The Unfinished Swan is a tragedy that uses architecture and level design to tell its story
The Unfinished Swan is an upcoming game for the PlayStation Network that begins with a white screen. It’s disorienting, perfect, and clean. I experimented with the buttons until I found that I could throw balls of black ink, and those splattered on the ground, walls, and items that surrounded me. Soon I had an idea of my surroundings and was able to begin to move around. It’s fascinating to see just how little information your eye needs to determine what’s around you; a few smears and splashes of ink and I was able to figure out where to go and what to do. It’s a wonderful mechanic and aesthetic, but it’s only the beginning. “The first 15 minutes or so are black and white, and then there’s this complete detour,” Ian Dallas, the game’s creative director, told me while I played. “It’s mentally exhausting for people to be constantly feeling their way an inch at a time, many people liken it to being blind. It’s great for 15 minutes…” he trailed off and shrugged. The idea is to switch up your interaction with the world in every level, in order to keep the game tight and interesting. Less can often be more.
This is level design as biography
The game’s character finds himself in this land after chasing a swan, and the game reveals itself to you through the levels themselves. The world you explore was created by a king who created things with a magical paintbrush, and moving through these creations is like a guided tour through his mind. “In each of the areas you get a slice of the king’s life,” Dallas explained. “In the beginning of the game you see the king as a young man, and he creates this ridiculous castle, labyrinths, and crazy impractical structures.”Each level will correspond with a time of the king’s life. “Things do not necessarily go well for the king, so that’s reflected in the tone of the game. It starts out hopeful and interesting, with surreal crazy architecture. And then it gets a little darker. Primarily this is a game about exploration. The narrative of the king is meant to inform the exploration of the space.” This is a wonderful way to tackle story, it's design as narration. Architecture as story. Level design as biography. I played a later level where I could see the world, and the paint balls I threw were blue. Vines grew along the ground where my paint balls slashed and created a twisting, chaotic structure of leafy greens that I could then climb to see more of the structures around me. It was beautiful; I spent a long time simply splashing the areas around me with my blue water, watching the plant life snake along the ground and up the walls around me. “Am I doing this right?” I asked. “There is a way forward already available, but play as long as you’d like,” I’m told. The game invites exploration and the enjoyment of the mechanics. While the core mechanic of walking around these structures and throwing paint balls remains through the entire game, how those paint balls interact with the world changes on a level per level basis. “Our goal is to keep surprising people with a genuine surprise roughly every 60 seconds. With a single mechanic you have ten to fifteen minutes before people figure it out, and then you’re just challenging them with different variations on it,” Dallas said. “In the beginning we tried hard not to create a puzzle game, and we failed somewhat, but we tried to make the puzzles feel like something the player has discovered.” You won’t be dropped into rooms with a set puzzle to solve; as you explore each level the goal will become apparent to you as you learn how you’re interacting with that particular level. It’s a more organic way to handle this sort of game, and takes much of the pressure off the player. I never felt like I was lost, just that I hadn’t found the correct path forward. It’s a subtle distinction, but crucial. The game will be two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half-hours, and the team is actually removing as much as possible to make sure the player isn’t repeating puzzles or actions. Each interaction should be novel and challenging, and then it’s time to move on to the next. Dallas summed up the design philosophy for the Penny Arcade Report: “We want players to be exploring both the world and the game, and to be thinking 'what sort of thing is this?'”