Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Unfinished Swan Asks If Games Can Soar As High As Art

There’s an unfortunate but often fascinating moment in video games that can only be described as a “bug.” It’s any of those jarring, game-breaking moments foreign to heavy readers or cinephiles—imagine, for example, trying to read a book only to open a page and have the words tumble out, spilling across the desk uncontrollably. But to gamers, they’re so commonplace to the point that they became moments of abject, ridiculous humor, like the now notorious moment when players of Skyrim first realized they could put buckets on other characters’ heads to steal from them undetected. Other times, they can be strange works of art, such as when you unwittingly pass through a wall and dangle slowly in a vast, gray emptiness beyond the known world of your avatars.

The Unfinished Swan starts in one of these moments. And the beginning of the game is so quiet, so profoundly understated, that you barely realize it’s a game at all. On the screen, there is just white. Nobody tells you what to do, who to shoot, or where to go. In place of the “attack” button that so many games have taught players to accept as the one you press to kill things, your character lobs splotches of black paint. As they fall on the surfaces around you, slowly a world is revealed. The blankness of the screen stretches out like a page or canvas, making any gesture then placed on it mimic the very joy of creation.

When I first asked Ian Dallas, the game’s lead designer and writer, why he wanted to make a game like The Unfinished Swan, he said, “I feel like there’s so much out there that is repetitive, comfortable, and familiar. I just want to create something that people have never seen before.” It may be a nervous impulse as a tech journalist, but I bristled almost by instinct at a line that sounded like the marketing shill I’d seen on countless press releases and review units before. So instead I asked him what games he remembered being struck by himself.

“Super Mario Brothers,” he said without missing a beat. “I don’t know that I’ve had many experiences in my life that were like the joy of discovering that you could warp from level one to many of the other places in the game—you didn’t have to play from beginning to end.”

He then started reminiscing about the original Zelda game. “Just walking out onto Hyrule field and thinking, ‘Wow, this thing goes on forever!’

This dream of a world without structure or limits, more than its reality, is what drives The Unfinished Swan as the game asks how much freedom the absence of boundaries actually affords. It has a clear structure, presented to you slowly and simply like the pages of a children’s story book. It’s a touching fairy tale about a proud and lonely king that walls himself up behind his own creations—all grandiose and majestic, but uncomfortably incomplete.

It’s tempting to see the game as a children’s title because of its unerring simplicity. But the Unfinished Swan feels like it was made to recreate the experience of childhood wonder rather than simply capitalize upon it. The voice of the female narrator who explains most of the story radiates the immense warmth of a mother reading a bed time story to her child. As you walk through mazes and dark forests, any of the game’s small challenges are quashed by her unwavering calm.

This lack of meaningful challenge is probably the most noticeable aspect that makes The Unfinished Swan stand out. The only thing I truly risked at any point in the game was possibly getting lost. Really, as IGN’s struggle to label The Unfinished Swan within a specific genre (they settled for “surreal maze game) shows, it’s even hard to qualify it as a “game” as opposed to simply a piece of interactive art. Trying to communicate its experience, Stephen Totilo, the editor in chief of the popular video game blog Kotaku, settled for simple directions: “you will paint a wall,” “you will water plants,” and “you will walk next to a river and then build a staircase.”

That may not sound particularly exciting. But when the standard by which most games is measured is how many sentient creatures you can kill (or, occasionally, choose not to kill), the fact that The Unfinished Swan doesn’t even ask the question hints at new possibilities for games, new standards of first-person experiences beyond simply shooting—possibilities which, like the game’s titular symbol, remain regrettably unfinished.

But thanks to services like Microsoft ’s Xbox Live Arcade and Sony ’s Pub Fund, a growing number of acclaimed independent “art games” are finally making it to consoles and asking gamers an important question: can a good game also be sort of boring? If The Unfinished Swan tells its players anything beyond a fairy tale, it’s that there can be beauty even in boredom.

Catherine Bosley Nigel Hawthorne

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