by KrazyFace, HSM guest contributor
Some of you reading this will be gamers, and if you’re a gamer and reading this the chances are you’re quite a discerning one, one that likes to try new ideas.
It also means there’s a slim chance you may have heard of a little Indy title called The Devil’s Tuning Fork. It uses the idea of echo-location; you’re in a completely blacked out space, and pinging a tuning fork sends out sound waves that mold around the nearby scenery, allowing you to see where you’re going. This is a skill actually used by some blind people who “click” to see where they’re going. True fact, that. Google it.
The Unfinished Swan uses a similar idea here, but instead of sound waves you use paint balls. This is a more permanent solution to finding your way around and actually works with the story as part of it as well as a mechanic for the game. The first few seconds of TUS (The Unfinished Swan) are slightly disorientating, due to being dropped into a completely white-washed world. Almost any button will throw a paint ball, though, and as soon as you do, a sudden solidity comes into this new white-space: flinging blobs of paint is the only way to find your way around, and it’s a rather satisfying one at that!
You know when you see a blanket of pure, fresh, untouched pristine snow, and you know that extremely satisfying crunch it makes as you plod your way across god’s new blank canvas? Well, TUS is kind of like that. As you go around, blindly chucking paint at everything to get an idea of where you are, the world is revealed in grass-tufts and apple carts, fencing and masonry, glass windows that bounce the paint balls back at you and disgruntled animals who don’t like being splatted with paint! The more you throw and explore, the more this stylized world is revealed. There’s an almost Escher quality to the look of the land when you get to certain view points, but it’s by no means as confusing. Occasionally there are handy, stark-yellow swan footprints to coax you on in the right direction if you find yourself disorientated, which can be a welcome help from time to time.
The sound design is worthy of particular note here too. Since the majority of the world around you is hued out in slight shadows at best, the echo of your footfall will subtly change as you cross under unseen archways or enter blacked out tunnels. All of these sound effects will be harmoniously punctuated if pushed through a surround sound system too, so if you have one, use it! The set pieces also carry a satisfying weight to them in their sound when you start causing the mechanical parts to move, but TUS doesn’t just stop at using paint and sound to help you through its world, oh no. It’ll let you play with controlling vegetation and light too, but these things are better discovered on your own.
Which leads us to another clever thing Giant Sparrow (the developers) have done here: there are no instructions on how to play. None. No tutorial, no “this button does this, do that to get to places like there,” et cetera — it’ll just let the player experiment, and that’s the key here; the sense of exploration you have. Unwritten rules become solidified as you try new things, sometimes being successful and other times not so much. Yet the lack of handholding tutorials makes perfect sense: find your own way around, and explore as a child would.
This is a particularly strong message, though, because in here you are a small boy: an orphan that lost his mother who used to paint, but never finished anything. The only thing you have left of her memory is the unfinished picture of a swan. As this small boy you’ll be following the Unfinished Swan throughout this world to uncover a message and a story. The story is uncovered by finding golden letters within the walls; when found and painted, a storybook page is revealed and the soft tone of a mother reading a bed-time story will read it to you. Through this there are many interpretations to be made, about why you’re here, who the King is and what bearing it all has on the relationship of the boy and his mother. Instead of going into a single interpretation, we’d say it’s best the player finds their own ideas of what bearing it has on them. It is, after all, within these interpretations that The Unfinished Swan hides its gravitas. Giant Sparrow have obviously been influenced by Journey and its message here; there’s even a little nod to it in this game – if you can find it.
A single playthrough shouldn’t take an average gamer any more than about three hours. But don’t think this is a one-time thing. Much like Journey and its subtleties of reincarnation, so too does TUS encourage a re-play. As you go through the game there are balloons to find and free, each one will help with unlocking more complex ways of play such as the ability to freeze time. Doing this will make your paint balls hang in the air until you release time, resulting in a satisfying splatter of paint in all directions depending on how many projectiles you’ve fired off. There are other things like a firehose upgrade for some serious splatting and all give a new incentive for another run-through of the game.
Although TUS may not have the spiritual impact of Journey, it’s still an amazingly fresh idea for a game, in a similar sense of originality and the way it conveys its message to the player. This is a perfect example of how different games are from the other media that surround us — and, if wielded properly, how they can be used in a much more powerful way as a medium in its own right.