Oct. 24, 2012 at 4:04 PM ET
"The Unfinished Swan" is one of those video games that I feel compelled to show people who think they know what video games are all about: Guns. And more guns. And the bullets that come out of those guns.
Yes, some video games are all about the guns. And that's just fine if you're a grown-up who loves shooting digital things (which many of us do). But while "The Unfinished Swan" is a shooting game of a sort, it's also a fine example of the other end of the gaming spectrum — the place where game developers (often of the independent variety) create something that is entirely unexpected.
"The Unfinished Swan," developed by the small indie team at Giant Sparrow, is at turns an interactive story book, an ever-changing puzzle and a work of art. It is a first-person shooting game minus the bullets. Most importantly, it is an example of how video games and art can come together to make something that is enormously fun, thought-provoking and wondrous to behold all at the same time.
In this downloadable game just launched on the PlayStation 3, you play a young orphan boy named Monroe who has chased after a swan — chased after it right into a strange other-world. Inside this world you find yourself venturing through a surreal kingdom that is at turns serene and terrifying ... and always surprising. (Check out the just-released launch trailer for a peek at the game.)
There is a mysterious king (voiced by none other than Terry Gilliam himself) and an elusive bird that is always out of reach, and playing through this story book brings to mind both "Alice in Wonderland" and M.C. Escher. Indeed, it often feels a bit like you're playing an M.C. Escher lithograph.
The basics of the gameplay are made clear in the first chapter. Playing from the first-person perspective you must walk around and shoot things. If you've played first-person shooting games before, then you know how this goes ... and yet you don't.
Here you enter a world that is entirely white and you must shoot, not bullets, but balls of black paint which reveal the shape of the environment around you. The splatterings of the black paint reveal the place where a wall curves, where a bench stands, and where a dock leads out into the water. Basically, you are blind without the paint. The below teaser trailer for the game will show you what I mean...
But this is only the beginning. As you play, you will go on to shoot balls of water and you will paint with living greenery. And without revealing too much, let's just say this shooting and painting mechanic changes chapter by chapter in some very interesting ways. And just when you think you know what "The Unfinished Swan" is all about, it takes a turn ... and then another turn.
And that's the beautiful thing about this game — the joy of discovery. Because "The Unfinished Swan" is unlike other games and because the developers at Giant Sparrow don't hand-hold you with specific instructions, you are treated to these wonderful "a-ha!" moments throughout the game.
Though "The Unfinished Swan" is not a child's game, per se, it's well worth playing with a kid if you happen to have one on hand. Young minds are especially good at appreciating the joys of exploration and discovery. I played with my own young gamer and it was a thrill to watch his delight at each revelation this game held.
At $15, "The Unfinished Swan" could stand to be, perhaps a bit longer. And experienced gamers will no doubt say it could also stand to be more challenging. But that said, "The Unfinished Swan" feels like an antidote to mainstream gaming as usual, and that is well worth the price of admission.
If you love games like "Journey," "Flower" and "Limbo" then this definitely belongs in your collection. And even if you prefer your first-person shooters to come with bullets, "The Unfinished Swan" is worth checking out just to see how creative game developers can take what we know ... and make something entirely unexpected.
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.