Giant Sparrow's 'The Unfinished Swan' proves that making an indie game can be black-and-white.
All you see is a white screen. You hear a few crunchy sounds, like maybe something walking in the distance, but twisting the analog reveals nothing. Just a white screen.
The triggers on the PS3 controller fire off big, inky globs that splatter on the invisible surfaces, revealing a something, tough to say what. You fire off a few more globs, and where the ink lands is the silhouette of a bench, some trees and grass.
You fire off dozens of rounds, and suddenly you're overwhelmed by a sense of creativity. Each blotch of ink, dispatched at your command, is creating the world.
The introductory area of The Unfinished Swan is like a world made of glass so clean you see right through it. Making it dirty is the only way to know what's something and what's thin air.
I first saw a prototype of The Unfinished Swan at Sense of Wonder Night at the Tokyo Game Show in 2008. It was just this mysterious and fun mechanic. The team of young designers at Giant Sparrow, led by Ian Dallas, have since signed a three game partnership with Sony Santa Monica. With the help of learned professionals at that studio including, surprisingly enough, a few God of War designers, they have given The Unfinished Swan structure, story and after nearly three years together, a 2012 release window.
You gauge the white space with the black blops, but also with sound. The splash when a ball of ink lands in a pound, causing ripples. Squishy wet dirt gives way to dry land. A frog croaks. When you hit it with a blob, the long-legged amphibian leaps into the water — only to be quickly devoured by a sea monster's loud gulp.
On a path between the trees is a golden footprint left by the titular swan. It's the first clue from the game's narrative, in which a little boy goys in search of a swan. Storybooks, we're told, were a key inspiration, the old storybooks in which danger is always lurking just out of sight.
Think Alice in Wonderland, a small child wandering into a expansive, unfamiliar space. Instead of the Red Queen, there's an artist King, and instead of wonderland, there are a number of lands "created" by the ruler at different points in his life.
At the top of a hill, you see the path you've created to get there. It's speckled with black splats and surrounded by the yawning white void.
More color appears, a golden pig's tail and a golden fork. Firing at them reveals the rest of their forms, a full pig and a piece of bacon, respectively. A red balloon in the distance is hit by a black blot, becoming a collectible.
Giant Sparrow originally imagined a game without any clear colorful clues. But that, they learned in time, was rather unenjoyable.
I ask what the other world looks like. Is it all black and white? The team smiles. Apparently this had been a hold up in the development process. They realized the painting mechanic works for about 15-minutes, then it becomes about challenging the player's skill. They instead wanted to keep what made the mechanic special, the sense of curiosity, the sense of not knowing exactly what to do, the "white screen moment", going throughout the game.
Dallas gives us a clue. "It's like the first 15-minutes of an awesome game over and over again."