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A storybook, not a novel: How  The Unfinished Swan  took shape

A storybook, not a novel: How The Unfinished Swan took shape Exclusive

May 10, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

"The world is often more in control than we are," says Ian Dallas, creative director of The Unfinished Swan -- a former IGF Student Showcase winner and now due to be published by Sony for PlayStation Network this year.

This lesson is one that fairytales teach children, he says, and so his game explores the unsettling spaces in children's picture books. Led by a soothing narrator and chasing a swan -- "our rabbit surrogate" in this Alice in Wonderland-inspired adventure -- the player enters a world completely washed in white.

"Initially it was just a mechanic," says Dallas. "It didn't really feel like a game."

The game, developed by small independent Santa Monica-based Giant Sparrow, is set from the first-person perspective. The world appears to be a blank slate until players start to toss and splatter balls of paint on the environment. When splattered paint hits objects -- a staircase, a frog, a bench, a hallway -- those objects are revealed to the player to evoke a strong sense of exploration and discovery.

"I spent about eight months to a year figuring out what is it about the mechanics that seems the most interesting," he says. "The sense of curiosity and wonder you get from this totally white space" is what he decided to center in on -- and the team started building ever more elaborate levels hidden in the whitewash.

But how to frame it? This sense of wonder, he realized, is "something that storybooks did really well."

But not games, he says. "A lot of games these days feel to me like 500 page novels... for what we wanted to do it didn't really feel appropriate."

However, it wasn't that the team wanted to develop a narrative game. "We wanted a certain tone more than a narrative," says Dallas.

As the game took shape, he says, "we weren't sure how to tell a story in that space, and it wasn't our primary concern."

Yet once the team had built all these "castles and crazy things," adding the story of a wayward king who built a bizarre kingdom became "a good rationale" for that creative choice.

"What the game does well is an exploration of space," he says. Since players uncover the world by splattering it with paint, they become fascinated by learning the shape of the void they've been walking through -- the game features overlooks so players can turn around and understand the shape of the spaces they've already explored.

"People focus on the details... We wanted to have a story where the details matter."

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