LOS ANGELES — There’s an intriguing story lurking behind one game at E3 this year, The Unfinished Swan. We spoke with producer Max Geiger of Giant Sparrow to find out more about the game, and how it came into being.
First off, what is The Unfinished Swan? It’s not obvious from the name or even first few disorienting minutes with the game. “The way we describe it is a first-person painter,” was Geiger’s response. “You are in this all-white world and throw black paint to uncover the contours and silhouettes of the world in order to be able to navigate through it.”
Geiger played through the first level and second level of The Unfinished Swan, and talked me through each element. After a preamble you are presented with an all-white screen and a reticule that is controlled with the PlayStation Move or Dual Shock 3.
Pressing a button flings a pellet of paint in front of you. As these explode and splatter, you’re surrounded with black pigment and you can start to make out the architecture of the place. By doing this you can find your way through the first level. Subsequent levels use the same throwing interaction but with different materials and in different scenarios.
We asked Geiger how the game came about.
“We showed the game at Tokyo Game Show’s ‘Sense of Wonder’ night,” he said. “Somebody at Sony saw the game and decided to get in touch, so that’s how the ball got rolling.” The relationship with Sony seems to be formative, not least given the developer’s small beginnings. “We definitely fit at the smaller end of the spectrum; Giant Sparrow is just 12 people. As we went along, the size of the game we wanted to make required us to hire more people,” Geiger said.
It’s here that we touch on Sony’s almost altruistic approach to supporting these small developers (admittedly with half an eye on the brand and profit benefits). “We have a similar deal to what [Journey developer thatgamecompany] had with Sony. We are incubated inside Santa Monica Studio, which makes God of War. Tucked off by the kitchen… It’s support to get us up and running both as a company and getting our game out the door.”
We asked Geiger whether he had thought about other platforms like iPad or even Wii U. “They [Sony] give us space, give us advice and give us equipment. They are really good people. Of the deals we were offered, this was certainly the most generous. Sony have been really good to work with; they really believe in supporting smaller independent projects like this.”
The game itself certainly feels a little like Flower and Journey to play. Hearing Geiger talk about Giant Sparrow’s motivation for the game, this is no surprise. “Our goal for the game is to instill in players a sense of wonder, and the way we do that is through discovery, surprise and exploration,” he said. “We also want to layer in a little bit of a sense of fear and dread in this world. It’s something that we found that a lot of the best storybooks have. It helps to keep players interested and on edge.”
Unfinished Swan also takes an interesting approach to sound. “Once players are familiar with the first level, they might be able to play without even splatting once,” said Geiger. “If you knew the underlying geometry long enough, you should be able to hear your way through the spaces.”
As with most of these from-left-field titles, all sorts of unusual cultural benefits start to emerge. We asked Geiger what age group or demographic Giant Sparrow is aiming at. “We are hoping to run the gamut; that a child will be able to enjoy the game-play while darker elements will be more appreciated by adults,” he said.
As we came to the end of our time with Unfinished Swan, it was with a little sadness that we left the demo. There seems to be so much more to discover here, not least layers of story and an enigmatic (and seemingly crazed) king who is reflected at different stages of life in each of the environments. The Unfinished Swan looks original and intriguing and fun to play.