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Playing With The Box: The Unfinished Swan

As my days fill more and more with people either with child or having raised a child (an inevitable effect of growing older), a few things stand out. First, I’ve become less tolerant of discussions revolving around the weather and what’s for lunch. Second, babies aren’t really qualified to be alive until another three or so months after birth, or so I’m told. Third, children still love to play with the strangest things.

For me as a kid, that was especially true. As much fun as I would have playing on my Sega Master System and later my SNES, playing with what was ostensibly trash was the best. From building dioramas to turning pipe cleaners into super posable action figures, I rarely became as entranced with the real thing as I would with corrugated cardboard. This big box that the new TV came in can be my fort and the box that my new Power Ranger came in can be his fort. Sometimes the TV’s remote control would get involved and be a wrestler or something, but whatever. It was fun!

And apparently that’s still a thing among children today. “They’ll always have more fun with a handful of rubber bands and some paperclips,” one friend would say. “Just give them an empty box and you’re set for the day,” would say another. And it’s not hard to see why. As children, we basically know nothing about the world we live in. Like, at all. We know hot things are hot and cold things are cold, but aside from that (and, despite what your mother told you, that most things are lickable), we just know that things can simply exist. If we can dream it up, we can believe with all our hearts that it is real because knowing nothing, we have nothing to contradict our proposal of a fountain that spews out churros or every forest has a treasure chest hiding somewhere deep inside it or a mammal that lays eggs—oh wait, never mind on that last one.

Either way, it’s our imagination that makes these throwaway, everyday things that seem extraordinary. It’s our literally limitless creative minds that fill in these gaps of practical knowledge with the fantastical and it makes adults envious. They know the truth. They know that some things just are not meant to be and never will be and they envy the fact that children still have no clue that physics will always dictate that Clifford the Big Red Dog simply cannot exist.

But if you play The Unfinished Swan, the longtime project of former comedy writer Ian Dallas and his development studio Giant Sparrow, you can reach that point again. The fairy tale narrative sets the somber stage (a young boy chases after an unfinished swan that escaped a painting his late mother left behind), but the gameplay is what really brings it home. Starting out on a stark white background, you see nothing—literally nothing—before you except a pale limbo, a wan purgatory in which you know and see nothing.

And then you paint. You press a button and a glob of paint shoots forth from you and it hits…something. It splatters, but not against anything flat. It converges. You fire again and it splatters again, this time filling in more of the picture. It’s a corner. But a corner to what? A room? A box? Perhaps where that incomplete avian ran off to?

Then it dawns on you, slow in its approach but fast and hard once it lands like a slap in the face minus the conviction. You are awakened to the notion that there is an entire universe in this blank white canvas and you just can’t see it. In an excited frenzy, you begin to blanket the world around you, revealing the walls surrounding you. It’s a nigh macabre scene of black revelations erasing the white unknown. But then the pattern breaks. The wall isn’t there.

It’s a door, or so it seems. You walk through it and paint a hallway. Curious. You take a turn and another turn and finally another before you are greeted by a recently darkened bench. A bench? Painting further, a pole is revealed. A lot of them. A forest! And to the right, a (black) picket fence. An entire countryside is hidden in the blanked out scene and you are just discovering it.

These opening moments of The Unfinished Swan are more than just about discovery but about a moment of clarity, albeit a disingenuous one. Much like a child, you have the same realization that, crudely put, things exist. In fact, so many things exist, that nothing is really stopping every conceivable thing from existing. Just moments before, that wall and that bench and those trees didn’t exist, so what’s stopping the next splash of black from revealing a rocket ship or a platypus-bear or anything else you can think of?

Which, given some thought, is a sobering notion. Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we are merely ascribing meaning to these shapes. What we know in this monochrome environment is what we see. If it’s all white, we see and know nothing. If throw our paint around, we see forms in the dichotomous haze, but nothing is certain. It is merely a silhouette of something unknowable to us. Keep painting, and we’ll soon know nothing once again.

Our tool for knowledge can just as easily be our tool for ignorance. As soon as we realize that we are limited to applying something uncertain to something unknown, the illusion of infinity shatters, but paint it all black, and we can try to believe again, but it is fruitless. It is the return of Plato’s prisoners to the cave. We’ve seen and understood the intangible truth and we can’t go back to our ignorance feigning knowledge.

And so we grow up. Tying Spider-Man to a helium balloon you got from a super market fruit stand no longer seems all that much like saving the world and more like ruining a perfectly good albeit lazy marketing display. That realm of possibilities begins to feel more like a pen than a wide open sky, no more boundless than the letters of the alphabet or the cherries in a sundae. There’s a finite number of things under the sun. Would it be selfish to want to see it all? Would it be to hope that there’s more to the world? That everything you wished for exists somewhere?

That this box is more than a box.

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