The Unfinished Swan

Year: 2012, PS3&4 exclusive – Released on PC by Annapurna Interactive in 2020

Developer: Giant Sparrow

Genre: fable, art game, narrative, surreal

How to conceive a masterpiece

All started from a group of students attending the Interactive Media Division of the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California; they formed the nucleus of what will be the Giant Sparrow team, from which stood out Ian Dallas, future creative director. They had a brilliant idea: let the players shooting black ink balls into a pure white screen to find out forms and details of the game world! The interaction of ink balls with the three-dimensional game world, pre-existing but invisible, was a difficult challenge for developers: how the ink should have spread with a fairly realistic effect and at the same time display the forms and details without create confusion and turn everything into an indistinct black screen? A major problem of aesthetic as well as technical!

In 2009 they presented a short tech demo at IGF, Independent Game Festival in San Francisco, which came into the final stage in the category Students Showcase. The demo showed two different implementations of the basic idea: one with white game world and black ink balls, and another with black game world and white ink balls. This second version will come later discarded. In this stage the game had not yet been conceived. The demo was using the distressing music of Moby, so that someone thought it was the beginning of a horror game!

Ironically, the award was won by another project with some similarities: Tag, The Power of Painting, which is worth a little digression. In this game the player is allowed to spray special colored paints on the surfaces of the black and white game world, so surfaces assume particular properties useful for resolving clever environmental puzzles. Immediately Valve recruited the young team for developing Portal 2: the idea of special paints making surfaces bouncy or slippery comes from here! Also the first Portal was developed with the aid of a young team, creator of the indie game Narbacular Drop, the first one to introduce inter-dimensional portals!


Let’s come back to The Unfinished Swan (TUS). It took off from the tech demo, but it needed a substantial expansion of the creative team, which reached up to 12 elements, and a strong support from the famous full-bodied Sony Studio in Santa Monica, with whom Giant Sparrow signed a contract for three exclusive games. The second of which should have been What Remains of Edith Finch.

Developing TUS was a long but fruitful task; it was released only in October 2012 as a PS3 exclusive, only downloadable from Playstation Network. In 2014 it was optimized and re-edited for PS4 and PSVita. It was the forerunner of the new approach towards indie productions that Sony finally decided to follow; an approach characterized by comprehensive support for developers (in this case operated by SCE Santa Monica Studio), so that they were able to make the most of the PS hardware and realize their ideas without giving up anything. I do not think it’s a coincidence that 2012 was a special year for artgames such as Dear Esther, Papo & Yo, The Walking Dead Season 1, Journey. The latter is even honored by an Easter Egg in TUS: using the telescope inside the lighthouse you can see on the moon two figures very similar to the protagonist of the ThatGameCompany masterpiece!

The development of TUS took so many time because the story has been built with great care around the game mechanics. After all it is a first-person game where you shoot with the right trigger, as in FPS, but instead of weapons you have a magic brush that throws ink balls. Directing and appropriately measuring the ink, you have to draw colours and forms on the screen, jus as an artist on a white canvas. It’s a peaceful and non-violent gameplay, with evident artistic and aesthetic charm and a powerful sense of discovery, wonder and exploration that grows while you bring shapes and details to the surface. The choice of telling a fairy tale was a natural consequence. Alt! No prejudices! It is a surreal fairy tale with a great sense of humor that can be enjoyed by children at a basic level and by adults at a deeper level; so you will not be bored or disappointed, it will enchant you because of the charming aesthetic and creative ideas, and will give you deep emotions and thoughts as well as hours of fun.


(spoiler alert, if you have not played the game you can skip)

A book entitled The Unfinished Swan is opened, its blank pages are drawn and animated in real time; the preamble of the story is narrated by a voiceover. You are Monroe, a child living in an orphanage, son of an extravagant paintress who after her death left all her paintings unfinished! Monroe was allowed to take only the mother’s silver brush and to hang a single painting in his bedroom, the favorite of her mother, a portrait of an unfinished swan!

 One night the swan escapes from its canvas and enter a door magically materialized on the white page of the book! Monroe chase after it and finds himself out of the book, in a completely white 3D realm, with the magic silver brush in his hand! Yes, magic! In fact it is able to throw black ink balls so that you can view the forms and details of that strange kingdom. He starts exploring and researching for the swan. Gradually he discovers that he is in the reign of an old king, very narcissistic and endowed with magical powers, thanks to which it has built an unfinished city that is a maze, in which even the inhabitants get lost! The king was a purist and did not want the city to be colored, only white, even without shadows! Citizens protested and began to paint shadows and colors. The king forbade all the brushes, especially the magic ones. Villagers abandoned the kingdom, leaving alone the king to fight against green creepers infesting the city. Luckily he was helped to repel the invasion by a gentle giant and his faithful hippopotamus. The trio also had to face a dark presence that wanted to blacken the white kingdom; they managed to reject it outside the city walls. Tired and with magical powers decreasing , the king built a flying ship and retired with the hippo on a far away island; there he built a giant statue of himself and went to live inside its big head! The friendly giant fell asleep in the middle of the labirintic town and never woke again.

Monroe chases the swan throughout the deserted city; in order to reach the highest parts of the city, he revitalizes the green creepers , making them expand all over the walls and the floors and using them as ladders. Within the city the silver brush shoots drops of water instead of ink; that is why Monroe is able to make grow and direct the creepers. On the roof of the king’s castle, he finds the flying ship: the chase goes on. It’s like the swan wants to take him somewhere!

Suddenly a black cloud envelops the ship and forces it to an emergency landing. Monroe finds himself in a completely dark forest, probably where the dark presence had been rejected by the king; he can see in the distance the huge statue of the king and heads in that direction: maybe that’s where the swan was directed. The journey is full of dangers and staying in the dark means sure death by giant spiders claws! Luckily there are some plants that properly stimulated by the silver brush provide spot of light to escape from darkness. After several misadventures, Monroe comes to a house, just unfinished as mother’s pictures and the king’s city; with no ladders, he cannot enter. He finds the construction project drawn on a canvas; magically he enters the house map and finds himself in a weird stylized world! He uses the magic brush to complete the house map adding new 3D colored blocks! He chases the swan to the top of a stylized lighthouse on the lake shore, and then comes back to the “real” world. He explores the real mansion and discovers that the king had been living there before building the giant statue. The king fell lonely, so used his magic powers for creating a beautiful woman, and got married. His wife became pregnant but she was not happy. She spent all the time painting unfinished pictures! The painted subjects were all unfinished animals, who later escaped from the canvas and populated the dark forest! The woman could not stand the king, who was too narcissist and egocentric; despite being pregnant, she fled and brought with her only one thing: the picture of an unfinished swan…..

Monroe finds a boat and heads for the island in the middle of the lake, where the statue is. He follows the swan’s footsteps to the top of the giant statue; for climbing, he has to turn off the electric power of the defense lines. Abruptly the island and the statue begin to sink into the lake! He manages to enter the house inside the head while the statue is going completely under water!

In the “submarine” room the king is sitting in front of a fireplace next to his faithful hippopotamus. The king is sleeping and Monroe wakes him up.

<< Ah, you’re the boy from my dream! What a strange dream! >> exclaims the king; then he begins to tell his dream.

The king’s dream.

The king was admiring his white immaculate kingdom, when…. tragedy! A boy began to sully its gardens with black ink! He rushed after him through the whole city, but the city was strangely reversed, with roads instead of sky and vice versa, so he had to walk upside down! Tragedy….the king realized that the boy had soiled his reign with the green creepers!

Suddenly he found himself in a little church at his own funeral! His body was in the coffin! In the church was a mirror; it didn’t reflect the king’s image, but the boy one! He left the church and walked towards his gigantic statue in the lake, but the closer he got, the more he grew up, until he became a giant looking down at his little statue and city! Accidentally he bumped into the statue that broke into a thousand of pieces. From that perspective he understood that his kingdom was not so huge and everlasting compared to the Universe: sooner or later, after his death, it would have become dust.

The king says that the dream has taught him one important lesson: he has to leave a legacy, to give his magic paintbrush and his powers to someone younger than him and allow him to use it freely; perhaps at first he would accomplish some mistakes but then would learn from experience and would continue to paint and change the world around him following his personal creativity. Maybe it could be the good time for his works to be completed! He gives his magic brush to Monroe and the unfinished swan appears magically; an all-white door opens on the wall. Monroe crosses the magic threshold and finds himself in his bedroom in the orphanage; the swan is again in the painting! Wasting no time, he completes the swan and draws also two beautiful ducklings! Then he goes back to sleep happy.

(end of spoiler)


It is a fairy tale that invites to cultivate creativity and imagination, to discover, explore, innovate, experiment, dare, go beyond the conventions etc. It can be understood as meta-art, a work of art that speaks of art and allows you to experience it in an interactive way!

It focuses on the relationship between fathers and children, adults and children. The fact that both the paintings of Monroe’s mother and the works of the king-father always stay unfinished, underlines the importance of children as a completion and fulfillment of adults. It’s the nature of children to make mistakes and cause troubles, but the more they wrong, the more they learn.

Adults should not inhibit their creativity, they should have more patience, trust them, follow them, watch them, advise them, correct them, encourage them to do better. Adults have to accept that children could not grow up according to parents desires, they have their own personality and could make different choices.

(spoiler alert, you can skip)

At the beginning the king is jealous of his city, he wants it to remain all white and immaculate; he does not accept the changes made by Monroe by means of his black ink or the green creepers. At the end of his life he understands that he needs to be replaced by his son; certainly he will commit some mistakes, but also the king made many mistakes: he was too selfish and full of himself, he disappointed his citizens and his beloved wife. Finally the king accepts that his child may have different ideas and tastes and therefore may complete and color the kingdom and the city in his own way. Nothing is eternal, nothing can remain unchanged for ever, everything changes and evolves, children follow a way different from the fathers one.

An all white and uniform world is also a world uninhabitable, lifeless, motionless, static, invisible. It takes shape and comes to life only when Monroe makes it dirty with ink or creepers. Life is color, variety, diversity, pluralism, change, evolution; a colorful and multiform world is a better world. The king is too self-centered, does not listen to his citizen, who abandon him, and cannot conquer the love of his wife. The moral is: you need to open your mind to things and people who are different from you, you have to understand that without diversity you are not complete nor satisfied, but only unfinished….like the swan!

(end of spoiler)

Game mechanics

They are very original and more varied than it looks. You shoot ink balls to display the game world and water balls to direct the growth of climbing plants in order to climb up walls and create vegetable bridges. There are several environmental puzzles based on these mechanics, whose resolution is necessary  for chasing the swan.

You have also to free helium balloons carefully hidden; based on the number of released balloons, you can buy some really fun accessories: the hydrant, which shoots ink or water like a machine gun; a sniper rifle, which allows for firing the ink or water balls in a straight line and not along a parabolic trajectory; the radar, useful to detect the presence of hidden balloons nearby; the time-freezer, by which you can block at mid air the balls launched from your brush in order to accumulate them in large number and then let them fall all at once with a really fun effect; the white canvas, by which you can erase with a single click all the ink stains and creepers and bring the game world to its immaculate white.

In the dark forest you have to shoot ink balls to stimulate some exotic plants to emit light, or to make some glowing balls rolling along your path so that you never stay in the dark; otherwise big and ugly spiders with red eyes will attack you and you will have to restart. After the purity and tranquility of the white city, it sounds strange to find yourself in a threatening obscurity, being injured and “killed” by spiders claws! Scratches and wounds are even highlighted by unexpected red gashes on the black screen! So weird for a fairy tale! In the previous chapters the only danger was to drown in lakes and rivers.

The Unfinished Swan never ends to amaze, and in the last chapter introduces another original game mechanic. For entering the unfinished house of the king, you will have to build stairs and floors. Which is why you literally have to enter the house design plan! You come to a strange stylized 3D world and have to complete the house plan by creating three-dimensional and colorful blocks with your magic brush. Then you have to use the blocks to climb on top of a lighthouse and return to reality!

All the game mechanics imply a creative and artistic act and you will never be bored.


Hard to find a game with an aesthetic concept so original and refined. Aesthetics in the making: the white screen gradually takes shape thanks to the ink spots, a metaphor for the artistic act itself. In many parts of the game you can see the result of your ink splashes on the white reign, your personal painted artwork, and every time the visual impact is breathtaking. Really have you realized that fresco? It is a deferred artistic collaboration between the player and the developers!

A key moment is the first time you see the city maze, which suddenly stands before us in all its architectural daring, so that it seems to come out from an Escher drawing! The aesthetics of the game world evolves gradually: white gardens stained by the black ink balls, the white city surrounded by gray shadows, blue rivers and yellow royal symbols; green creepers complete what seems the 3D interactive picture of a mad painter! In later chapters, scenarios become more and more colorful.

The quality of the drawings with their minimal but abstruse geometry is remarkable. The interactive dynamicity of the images on your screen creates a hypnotic stream that excites imagination and calms the mind.

The contrast created by the exploration of the dark forest is amazing; aesthetics are reversed: you find small, bright and colorful oases set into the deep black background. When you stay too long in the dark, you are attacked by spiders and blood colored scratches fullfill the blackscreen; the controller vibrations transmit you the feeling of the shot! Unexpected for a fairy tale, especially after the whiteness and pacifism of the early chapters, but the contrast is perfectly timed.

One of the most striking moments is the escape along the river, when you have to walk along the shore near the luminous ball floating on the water; in that magical moment you are surrounded by the sound of running water, by the chirping of cicadas and the croaking of frogs; suddenly you meet a giant frog, strangely unfinished! Of course one of the beasts ran away from one of the Monroe’s mother paintings! Impossible not to recognize the homage to the cult movie “Night of the Hunter” (1955) by Charles Laughton.

The king’s dream is an Escherian and surreal delirium! At one point, you are walking along the city upside down while the end credits materialize on the walls! Monroe interrupts the king and asks him: << In your dream there were also credits? >>. And the king: << Oh, yes and even subtitles!>>. A moment of pure genius breaking the so called fourth wall!

The dream is a visionary carousel full of artistic and symbolic suggestions, accompanied by a relentless, sly and absurd narration. Famous film director Terry Gilliam (Brazil) gives his voice to the king!

A curiosity: the Art Director of TUS is Hokyo Lim, the same of League of Legends!


Do not underestimate the literary crossover. TUS is basically a fairy tale narrated by a voice-over! You are the protagonists of the illustrated book at the beginning of the adventure. The adventure is divided into chapters, just like a book. At the beginning of each chapter an illustrated book page is displayed on the walls of the kingdom, helping to better understand the events. The text has a great literary quality and is characterized by narrative hyperbole, nonsense and moments of sly humor, contributing to the general sense of creative crazyness.


Soundtrack fits perfectly in the context and emphasizes the fairy tale sense of adventure, discovery and wonder. Original Music by Joel Corelitz.

Artistic legacy

US is an original artwork which does not refer to previous titles, but has affected at least another title: “Beyond Eyes” by Sherida Halatoe, whose gameplay it is also a metaphor of the creative act, although it has completely different implications related to the imagination of a blind little girl.


TUS is a game rich in content that stimulates deep reflections; it’s able to excite and entertain you in a smart way with moments of awe and wonder; its fascinating storytelling is well integrated with aesthetic elements and gameplay; game mechanics are varied and original and have an intrinsic artistic sense; graphic and design are original, refined and sublime; the text is worth of the best fairy tales and is well harmonized with music. TUS is an artwork of creative madness!

There is no doubt that we are facing a milestone in the artistic evolution of video games. I’m not hiding that it is one of the titles that prompted me to buy PS4! And I must say that it is alone worth of the whole cost!

Rating: 99/100 (only because perfection does not exist!)

Luca Frangella

3 thoughts on “The Unfinished Swan

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