The Unfinished Swan: On Sight

For a while now I’ve been thinking about the nature of vision in video games – not the biological act of looking, but the social and psychological construct by which you make sense of what you see. I have this feeling that I’m trying to process – sometimes, when I look at a video game, it’s as if my eyes sort of glance off it. There’s almost this base impulse of yeah, whatever. I mean, look at this image below, from Call of Duty: WWII. What do you see? The gun, the hand, some bombed-out buildings, a crashed plane, an objective marker on the left. You start to glaze over pretty quickly. I don’t think I have any sort of emotional response to this moment – which feels weird, right. Is it me? Am I the problem? Is it the video game form? Do we need the tight focus of cinematic gaze in order to feel something? Are video games – or maybe rather is this video game – just emotionally unsophisticated? Do we not feel anything because it’s not designed to evoke feeling? Or is it that when we play, we’re looking in a limited fashion – looking for gameplay information, looking for enemies and where to go next? In this moment below, maybe we only see the objective marker, the health bar, the ammo. We see the windows instead of the walls, the gaps which might be filled by Nazis at any moment.

Call of Duty: WWII

The gameplay argument feels the most immediately compelling. When you’re playing a game, when you’re in that actual state of competition and play, your perception or visual filtering changes. During gameplay, we assess and value visual information according to a set of meanings that are different to when we’re just watching. I wrote about this phenomenon back in 2020, in relation to One Finger Death Punch. I can actually tell you the backstory to that article – it’s not very high-brow, not very media critic chic, but I got into that game originally because I saw Markiplier play it and it looked cool. It was fun to watch – he punched stick figures and it looked great. When I played the game myself, I was really surprised by how different the experience was – specifically on that visual level. I expected to see all the same stick figure fights, but by and large I found I was tuning them out. I had stuff to do, I didn’t have time to watch the punching. I note in that article that my perception of the game space became limited along operational lines. “You see the stuff that you need to see to win the game.” Quoting yourself – much more media chic.

The Unfinished Swan

In understanding the act of looking in games, then, we might turn to a game where looking is itself a gameplay matter. 2012’s The Unfinished Swan was a PS3 game from Giant Sparrow, who also made What Remains of Edith Finch. It had you throw balls of paint or water to impact the environment; for example, in one section of the game, you throw water balloons to grow vines, which you use to climb up walls. I want to focus today on the game’s first couple levels, which for my money are some of the most startling visual experiences out there. You start in an entirely white space, and throw black paintballs to navigate through the environment. That’s the first screen above – I’ve just thrown my first glob of paint, and we can see that there’s a wall in front of us. The glob moves us from a plain white screen to having a sense of depth, something to orient ourselves. We can get closer to that splotch, or further away. We can turn to the left of it or the right. There’s almost a sonar-like quality to moving around the space – you fire out a paintball, and see where you find yourself. And it’s revelatory. In the image below, in the game’s first room, I’m chucking paintballs at the wall to try and figure out the boundaries of the room. You can see the two initial splotches on the left. But then, when the third ball flies, it doesn’t hit the wall. It flies further than you expect, and splashes on the floor beyond. Aha! There’s a passageway. There’s something really shocking about that shift. It’s not the given-space of Call of Duty, where your eyes slide off this incredibly detailed (but also somehow quite boring?) environment. Space in these levels is revealed incrementally, in response to your actions. It’s something you discover rather than something you’re given as an already-there. There’s something dramatic about having these paintballs defy your expectations – having to reconfigure your mental map of the environment as these balls whizz around behaving in unexpected ways.

Examples can be multiplied as the game progresses, with increasingly complex pathfinding and objects strewn around the environment. Objects that in themselves are quite mundane – barrels, benches, fenceposts – become these slightly shocking discoveries. You’re constantly surprised by the fact of where you are and what you’re close to. Sometimes the surprise comes from the gaps and shapes of objects. The fence on the left, below, for example – if you throw a paintball, it might sail between or over the fence’s slats, and you might believe that nothing’s there. That’s obviously quite confusing if you then walk into it and discover you can’t move any further forward. Once you figure it out, it does make sense – all the data lines up, and you see why you initially misunderstood – but the process of getting there involves this really intricate relationship between the arc of the paintball and the material shape and structure of the fence. It’s a constant process of reconfiguring your understanding of the space and how you relate to it.

After a couple of levels, the game largely abandons this paintball-vision mode, moving on to more traditional types of gameplay. But the first levels offer a real acute interest in the act of looking. Depth and shape are transformed into puzzles, into discoveries. Space is raised as a question rather than given as something assumed. Maybe that’s the reason for the lack of affect in the Call of Duty example. Maybe we don’t care about that space because it’s not attached to any questions. It’s just the ground for reactive, obedient instincts – shoot them, go there. Military directions rather than creative exploration. I dunno. We’re still just probing at this instinct, at this stage, looking for ways to understand what might be going on. A mission started, but not quite finished.

One comment

  1. Great article, I really want to play the unfinished Swan after reading this!

    I think there’s a lot we can say about vision in video games. The sense of embodying a character and taking on their perspective, yet remaining detached and objective, even mindful of how you can break conventions of realism, that’s what makes this subject so complex and rewarding to discuss. Is it how video games draw us in? Or how they maintain our interest?

    Escapsim is an obvious link here with Edith finch and video game vision. We embody a new character (often) without consequences. For most of us that escape is relieving. We receive little dopamine rewards for conducting feats of skill and cunning. Or we fall deep into a world unlike our own, maybe unaware our anxieties have melted away in the process.

    I think it’s funny when a game points the finger and seems to suggest you should choose to escape reality by performing mundane tasks. Like that game where you literally drive a truck from state to state, driving the speed limit, obeying the road rules, etc. Those simulator style games.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s