The Unfinished Swan: Monument or Moment?

I previously wrote about The Unfinished Swan here. Unlike that post, this one will contain spoilers as I discuss the deeper themes of the game. You have been warned.

While many try (and succeed because of it) to be action movies, video games are not synonymous with summer blockbusters. Over-the-top action is not necessary, and deeper meanings need not always take a backseat to explosions. Yet, games are often covered for their spectacle more than their merit. We applaud them for technical reasons – size of the world, framerate, amount of bonus content regardless of quality – more than we do for truly resonating. There is a place for escapist art and gaming is one of the best mediums for it, but games already do and can do so much more.

My recent playthrough of The Unfinished Swan reminded me of this truth. In the game, you play as a young boy named Monroe who chases after an unfinished painting of a swan created by his mother. Wandering off into an alien world, the boy finds monument after monument, creative but not entirely complete.

For example, the first chapter reveals the gardens, which are completely white (and thus invisible without a fresh coat of black paint which you so happen to have). The narrator reveals that a King with a magic paintbrush rules these lands. Having created the most beautiful garden, he was unsure what color it should be, so he left it white.

It was at that moment that I forgot about the simplicity of the gameplay or of the game’s puzzles. Like young Monroe, I too had wandered into a magical place, and my curiosity about its wonders was my only guiding ambition.

While I found the setting to be engrossing (especially the dark forest with the spiders), the King’s journey as the background of it all was the real star. With each new location and each new marvel, you get the impression that the King is a true artist, but also the type of person entirely self-absorbed by his work. The people of his kingdom do not appreciate the beauty that he gives them, but he never stops to consider what they want either. Similarly, the Queen – Monroe’s deceased mother – is not charmed by the hours he spends on his own trying to find ways to impress her with his art.

In the game’s climax, when you finally meet the King, neither Monroe nor the King realize your relationship with one another as absent father and estranged son. It never dawns on the King that, after spending a lifetime creating his great monuments, his son’s response to that legacy is to coat in paint while in the pursuit of the one physical reminder of his mother he had left. For a game so scant on detail or exposition, it is an incredible feat of storytelling to paint a picture so worthy of empathy, emotional reflection, and sadness.

In a sense, the King does realize the folly of his ways. In the time after his wife left him, pregnant with his child, he reflected on his actions while in a dream-heavy coma. Once Monroe awakens him at the top of a tower bearing the King’s image, he admits the foolishness of spending so much time and energy constructing such works. He realizes that his legacy must be more than great works of art, because without the respect of his people, the love of his wife, or any relationship at all with his son, who will care enough about his work to keep it free of paint and plants and decay? He passes on his magic paintbrush to Monroe, hoping he will do better, not knowing that same hope is the primary way a father may leave a lasting legacy, through his own son.

In these moments, the entirety of The Unfinished Swan’s simplistic designs reveals a more complicated whole. The story is a familiar one about innocence, but told from a perspective that conveys Monroe’s own ignorance. He was unaware of his father or his mother’s life before having him, just as the player is unaware of what lies beneath the blank canvases or dark places that populate the game’s world. There is a notion of growth and of using that growth to climb to higher places, but those places were all built by the boy’s father. Climbing them seems to be retread of the father’s steps, but a new journey for the boy as well. The Unfinished Swan sits between art and myth, revealing just enough for the mind of the perceiver to feel in the rest of the gaps with truths from his own heart.

Like any great piece of art, The Unfinished Swan absorbed my soul and absolved me from my body. I was taken in by the experience and compelled to see it through to the end. It proved to be a short-lived game, but the minimalism in its design, its story, and ultimately its length have heightened its impact on me. In what will be at most a moment in the course of my life, The Unfinished Swan leaves a lasting legacy that video games can be high art, that interacting with and within a digital space does not need to be base escapism, but can reveal the higher truths of the human experience. It was a fascinating ride that I will cherish forever.