Santa Monica-based developer Giant Sparrow’s début title, Unfinished Swan, received universal acclaim upon its release on PSN last October.
Enchanting, beautiful, esoteric, spiritual, haunting and charming in equal measure, Unfinished Swan managed to capture an essence of simplicity and purity that somehow managed to drown-out the noise of everything else around.
As they settle-in to work on an as-yet unannounced second title, Director Ian Dallas takes some time-out so sit down with VoxelArcade and reflect upon the process of making a tranquil game in a crazy world.
If the world didn’t know about Giant Sparrow before, it certainly does now! How does the team feel about the game now it’s in the hands of the public?
We’re really happy about the strong reactions the game has gotten. Our goal with this game was to create a memorable experience for players. It’s always nice to hear that people don’t hate the game, or even that they like it, but the best part for us has been hearing people talk about how they were blown away by it (either in a good way or a bad way). It was also a really nice surprise to hear how many people played through the game with children or spouses.
What was the creative start-point with Unfinished Swan and how did it evolve and adapt through development?
The game began as a graduate student project. I was in the USC game design program and every week I was supposed to come up with a new interactive prototype. At the time I was really interested in how people move through space and one week I made this white room where you had to throw paint to see what was around you. What I liked most about the prototype was the sense of curiosity it gave you as a player, looking out into a blank landscape where anything was possible. So I set out to try and make an entire game around that feeling of awe and wonder that was there in the original prototype.
Giant Sparrow’s Ian Dallas: a man at one with his work
One of the things we learned from the original white room prototype was that without having explicit goals most players would have fun throwing paint-balls for between three to five minutes. After that they got bored. So what we tried to do was strike a balance of giving players a clear long-term goal (“find the swan”) and a pretty clear mid-term goal (eg. “maybe I should checkout those swan footprints in the middle of the pond”) but a very undefined shot-term goal (eg “how do I get to the middle of the pond?”).
I think players want to know if they’re headed in the right direction. It’s like a compass, it’s a way of orienting themselves. The surprising part is that once they know which way is the “correct” path then they’re more inclined to wander off it and feel free to explore the world, which is what we wanted them to do in the first place. It’s counter-intuitive but I think you have to give players a certain amount of structure in order for them to appreciate and enjoy the openness.
What was the core message that you wanted to convey through Unfinished Swan and how would you say this reflects you as a team?
I don’t think the game has any specific message it’s trying to convey. Our goal was evoking a sense of curiosity and wonder. To do that we tried to create a space where players had no idea what to expect and were in a state of perpetual discovery. It’s a chance for players to experiment with how it feels to confront the unknown. I hope that players learn to see the world in a new way. And I hope they come away with a couple of really memorable moments that are like snapshots from an impossible vacation.
I think our focus on curiosity comes out of the team’s collective interest in learning new things. As a small team making a fairly complicated game all of us have to be people who like new challenges and learning how to do new things.
What were your creative reference points and inspirations when developing the game?
Once I knew that I wanted to make a game about evoking a sense of awe and wonder I went out looking for things that did a good job of that. Storybooks were the best models I could find so I thought a lot about why they worked so well and tried to apply that to the game. One of the reasons we chose to give the game a very overt storybook style was to remind players of what it felt like to be a child, to help put them in a good mindset for a game about curiosity and wonder.
I’ve found Unfinished Swan to be a perfect game to play either alone or with my two young boys much like a Pixar film is a perfect fit for almost any occasion. Was this intentional and, if so, what helped you to maintain this fine balance?
We never expected people to play the game with their children. But based on the feedback we’ve gotten from players that seems to be happening a lot, so it’s more of a lucky accident than anything intentional. We definitely tried to make sure players could explore the game at their own pace. That’s why there’s no combat, very few action sequences, and a lot of places to wander off the main path. I think one of the reasons the game works well for different ages is that it focused around challenges, it’s about exploration, which is more accommodating for players of different skill levels and interests.
Narrative is clearly an important foundation to the game. Can you describe the process of developing the story and of couching it in the world of children’s books?
Alice in Wonderland was the single biggest inspiration for us. The broad strokes of our plot – child wanders off into fantastical kingdom in search of missing animal – were lifted pretty directly.
I think one of the things Alice in Wonderland does beautifully is taking a lot of scenes that are essentially random (or at least unanticipated) in terms of their geography and tone and stitches them together into something that feels very cohesive and logical. We were dealing with a similar challenge in our game so that was helpful to use as a guide. I think there actually is a through-line to both experiences but it’s operating at a somewhat subconscious level (in Alice in Wonderland every scene is broadly about trying to understand and deal with nonsensical things while every area of The Unfinished Swan is loosely about seeing the world in new ways). The strong, simple through-line of child chasing animal is a great counterpoint to the less structured moment-to-moment experience.
The story has quite a sad overtone to it and yet is quite a jolly experience at times. What do you think this tension says about the game?
The story and tone both evolved quite a lot over the course of development. We started with the core idea of evoking a sense of wonder and then created spaces and moments that we felt like did a good job of that. Once we could walk around the world and get a feel for it we gradually extended the story to match what we’d created. We tried to work with the grain – so the story was supporting the experience we already had rather than trying to bend the experience to fit a preconceived story.
One of the things we noticed early on was that the game felt very lonely. You were walking through vast spaces and there was no one to interact with. It’s funny that in games with a lot of combat you rarely think about how the enemies who are trying to kill you are also providing a form of companionship, but when you remove them you notice. Anyway, once we realized we had this lonely, somewhat cold element to the experience it felt appropriate to have the story hit on some of those same notes as well.
Unfinished Swan is perhaps the most un-FPS FPS game that I’ve ever played but it’s an FPS nonetheless. Did you find the weight of the genre to be an asset or a hindrance?
FPS games tend to be made for hardcore gamers but we were really happy to find that even non-gamers could pickup The Unfinished Swan and enjoy themselves. I think there are players out there who might be afraid to try a game like ours because they’ve had bad experiences with FPS games in the past that were more focused on action and precision aiming, so in that sense the genre of FPS games is a little bit of a hindrance for us. But at the same time, the familiarity that many players have with FPS controls and the collective design wisdom game developers have built up over the last decade makes creating an FPS game a lot easier since people can immerse themselves in the world without much trouble.
Had you considered any other gameplay mechanics that didn’t make it into the final build and, if so, why were they rejected?
The water-balls you throw in the game were at one point used to make a river – it’d make puddles which were actually 10 feet deep and you could link them together. We had a working prototype of that but we never found a way to make it interesting enough. We had a sandbox where you could connect the puddles up to a current and it’d turn a watermill, but then it was like, “ OK, now what?” And we never found a good answer to that question so we cut it.
In an industry that seems to be obsessed with giving players a lengthy single-player campaign, you’ve been very brave and opted for a much shorter and arguably richer experience. Just as fitting an essay into 2000 words can be problematic, did this process represent a particular set of problems or did you find it to be liberating?
We always wanted the game to be short. That’s something that came out of looking at storybooks as a source of inspiration. The fact that you can pickup a storybook and just from the weight of it you know that you could read it all in one sitting is a big part of that experience.
Unfinished Swan does a delightful job of challenging many rules we’ve come to accept in games, particularly on a visual level. Can you describe the process by which you achieved this?
Finding elegant ways of guiding players was our biggest challenge in terms of game design. We wanted the player to feel like this was a world of infinite possibilities so in the beginning we designed spaces that gave players a lot of freedom in which way they could go. The result was that players spent a lot of time wandering around and got frustrated, then bored. By constraining players a bit more and by giving them clearer goals we found it actually encouraged them to wander off the main path to poke around a bit, since they felt confident they could find their way back later.
For the artists and programmers I think the biggest challenge was the wide range of art styles and game mechanics that we introduce. Most games focus on a few key styles and mechanics, but since this is a game about discovery we wanted to keep changing things up often enough that players were always curious about what might be around the corner.
They say that ‘less is more’, which describes Unfinished Swan beautifully. Do you feel that as the industry becomes ever more obsessed with raw technological power that this sometimes gets lost in translation?
I think it’s very hard to keep a game simple as the team working on it gets larger. If you have 100 people it’s easier to divide people into teams to work on a bunch of different systems and levels and game types, rather than saying, “OK, I want all of you to work on making this one part of the game feel really good.” Game bloat is also driven by players too – there’s a sense now, for example, that all AAA games have to include multiplayer gameplay, even if it doesn’t really make sense, which makes teams bigger and games less focused.
Screenshots from Unfinished Swan look more like works of art than perhaps any game has managed to produce before. Would you say that it’s more art than game or vice versa?
My hope is that the game is a tool for thinking about curiosity and wonder. If I had to answer “is it more art or more game?” then I’d say “game,” but it’s all just meant to encourage people to think about some things that I personally find really interesting and hope they will too.
In years to come, what do you hope gamers will feel when they reflect upon their time with Unfinished Swan?
I hope they feel like playing it again! One of the reasons we split the game up into a series of discrete chapters was so that players could pick it up years later and explore their favourite parts without having to slog through all the other bits. I hope that the game encourages people to seek out strange and unfamiliar things in their own lives, and to approach the world with a healthy curiosity.
Is there anything about the game that, in hindsight, you would do differently or expand upon?
For the most part I think we’re all really happy with what made it into the game and what didn’t There were a couple of minor changes we wanted to make but nothing major. For example, we wanted to make the second chapter a little bit shorter but we ran out of time on the art-side. Also, we never really came up with a good reason for why the King’s island sinks when the power goes out – we were going to make it a flying island with helicopter blades and whatnot but, again, we ran out of time on the art-side. I cringe a little when I see the island sink for no reason but I doubt most players notice it, since they’re too busy worrying about the water that’s rushing up around them.
Do you think that the uniqueness and boldness of Unfinished Swan is something that you’ll find to be a help or a hindrance as you develop future titles?
It’s great that we’ve been able to reach so many players who are interested in unusual new experiences. Though there’s definitely a bit of pressure in trying to make sure our next game lives up to their expectations!
Any word on what we can expect next from Giant Sparrow?
We started working on our new game in January. Our next game won’t be ready for a while (The Unfinished Swan took us three years) but I’m hoping we can start talking about it pretty soon on our blog at giantsparrow.com
What would you like the future to hold for gaming?
I just want games to be weirder.
With our sincerest thanks to the good people at Giant Sparrow and Sony for making this interview possible.