatever that you never stop to take it all in. Ico was one of the first games where just walking around the world felt like an adventure.
What games inspired you to create a game of this stature?
Dallas: We always wanted the game to be short. That’s something that came out of looking at storybooks as a source of inspiration. The fact that you can pickup a storybook and just from the weight of it you know that you could read it all in one sitting is a big part of that experience.
You can read my interview and my experience with The Unfinished Swan HERE.
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