Two Birds with One Stone: Giant Sparrow and The Unfinished Swan Review

Where films have directors and books have authors, video games have developers – the people responsible for the creation of the game and all of its creative endeavors. However, in a way far more apparent than in film or literature, game developers can tend to lean hard into one of two poles: making art and making money. And while it’s not impossible to do both, their intentions can seem exceedingly transparent compared to any other medium. I bring this up because when you follow a developer, when you watch their growth from a nobody to a AAA giant, you can watch them slide down the pole in the direction you would assume they would shift. Or, conversely, you can watch them implode from the pressure of the industry. So when we watch an indie developer, someone who has yet to prove their fate, it’s a bit of a mystery where they will end up, especially a developer with a clear identity and creative vision.

Giant Sparrow is one of these developers. So far they have released two games: “The Unfinished Swan” and “What Remains of Edith Finch,” in that order. I played them the opposite way, starting with “Edith Finch” and then working backwards to “Swan” because I enjoy being difficult. Each of these games share a similar animation style and focus on narrative, unique enough to tag this studio in any other similar projects. Now, having a style is fine (except when it stagnates you, like at Telltale) and even appreciated, it also makes me wonder how this studio will do in the future. How many ideas can they drum up that fit this aesthetic, how long before they need to micro-transact to get the bills paid. After playing “Swan” and being able to see the evolution between titles, I am confident in saying that I will happily purchase any game from Giant Sparrow, although like with any indie developer, I am awaiting the perpetually-incoming fall of the hammer.

(For a more in-depth discussion on “Edith Finch,” check out the podcast we did on walking simulators here, so that I can assume we are working off of the same source material here. Oh, and, spoilers for the games ahead.)

I knew nothing about “Swan” before I started it, other than the fact that it contributed to one of the more frustrating mysteries in “Edith Finch.” In Sparrow’s second game, a child named Milton disappears into a painting, with really no explanation at all. Sure, it contributes to the characters motivations surrounding him, but in a game filled with closure, and was the one unnervingly loose end. I heard in Joseph Anderson’s video breakdown of the game that this was supposed to be a tie-in with Giant Sparrow’s first release, and when I saw that it was available on PSNow (and only about a 3 hour playtime) I settled in for a classic Afternoon of Gaming. And overall it was… fun, I guess. Definitely rough around the edges, but there was a glimmer of special right at the core of it.

You play as a boy named Monroe who has been recently orphaned after the passing of his mother. She was a painter who never finished a piece, and one day, just like Milton, he chases her unfinished swan into a painting. From there, you control Monroe first-person shooter style, complete with a reticule and everything. Monroe interacts with the world by jumping and throwing paint (or water, or whatever) into the canvas that is this new world. In the beginning, everything is white, and this is where the game shines the brightest. The game doesn’t hold your hand in the first minute; you will stare at a white wall until you learn how to throw a paint ball. After that, you start uncovering the shape of the world, where all the edges and objects lay, and I really thought I was getting it. I was learning that it’s so much easier to see your surroundings when your world is only partially painted, that contrast is what provides detail, not completeness, and I felt so inspired by how snugly the gameplay and the story and the title all fit together. But then, the game keeps going.

And yeah, you do cool stuff like grow vines with water balloons and solve puzzles and watch as the world gets filled in around you, but nothing quite captures that same feeling you had at the beginning. Your stamp on the world fades, both figuratively and literally as the paint you throw stops sticking and starts disappearing before your very eyes. The gameplay gets away from you, and you start focusing on the story, which is interesting of course (Big Twist Alert: The King you’ve been hearing about this whole time was actually your father who your mother left when you were a child! Wild) but not quite as enthralling as it could be. All in all, I’m glad I played it, but I’m glad I played it after “Edith Finch.”

The lessons Giant Sparrow took from “Swan” are the best ones, I think. They played with words very uniquely here, where storybook pages show up on the walls around the city, signaled by a single golden letter. Narration was further amped up in “Edith Finch,” where letters appear physically in the world, interacting within the story. The clean animation style, realistic without becoming gritty or uncanny, is very much my style and how I hope they continue to animate that way. The music was beautiful, and the writing itself was superb, even if the overall arc was slightly lacking. It was like a beautiful tech demo for a studio: a promise of more to come, and with “Edith Finch,” they delivered.

So where did Milton land in all of this? Well, we still don’t really know. The only real connection is that both Milton and Monroe seem to be born with this gift of making paintings come to life. It’s a tenuous connection at best, and one that doesn’t really satisfy the frustration I felt at the end of “Edith Finch.” Hopefully, in Giant Sparrow’s next game, the characters will put down the brushes and stay in the game. Either way, I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

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