Whenever highbrow video game enthusiasts want to chastise the state of their preferred hobby, the easiest target for their ire is first-person shooters. This genre is the low-hanging fruit of the industry, thanks to annual releases that often do little to innovate and a multiplayer community with a rather loathsome reputation. Too often, I hear my peers use the Call of Duty series as shorthand for sort of low quality cash-in that works against progress in video games.
Even though I have enjoyed many multiplayer sessions with my friends in the past, I tend to join in on using first-person shooters as a punch line for my video game snobbery. As my free time becomes more precious with age, I don’t want to spend my time playing yet another iteration of a floating gun barrel, presumably attached to a grizzled male protagonist with a crew cut. My general assumption is that if it’s a first-person shooter, then the game must be disposable and easily forgotten.
So it’s funny that many of the more interesting and memorable gaming experiences of the last decade have been derivations of first-person shooters. In 2007, I was blown away by the narrative experience and puzzle mechanics of Portal. Later, I was immersed in games that focused on exploration to tell engaging and emotional stories, like Gone Home and Among the Sleep. Most recently, I have enjoyed the interesting gameplay and storybook atmosphere of The Unfinished Swan.
Like Portal before it, The Unfinished Swan replaces the traditional arsenal of death-dealing firearms with a single unique tool; in this case, water balloons filled with paint. The protagonist of The Unfinished Swan is a young boy name Monroe, who finds himself in a completely white space after chasing a swan that has escaped from his mother’s painting.
When the game begins, the player is given control of Monroe, with no direction of how to proceed. The first area to explore is pristine white; a world where objects cast no shadow and solid borders are practically invisible. When presented with this space, I fumbled at the controller, mashing buttons to affect the environment while Monroe knocked his shins against phantom park benches and large stones.
As my finger grazed the shoulder button, Monroe lobbed an inky black balloon, which left a splatter of paint in its wake. I hit the button again, throwing another paint balloon nearby its predecessor. Soon, I was hurling balloons left and right, covering the world around Monroe in a gloopy, ebon mess. The core mechanic dawned on me- my projectiles were not meant for defense, they were meant for navigation.
The Unfinished Swan expands on this initial painting as the game progresses. Later, there are temporary paint balloons, water balloons to manipulate growing vines, and even balloons that work like 3D printers, creating platforms for Monroe to traverse. These mechanics reflect the theme of artistic creation and completion that is presented during the story. Monroe chases after his late mother’s unfinished art while building on a world made up of the incomplete projects of the resident monarch. By reinforcing a key aesthetic through gameplay and narrative, The Unfinished Swan further immerses players in an unique experience.
The Unfinished Swan may not technically be a first-person shooter. It certainly lacks many of the tropes and attributes of titles like Halo or Battlefield, making the game closer to the adventure genre. But it is this sort of categorization that often causes consumers to overlook potentially exciting games because of trendy misconceptions and assumed public opinion. The perspective, controls, and mechanics of The Unfinished Swan are not so far removed from Call of Duty, and they most certainly share a similar ancestor in the first-person games of the past. The key as a player is to seek out and support interesting and fun experiences, so others will be encouraged to do the same.