Ian Dallas was a comedy writer who cut his teeth at the Yale Record, then The Onion, before moving into TV and working on Comedy Central’s Drawn Together. But his plan was always to make video games. So he went to grad school and created a prototype for an unusual game wherein players are confronted with a white void of a world to which they give form by splattering paint around to reveal the objects and environment around them.
Soon after, Dallas founded Giant Sparrow and began putting a story and world to that prototype. The result was The Unfinished Swan, a game of exploration in a world of architecture and paint, fused with fairy tale themes. In the game, a boy (the player) pursues a swan, discovering the world around them via the paint splatters. Because players can dispense the paint any way they see fit—firing in one direction or everywhere, splattering sparingly or completely blanketing all surfaces—the story plays out differently each time and for each player. Later in the game, the white world and paint give way to different environments and game mechanics.
The game has received praise from critics and earned buzz at E3 for its unique art style and an atypical mode of gameplay that marks a dramatic departure from the shooters and fighters that will dominate the holiday season. Swan will be published later this year by Sony to the PlayStation Network. Dallas spoke with Co.Create about the choices he made as he built that game demo into a full experience, an exploration of creativity and loss.
Co.Create: What was the thinking behind Unfinished Swan and what were the challenges of creating a game like this?
Ian Dallas: One of the things we struggled with early on was figuring out the right balance between story and gameplay. We wanted to keep everything as focused as we could on the exploration of the player and what that player was doing in the story. Our approach to it was to make the game essentially an exploration of architecture. So as you are moving around the world you are literally revealing and exploring the space around you, that is a parallel story of its own. You are a young boy that is chasing after a swan. There is another story of the world itself, that has to do with this King that has a magic paintbrush that created whatever he wanted.
In the beginning the King creates these outlandish castles and ridiculous labyrinths, what we call his Salvador Dali phase, where he is just going nuts. The game charts the historical progress of the King—the work of an artist over the course of his lifetime. In this case, it’s this King who has built up his kingdom. As you move through the game, you are seeing the King’s work change over time. The beginning is the King as a young man, but then you move into the King in middle age, where he is building this ridiculous empire. And one of the things you learn is that the King has this history of not finishing anything. So all of the stuff you are going through has been abandoned by the time you get there.
In some ways, it is an exploration of what it would be like if you could create absolutely anything. And it isn’t necessarily a good thing. Which is a problem which a lot of game developers have. When you are building a bridge in the real world, as an architect, you are very constrained by gravity, or the concrete, or whatever. Video game developers can essentially build castles in the clouds for a while, and then they have the reality of, "Oh no, we have to fix all these bugs" and "Oh no, players aren’t going to understand what’s going on." The King’s story is he created all these things without a lot of thought of what is coming next. So by the time you arrive, the world has been abandoned, because it turns out that people don’t really like living in labyrinths. It’s not very convenient.
Besides commenting on painting and architecture, are you really commenting on game design?
More commenting on creation of all sorts. One of the things that we fell on very early was this idea of unfinished things. And that came out of the original prototype of the game, which was just this white room in which you throw out paintballs. The game could’ve gone in a lot of different directions from that abstract mechanic. One of the things I really like about that was the feeling of not knowing what was out there. And trying to figure out what would make sense in a world like this. I didn’t want it to be a completely abstract, nonsense space. I wanted it to be a little bit more grounded, about things that are unfinished. That was a good explanation of why this entire world would be completely white. In the game, the player is a young boy whose mother has died, because to me that’s the most unfinished thing in the world, to create a child and then not get a chance to raise it. So everything in the game hopefully touches on this idea of creating things and leaving them unfinished, and ultimately what that means.
What was behind the decision to go with a fairy tale motif?
In the very beginning when the game was an abstract, just a boxy room, what I really liked about that was the sense of wonder you have in not knowing what was out there. And this world where it seems like there are endless possibilities. When I was looking for references that also developed a sense of wonder, story books are something that I gravitated towards. Alice in Wonderland was definitely the main reference, and to a lesser extent Edward Gorey and Shel Silverstein, and any number of stories that I have really fond memories of. We chose the storybook background as a way to set the palette of what the players might expect in the world. And also to put them back in the mindset of being a child, a world that is a little less determined than the world we experience as adults.
Why did you want to create something that plays with color and shape, rather than combat or shooting?
The first reason we didn’t have any combat was that we didn’t know what we were doing. Now, if I was doing it again, I would be much more inclined to put in some sort of combat. Because it turns out to be super, super hard to make a game in which there’s no combat. With this game we probably wouldn’t put it in. It’s interesting that when you make a game without something that is so common, you start to appreciate why they are there. I am a little bit jealous of the enemies that other games have. As a game designer, it’s a fantastic tool to be able to say, "Oh player, over here! This is where you are supposed to go!" Players know that if someone is shooting at them, that’s generally a new place to go that they haven’t been to. Which is very unlike real life, where if people are shooting at you, the instinct is to go the other way. With this game, we wanted a sense of curiosity and wonder and combat felt like something that was going to fight that.
For better or worse, a lot of games are power fantasies and being in combat with loud, violent guns. We had very different objectives. But combat is something that tends to give a game a lot of life, having enemies there in the moment to moment experience—aiming and dodging, and all those things. We found that, as we were developing the game, we ended up with something that felt a lot more quiet and in a way lonely. Even though enemies are literally trying to kill you in games, they are kind of your friends. It’s like playing "Cowboys and Indians." They may be on the other side, but they are still people that are engaged in the same experience as you. Not having combat, we found, gave our game the kind of lonely, isolated quality that we liked.
What does gaming let you create that another medium could not?
What I’m really interested in as a human being is creating experiences that really surprise people. Before I got into games I did some comedy writing. And in some ways, that’s a different approach to the same challenge. In comedy, hopefully you make people think about things in a very different way. And I think that’s where a lot of humor comes from, confronting things that shouldn’t be and having your mind trying to wrap around this impossible thing. Though one of the challenges about making a game about surprise is, the more you tell people about the game, the less they are going to be surprised when they actually play it. We try to tell people as little as possible, but hopefully enough for them to be interested.
I think Swan involves out of my own interest in creating experiences that people haven’t had before. And also my own personal fondness for surreal worlds like Alice in Wonderland, like the movies of Luis Buñuel, such as That Obscure Object of Desire, like the movies of Terry Gillian—Time Bandits was a big influence for us. It was just a combination of things that we love and we wanted to do. The game was the best way to tell that story and create that experience.
In gaming today there really is this bifurcation of games that are made by two or three people in a basement, for iPad or iPhone, and then the 200-person team making whatever AAA games that are out there. For this game, we wanted to create something that was really novel and fresh, but still played bigger in scale and a little bit grander in its aspirations. So it made a lot of sense to partner with Sony and take advantage of their resources to make something bigger than we would’ve been able to do if it was just 3 of us working in a basement. It’s actually pretty massive. The game isn’t necessarily an epic, but it’s definitely not a tiny little short story. It’s more like a novella, an experience that we don’t have a lot of games today, where you can sit down and have a tight two or two-and-a-half-hour experience.