For just over five years now, I’ve been madly in love with my PlayStation 3. Of course, with hardware being what it has been this console generation, I’m on my third machine (one bricking, replaced with a refurb, since sold to a friend for a whisper-quiet Slim model because I couldn’t handle the 747 engine in my living room anymore). In those five years, I’ve realized that Sony does some things really, really well with regards to the PS3. They build a sexy machine that has lots of nice built-ins. Of chief interest to me, though, is that they have set themselves up as a company that will foster unique, mold-breaking games—games that really break down the walls between traditional video gaming and interactive, entertaining artwork—and the developers that create them.
I was introduced to one of these games by HomeTechTell Wookiee in Charge, Dennis Burger. Once, while over at Casa de Wookiee, Dennis handed me a DualShock 3 controller and said, “Go.” For the next half-hour or so, I sat, agape, as I piloted a flower petal on the wind around a grassy field, collecting more petals in my wake, making dead grass turn green. When I finished the first “level,” I handed the controller back and sort of breathlessly said, “ I’ve never…”
“I know,” he replied. That game was Flower, by thatgamecompany. Ever since, I’ve actively sought out these gems that transcend the term “video game.” I am now firmly of the opinion that interactive art can exist in this format, and I do what I can to support it.
My latest transcendental experience is a new… interactive storybook, called The Unfinished Swan by Giant Sparrow. The story follows the protagonist—a young orphan named Monroe—as he travels through a previously-unseen door and into a dream world unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The reason that I hesitate to even call The Unfinished Swan a game is that it takes a familiar game interface—the First-Person Shooter—and uses it as a means to allow the player/reader to follow the story. Basically, the control scheme is the one familiar element—your security blanket, if you will—that you are allowed in the experience. Everything else that happens is based around providing you with sheer, glorious Joy of Discovery.
Yes, you shoot. But, not bullets. There is no gun, no enemy to speak of. Just a desire to continue on with the story, very much like this year’s other fantastic game-as-art, Journey. In fact, the game is presented as a book, complete with turning pages and soothing narration. Each “level” is a chapter in this bedtime story. My 12-year-old daughter sat with me for the entire proceedings, just as rapt as I was, and helped solve puzzles and point out the sights as we toured this dreamland together. We were fully engaged and curious to see where Monroe would travel next and what he would see when he got there.
I hesitate as I write this, because, I genuinely feel like anything else that I might say about the story might spoil something and reduce the joy you feel as you play it for yourself. It would honestly sadden me to think that you might encounter something inMonroe’s story and think to yourself, “Oh, yeah! That’s what Benjamin was talking about in his review.” Suffice it to say that the story, while short (as many children’s bedtime stories are), is heartfelt and transcends the audience (as many good children’s bedtime stories do), with its themes of loneliness, regret, and death. It sticks around long enough to tell its story and leaves you content. Completionists will want to go back through and try to find all of the collectibles, which can be used to unlock extra goodies, like concept art.
Ultimately, what makes The Unfinished Swan work is that it strips away all of the bombast of modern games, and leaves behind a lovely experience of one boy’s journey through a dream of his own making (or is it?). In a marketplace filled with AAA titles, each with more realistic graphics, more baddies, more bullets, and bigger, more complex plotlines, it’s nice that a company as large as Sony still values these small, intimate, emotional experiences, and continues to give them a home on its platform. The Unfinished Swan is a great way to spend a few hours, either alone, or with your kids. Or maybe even your parents, if you want to convince them that interactive entertainment, when done right, can stand on its own with the best of movies and music.
Or maybe even Roger Ebert, if you want to convince him that, yes, “video games” can be art.
P.S. See if you can find the cheeky shout-out to another game-as-art experience.