I do a poor job of playing games when they’re released. So even though the Unfinished Swan came out in 2012 it was not until last week that I finally played through it. Today I want to talk about why it’s an amazing horror game. Yes—I said horror game. Watching the trailer may (rightfully) think that I’m insane for applying that label to the Unfinished Swan.
And so I present my case.
The gimmick of the Unfinished Swan is that you throw around paint to figure out how to navigate through whitespace. Just watch the trailer above, because I cannot think of a great way to describe it. It’s one of those mechanics that’s immediately obvious in its application once you see it.
So how can the Unfinished Swan be scary in any way? Because your imagination will naturally try to fill in the gaps. For example, on the first stage I chucked a paint ball, expecting it to show me a room or some stairs or maybe even a tree. Instead the paint ball hit the ‘ground’ with the plop of a stone landing in water, which was exactly the environment. It was at that moment I realized that anything could be directly in front of me and I’d never know it: water, pits, and so on. This can create a fear because in the absence of visual feedback your brain can make wild guesses about the world. “What if there’s a drop directly to my left? Just how much water is surrounding me?” I unexpectedly fell to my death more than once after arcing a paint ball through the air, over the hole in front of me.
The forest stages can also play to one’s fears because, again, they leave much to the imagination. Instead of monsters and jump-scares and such, the Unfinished Swan has beedy red-eyed creatures with bodies you can’t see as they’re encased in the darkness around you. To avoid them you have to run from one lit area to another. They will not enter the light, leaving you surrounded by bloody eyes staring at you from the darkness.
It’s the type of fear of a childhood imagination. It makes perfect sense as you play a child in the Unfinished Swan. And that means it has equal parts beautiful and creative childhood wonderment.
The Unfinished Swan has less horror to it than it does other elements; fear is not the predominant mood. But the game is a wonderful example of how you don’t need monsters or gore or grit to be scary. You can affect a person’s nerves just as effectively (arguably moreso) by witholding information from them. Remember how long it took in the film Alien before you saw the xenomorph in its full form? That slow, measured reveal enhanced the fear. Or compare the demo P.T. and its creepy house to Silent Hill: Homecoming, where you’re kicking ass left and right because you’re a soldier. Some parts of the Unfinished Swan work in the same manner as Alien and P.T., and its a technique that horror video games ought to adopt more often in my opinion.