Sony knows a smart investment when they see one, and when they see a smaller title with massive potential, they're like as not to snap it up complete with their entire dev team. Case in point, Giant Sparrow Studios, who've been offered a three-game deal based solely on the strength of a single prototype build.
It's plain to see why. Ian Dallas' first title, Unfinished Swan, is easily one of the most mesmerising and memorable games of E3 2012: a minimalistic masterpiece that encourages exploration, discovery and puzzle solving through some simple yet powerful mechanics, bolstered by the immersive (arguably as-yet untapped) potential of the PlayStation Move peripheral. By throwing paint and other liquids, players will see an entire world take form around them.
Players assume the role of Monroe: a young boy whose mother is an aspiring painter, designing beautiful works but rarely finishing any of them. Sadly, she died when he was very young, and the orphanage only allows him to take a single portrait with him before selling the rest. Choosing a friendly swan as the only reminder of his tragically short childhood, our heartbroken hero settles into a miserable life in his new home. One day, however, he discovers his picture's frame empty, and webbed footprints leading towards a 'small door' which he never noticed before. Beyond lies a fairytale realm on the brink, a canvas world that needs to be brought to life - and ultimately, finished.
The initial demo level started with a completely white screen and a reticule. That's all. At first, it almost seemed like the increasingly hot dev console had crashed, but it soon became apparent that the Move trigger was capable of flicking a blob of black paint into this homogeneous, flat world. The ball flew several feet before suddenly splatting into a horizontal flat surface. A few more splats uncovered more of the floor, and eventually a wall, suddenly creating the perception of depth and a 3D space within the two-dimensional environment. "It's a room," I realised, and proceeded to merrily fling more blobs of paint around to get an idea of the size of the space. The splotches of black paint picked out corners and apices, and soon, I had uncovered a large rectangular chamber with a door and corridor leading to parts unknown. Where before, there had been absolutely nothing whatsoever.
Walking through the door using the slick Move controls, I used more paint to pick out a winding corridor before, abruptly, there were no walls any more. Tentatively flinging out more black paint to get a feel for my new surroundings yielded what appeared to be some grass. A bush. A bench. A tree trunk, no, an entire woodland. "Oh, I'm outside!" I proclaimed to no-one in particular, revelling in the simple thrill of discovering something new and choosing my own path through a completely unknown quantity. Rounding a corner into yet another formless white area revealed some teasing swan footprints away in the distance (allowing players to realise that they're in a huge flat area), but while picking my way towards them, my paint suddenly plopped rather than splatted, floating seemingly in mid air while black ripples emanated out of it. Yet more paint covered waterlillies, then a fish who leapt out of the floor dripping with black ooze, and an entire lake gradually formed between myself and my objective. Methodical splatting (something I rarely get to say) eventually uncovered some stepping stones leading over the pond, and lead me to a fortification on a hill.
Looking back on the level from this vantage point showed my path through the stage, its few details picked out by stark black on white, a genuinely beautiful sight to behold. It was a unique painting in its own right, totally and completely different from what any other player would have created in their journey through the same space.
Creating something out of nothing, uncovering complex and exciting environments out of a blank canvas through your very own unique masterpiece, is absolutely intoxicating. After witnessing so much visceral ultra-violence over the course of the preceding few days, I didn't want it to end.
Unfinished Swan won't just be a one-trick pony, however. Many of the levels will start fully-formed, picked out with a gorgeous minimalist art style and cool, restrained colour palette. The second demo level actually took place in a fairytale metropolis, with soaring buildings and towers, but it was clear that something was deeply wrong. No crowds of people filled the spacious courtyards, while thick black thorns had wrapped themselves over fountains and features.
Instead of paint, the Move trigger deploys a blob of water, which will allow for some physics based puzzling. Using these aquatic spheres to push objects and rotate paddles opened doors and eventually activated the courtyard fountain, which converted the withered black vine into a verdant mass of flowering vines. Seeing the swan perched on a distant rooftop made me realise that I had to climb up a couple of blank, featureless walls in order to progress, but with no obvious way of doing so, I proceeded to drench all and sundry to work out what to do next. When a splat landed near the vines, the plant organically grew out to fill the space, and realising this, I traced out enormous patterns across the floor and up the walls, watching the aggressive yet beautiful foliage dynamically follow the moisture and bloom into life. Using it to climb the walls let me scamper around the stage, enjoying the thrill of discovery in an entirely different way. With plenty of levels featuring unique and exciting mechanics, and a tragic story based on fairy tales and childhood trauma, Unfinished Swan promises to be absolutely brilliant - especially when played with a Playstation Move that adds a new, intuitive dimension to the first-person puzzling.
Sony's quest to support smaller developers and bring unique experiences to PSN appears to have lead them to what could potentially be a masterpiece, in any sense of the word. In an age where games are continually criticised for a lack of diversity and imagination, PS3 owners will be able to enjoy another breath of fresh air, and revel in the publisher's uniquely forward-thinking approach to their downloadable marketplace. Look out for Unfinished Swan later this year.