The Elusive Nature of Perfection in the Unfinished Swan

“What The Unfinished Swan celebrates is that capacity of being human in which we strive to achieve a creative ideal”

Written by J. Stephen Addcox / Published on October 24, 2012

The blank whiteness of The Unfinished Swan’s opening chapter isn’t truly white. According to the Playstation blog, the game’s canvas is actually a somewhat yellowish white, because true white has a blueish tint on some televisions. I found this small morsel of information intriguing, because it is indicative of The Unfinished Swan’s wider significance. The Unfinished Swan is a game that asks us to see what isn’t there–to see white from yellow–to see presence in the face of absence. Like the Kanizsa Triangle, The Unfinished Swan forces us to fill in the blanks as we splatter paint across its (initially) blank world.

A splash of paint may reveal a wall, but our minds trace the edge of that wall to the floor, creating an elusive and illusive sense of dimension. This visual style serves as a starting point, but the game quickly elaborates upon and expands this opening movement.

The Kanizsa Triangle, named after psychologist Gaetano Kanizsa, is a “classic” example of illusory contours . . . either that or it’s 3 Pacmen attacking a Triforce.

The Unfinished Swan draws upon a rich history of children’s literature–the illustrative style of Shel Silverstein and stories like Harold and the Purple Crayon. Those familiar with Harold’s story will recall that the book describes the adventures of a boy who uses his crayon to create a world in an otherwise empty space. As a child, I found Harold and the Purple Crayon to be mildly terrifying, because as his drawing progresses, Harold is shown to be utterly alone. Attempting to create a companion, Harold draws a policeman who only stands as a fixed image, without life. The story and its illustrations evoked a terrible sense of isolation and emptiness that I found disturbing. The Unfinished Swan retains that idea of creating a world through art, but abandons the solitude of its forebear in favor of a world that teams with life in the face of apparent emptiness.

"We all carry a sense of unattainable perfection; and our creative output will continually struggle with a dissatisfaction, with a frustration that we didn’t get it quite right."
The signs of this life are continually present, particularly in the case of the game’s titular swan. Players take on the role of Monroe, a young boy who has recently lost his mother, a painter with a penchant for leaving her works unfinished. Upon her death, Monroe is told that he may only keep one of his mother’s works–he chooses (not surprisingly) the unfinished swan. But one evening the swan escapes from its canvas, and Monroe sets out to find it. The swan’s bright orange footprints lead him on, serving as a constant reminder of its presence. Similarly, scattered throughout the game are textual tableaus that continue the story, artfully read by a soothing narrator. As the story unfolds, we find that Monroe has ventured into a kingdom whose absent ruler also struggles with an inability to finish anything satisfactorily. Whereas the creation account in Genesis has God approving of each aspect of his creative work, the King in The Unfinished Swan constantly finds that his work is not good enough.

Indeed, the game itself seems to exhibit some of this unfinishedness. Small technical details suggest a work with more rough edges than we might expect from a AAA title. Paint splatters in ways that defy physics at times, and in a later chapter, during which Monroe uses water to prompt strands of ivy to luxurious growth across walls and ceilings, some strands of the plant disappear intermittently. And yet, I found that these qualities contributed to the game’s exploration of unfinishedness. The initial chapter forces the player to leave sections of the world unpainted–cover everything and you’re left with total darkness–it is in the spaces between black and white that we’re able to find our way. Another chapter has Monroe exploring a dark forest with only a few points of light to lead the way. Here the shadows confine Monroe’s movements, again suggesting an incompleteness.

“Hey kids! Do you see a balloon in this picture?”

Even in its conclusion, which carries with it a certain degree of ambiguity, The Unfinished Swan remains tenuously committed to being incomplete. And while the game includes some unlockable bonuses for locating various balloons that are scattered throughout the chapters, I’m convinced that the best way to honor the game is to purposefully avoid finding all of them. What The Unfinished Swan celebrates is that capacity of being human in which we strive to achieve a creative ideal. We all carry a sense of unattainable perfection; and our creative output will continually struggle with a dissatisfaction, with a frustration that we didn’t get it quite right. Too often this sense can lead to unnecessary and incessant revision, and The Unfinished Swan offers itself as an appropriate corrective to this compulsion. Resting in the unfinished shouldn’t mean that we don’t make the fullest effort, it simply means that we find contentment in the beauty of making. This then is the kind of presence in absence that The Unfinished Swan reveals–the discovery of present beauty in the absence of complete perfection.

About the Author:

J. Stephen Addcox is an Upper School English Teacher at The Westminster Schools in Atlanta. In addition to teaching Shakespeare and Jane Austen, he also enjoys using video games and digital narratives in the classroom.