An Unfinished Perfection: The Unfinished Swan Examined Phenomenologically

Soham Ganguly, Independent Scholar, Kolkata


This paper critically examines The Unfinished Swan, a videogame released for the Play Station 3 platform by Giant Sparrow Entertainment, as an existentialist narrative. With this aim in mind, the various devices used in the game for the purpose of narration and virtually representing the imaginary world in which the story takes place, i.e, within the fairytale world of an unfinished painting, are studied. Their cumulative effect is considered through the lenses of existentialism as laid down by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Whether a virtual representation of an existential quest for meaning is possible is at first examined, after which, the focus is shifted to how far this is realized in the game.

Right from its outset, in terms of its title as well as its back-story, The Unfinished Swan harps incessantly on the fundamental problem that carries the narrative of the game forward, that in it, there is something dominant that remains unfinished, namely the world of the painting that the protagonist enters, and the player plays in. As part of its back-story, we find that the protagonist, Monroe is left with one of many paintings that his mother created, all of them left unfinished. The one left to Monroe is that of a swan, unfinished as well. The game begins with Monroe following the footprints of the aforementioned swan through a magical door in the wall.

The property of the painting of the swan being unfinished gives the protagonist the reason to proceed to do so. We may define this as a fundamental lack at the heart of Monroe’s being and hence, fuelling his eternal striving towards the goal of solving the enigma latent in the narrative-

We must further understand that the intentions aim at appearances which are never to be given at one time. It is an impossibility on principle for the terms of an infinite series to exist all at the same time before consciousness, along with the real absence of all these terms except for the one which is the foundation of objectivity. If present these impressions even in infinite number-would dissolve in the subjective; it is their absence which gives them objective being. Thus the being of the object is pure non-being. It is defined as a lack. It is that which escapes, that which by definition will never be given, that which offers itself only in fleeting and successive profiles (Sartre, 1966, p.28).

Indeed a phenomenological study of The Unfinished Swan demands that the portrait be unfinished in order to provide the protagonist the reason to set out into the world of the painting. The game is replete with existential symbols, apart from being, in the ludological sense, full of possibilities and paths of action.

The goal of the boy is to follow the trail of the swan. The swan embodies a primary existential symbol in the course of the game. Having its origin as a creation of the boy’s mother, the swan stands for the past, and in the life that the boy lived prior to setting out in the game’s central quest of the swan hunt, it formed his present, and as he seeks to find the swan it becomes his future possibilities all put together.

A fresh, white slate of a world is given to the player, which forms the “ground of experience” (Sartre, 1966, p.73), and the matter of Dasein or “being in the world,” as conceptually laid down by Martin Heidegger and examined by Sartre, immediately comes into play (Heidegger, 1962).

To start with, hence, we need take a look at Being, and how it stands in this context- “’Being is. Being is in-itself. Being is what it is.’ Being includes both Being-in-itself and Being-for-itself, but the latter is the nihilation of the former. As contrasted with Existence, Being is all-embracing and objective rather than individual and subjective” (Sartre, 1966, p. 592).

The white world which greets Monroe upon first starting the game, or even at the beginning of each chapter or level, may be likened to a state of pure being, because it is, and no more may be said about it. Though there might be scruples of it not entirely being Being because it can stand by its chromatic, visual properties as being not-black on not any other colour, one may reason that since it is a visual approximation of the principle of Being-in-Itself, this is pretty much the nearest the game designers could get to it….Access Full Text of the Article

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