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VR vs. Swans & All-Stars

Left behind again, Kevin recalls when he took himself to EGX back in 2012 and a game that could be an ideal candidate for PSVR

Ah, Gamescom. By the time you’re reading this it’s of course already here, although from my point of view at the time of writing it’s still a day or so away. One of the big events, where the games industry pours into Cologne via any available coach, bus, train or plane, spends several days complaining about the wi-fi and discussing on Twitter where the best place to eat out is before packing the whole thing back up and setting off home again. Oh yes and there’s some videogames in there too or something.

Inevitably I’ll be spending Gamescom back in the UK sorting things out from afar.  I say inevitably owing to my precarity for spending every major gaming event over the last decade plus of me being in and around the games industry away from it.  That’s not through choice either. As I’ve mentioned here before (see: sobbed onto my keyboard) back at E3, there just seems to be some sort of eternal cosmic block on me ever being able to work the damn things. In recent years, I’ve half-wondered in a vague effort to patch together what passes for my ego, if it is because I’m too valuable to take. My own reliability conspiring to make me the guy you trust to mind the ship and actually can’t afford not to leave behind. Which is, you know, lovely. Hardly career helping, but… lovely. I do try my best to treat the whole thing as a joke, like some reverse version of the ravens at the Tower of London. With, instead of the kingdom falling if they ever left, you’d have the event collapsing if I ever turned up. Still, at least I was registered for Gamescom this year. I was getting invites to parties and everything. Who knows, by 2025 I might work my way up to being refused at customs. Or be disallowed from entering the venue owing to having the wrong shoes on or something.

The only relatively major event I have ever worked, barring ones of my own co-creation and an MCM where I demoed a Square Enix game I’d been working on for free despite being out of contract at that point as my role had been down to be replaced before I ever started – because, you know, videogames industry – was the most recent Eurogamer Expo (EGX) back in 2016 where my appearance caused a delighted former colleague now at Bethesda to actually doubt the evidence of her eyes. Even then I was only able to make EGX owing to living a bus ride away from the venue, and even that was in doubt for a bit. It wasn’t my first EGX, however.

Back when I was between jobs in 2012 I decided to take a risk, a big financial one at the time, and attended what I think amounted to several days at the event, staying overnight in a hotel nearby in order to make some industry contacts and generally try and enjoy myself. My big hope was that it might pry open some doors to getting me another role but that never panned out. I did however get to try out a bunch of games I wouldn’t have known about otherwise.

From the PlayStation side one game stood out above all the others. It was the most promoted financially and had the most focus at the event, that game my friends… was PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale. Oh boy did Sony put a lot of stock in that game. It was going to be their franchise brawler. Their new AAA franchise, that was going to bring old characters back and give them a new lease of life. It was going to be the character fighting game, for both professional tournaments and events. And it was totally, unequivocally not a rip-off of Smash Bros. Uh-uh, totally not, nope, cross-my-heart, honest guv’.

When I came in it had BIG queues. However, in a very short space of time these queues seemed to vanish like steam in a strong breeze. Confused, I stepped up to one of the multiple free consoles (yes, free consoles at a Eurogamer Expo) and played the game myself. and it became very obvious as to why.

It was utter shite.

There were nice refences and nods to be sure and some of the set pieces looked great. But it almost felt like the game was waiting for you to pat it on the back and tell you how cool it was. Clunky, clumsy and devoid of the charm Smash Bros has in spades it came across very much as Sony did in that part of the PS3 era. Too damn smug with itself to be likable. The crowd went mild faster than a Nandos customer with a PERi-PERi allergy.

People trundled off in search of other things, like Hitman: Absolution or the ludicrously titled Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – the fact you could get some nifty merch for playing both of these titles also helped. I however was drawn to a couple of ‘side pods’ nearby, a pillar almost, with three systems on either side where some of the lesser promoted games were getting their day in the sun. They were being ignored for the most part. One game in particular caught my eye. I’d heard precious little about it, the name being vaguely familiar and I had perhaps seen a poster advertising it, (a very small poster, mind you) somewhere.

That game was The Unfinished Swan.

Now it’s highly unlikely you’ve heard of The Unfinished Swan, which, frankly is a shame. It was, like the aforementioned PlayStation All-Stars developed under the watchful gaze of SIE Santa Monica Studio.  It was however also developed by Armature Studio and another studio was setup specifically for its creation. That studio is Giant Sparrow. That…. that name not ringing a bell either? Hmm. Well they’re the people behind the critically acclaimed What Remains of Edith Finch.

Yup, thought that might help.

The Unfinished Swan was their first title and as things go it’s a relatively simple affair and yet astoundingly absorbing. Play is deceptively simple. You start in a world that is, more or less, completely devoid of colour. An entirely blank landscape. Nothing but white as far as the eye can see. Playing the role of an orphaned boy, you venture into the unknown armed only with a paintbrush belonging to your deceased mother, who despite being an avid painter never the completed any of the canvases she began – hence ‘The Unfinished Swan’, the character of the one painting the protagonist is allowed to keep and which has now gone missing from the frame.

Using the paintbrush, you hurl paint out into the world, revealing that which is hidden. The path to travel, the path not to, residents of the world who are both friend and foe, features, details and the story.  It’s up to you to expand your understanding of the world in the only way you know how. I loved it. For the same reason, I really love Firewatch now (you can watch my recent let’s play of Firewatch here), it’s a game heavy on story and discovery though in many ways they are the complete opposite. One colourful and talkative, the other monochrome and more restrained.

There was just something about it. It was different and it caught the eye, maybe not on the first glance but you definitely gave it a second. Within a short space of time it seemed people were agreeing with me as the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I cast a suspicious look over my shoulder – seeing that, at the same time, the guy on the machine next to me. The one also with The Unfinished Swan on it, was doing the same thing. We suddenly realised we had a crowd. Not just any crowd either, but about fifteen to twenty people were watching us play the game and were queuing up. I was astounded. So was the other guy. A brief glance across the way showed PlayStation All-Stars totally sparse in comparison.

The Unfinished Swan was never going to set the world alight in terms of sales, it never had the critical acclaim of, say a Journey or a Limbo but it certainly had its plaudits. It even picked up two BAFTA awards one of which was for game innovation. Sometimes with games you don’t need all action, sometimes it’s the world around you which is the thing that engages you. Which brings us back to virtual reality. VR is, of course all about the world around you. So, with the game receiving a port to PlayStation 4 (and Vita) back in 2014. I’m wondering… how about revisiting it again for the PlayStation VR? Maybe The Unfinished Swan is indeed unfinished.

I mean, why not? It’s an engaging first-person story driven videogame for all ages. It’s an existing title, that’s internal to Sony, it’s minimal on graphics but you could still probably turn up the ante a bit with some added polish. So there’s minimal cost there, at least in theory. There’s already a game using a similar-ish mechanic to it in VR in the form of stealth title Stifled which uses sound. So you know that the mechanic would work in VR. Need a clincher? It already has PlayStation Move support.

One for you to consider at any rate. I’m off to prepare for the onslaught. See you next week.

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