"I have this idea, but I don't know if it's possible yet..."
Ben Esposito is probably six foot tall, but he couldn't weigh any more than 65 kilos. He's polite and soft spoken, with thick Sideshow Bob hair. He's also the level designer for The Unfinished Swan, one of the most intriguing video games currently in development for the PSN. Two seconds ago he was staring at a blank sheet of paper. Now that paper is a crumpled mess of folds and creases.
"You're not making an origami crane are you?" asks an exasperated Max Geiger. Max is the producer of The Unfinished Swan — a self described "spreadsheet monkey". You get the sense Max is used to this kind of strange behaviour.
"I don't really know what I'm making yet," replies Ben.
The Blank Canvas
The Unfinished Swan begins as a blank canvas. Completely white. There are no instructions on screen. Muscle memory forces you to tilt the analogue stick and you hear footsteps — your own footsteps. You mash buttons. Then — instantly — a pellet of crude, black ink splatters onto the screen. You push the same button, another ink pellet. Somehow the ink gives the blank page shape — what was once white is now an environment in three dimensional space. A pre-existing space made physical by your interactions.
It's like a strange, tactile sonar — you move, toss more ink, and progress in this space as it manifests itself. In a sense it's a process of discovery, but you're also inventing this space. The environment already exists — all you have to do is re-visualise it.
"I'm really interested in what it feels like to move around in 3D spaces," says Ian Dallas.
The Unfinished Swan is Ian's baby. It started life as a simple concept — and grew.
"The Unfinished Swan began as a graduate student project," he says. "Every week I had to come in with a new prototype for a game. This was just one of those prototypes.
"The Unfinished Swan was the most interesting one! I just kept poking at it for about eight months until it started to gel into a game. It had those elements to it that I really liked, that worked well in a white space. I liked the undercurrent of fear. It was something that had a genuine emotion that it was evoking."
"But trying to take that core mechanic, and figure out exactly how to make a game from it, that was really challenging," says Ian. "That took a long time to figure out."
The Game That Wasn't Yet A Game
Max Geiger was a student when he first saw The Unfinished Swan. A hurried Ian Dallas was a post grad, fumbling around with cords and projectors, attempting to demo his latest project — the game that wasn't yet a game.
"Ian actually brought the demo in and put it up on a projector in one of the labs that we have," begins Max. "That was the first time I laid eyes on The Unfinished Swan."
Much like everyone who lays eyes on the game, Max was stunned.
"I was just initially in awe of this new way to perceive space," he explains.
"It was the sheer novelty of seeing black on white — that way of feeling your way through a level. That right there — the mechanics of moving through the space and discovering it — that absolutely intrigued me."
Ian Dallas wasn't really sure precisely what he had, but he knew he had something, so he took The Unfinished Swan on tour — to Japan's Sense of Wonder night, an event at Tokyo Game Show that throws the spotlight on new, interesting game ideas.
"I remember the Sense of Wonder night in 2008," smiles Ian. "I showed a version of the game that wasn't really a game at all! It was just me throwing paint at a wall!"
But throwing paint at a wall was enough for Sony to approach Ian with an offer of support.
"That night Sony got in touch with me — they were interested in seeing if my demo could maybe be a game," says Ian. "It was scary because I didn't know what the game was — it was just a mechanic at that point.
"At that point things had started to solidify and then I think in June of next year we started thinking seriously. We asked ourselves, 'now that we know what kind of game we want to make, how many people and how long is it going to take?'"
But it wasn't just Sony who showed interest in The Unfinished Swan. Back home in the US, Ben Esposito unearthed Ian's demo on YouTube. He was entranced.
"I saw the video in 2008 that he uploaded," explains Ben. "And I fell in love with it."
Ben was inspired, so he started playing around with the game's central mechanic and created a video of his own.
"I was still at school at the time so I made a little game that showed my use of the concept, and said, ‘call me’ at the end," says Ben.
"It used birds that were flying around, leading people, revealing text, which sort of told Ian how much I wanted to help make that game. It worked out and here I am."
At the time Ben Esposito's unique job application struck Ian — lost in a sea of bland resumes and uninspired portfolios. Ben's unique method of using Ian's mechanic to tell a fixed narrative clicked, Ian was already on a similar path. At that point hiring Ben made perfect sense.
"My first reaction was, 'wow, that's really cool' — I was just so glad it wasn't another resume," laughs Ian. "We had looked at a ton of resumes, because we were hiring.
"Having something from someone who had actually created something — that was the biggest draw for us. We were like, 'here's someone who creates things in a different way' and that felt like a really good fit for the kind of game that we wanted to make."
Ben continues to fold the blank sheet in front of him, something is clearly beginning to take shape, but I'm not sure what. It suddenly strikes me that The Unfinished Swan is about the process of discovery, the act of shaping your own environment — recreating something that already exists — blindly pushing your way through an invisible expanse of white.
"One of the interesting things about the whole concept is that everyone gets to see things a little differently," says Ben. "It’s designed for multiple different types of experience. Some people play through slowly, some search out for cool details that are hidden in the world, some people just want to go super fast."
I'm suddenly reminded of a childhood memory — placing a white sheet of paper over a two pence coin and lightly scrubbing a lead pencil over it. Within seconds you have a replica of the coin, inscribed on paper. You have invented something, something that already exists in another form but, regardless, you played a pivotal role in its creation.
"I kinda feel a little bit nervous when people say they created the world," admits Ian, "because you're not creating the space — it already exists. But there is something really personal about the way players get to splash paint on things.
"Like the rubbing of a brass coin — you can see the impact of your own work there, on the way you moved your hand. With our painting mechanic we tried to make it dynamic to the point where it feels like a personal expression."
For Ben Esposito, a level designer by trade, this provides a unique set of restraints. Most of the cues used by level designers, to help players navigate a new game space, are visual. In The Unfinished Swan the concept of the 'visual' is completely subjective.
"I actually really enjoy the restraints in a way, because as a designer I can use something small to transform an entire level," says Ben. "A simple silhoutte can be so powerful in this game.
"But we do branch off and do different things. The game is all about navigating spatial puzzles, but they happen in different ways — with different constraints."
Both Ben and Max reference Portal — a game that throws you into an unknown environment and forces you to adapt using environmental mechanics.
"One of the things that makes a game beautiful to me, is the freedom of an interactive system," explains Max. "The ability to go into a brand new space, learn the rules and then be able to experiment. To figure out what’s going on — even if you’re playing by surreal rules."
The Finished Swan
Ben Esposito has finished folding and fiddling. He places his finished creation on the desk. It's not a crane or an unfinished swan — it's an X-Wing, from Star Wars. He flies it around, and we all laugh at the insanity of it. Ten minutes ago, at the beginning of our interview, the X-Wing was nothing but a blank piece of paper, perfectly white. Now it's a thing that exists — in three dimensional space.
That's the sheer joy of creativity — the ability to conjure something from nothing. And that's the feeling that Ian Dallas and his team hope to replicate with The Unfinished Swan.
"The Unfinished Swan, to me, is a game about evoking a sense of awe and wonder," says Ian Dallas. "It's a tool to create an experience that people have never had before.
"One of the most exciting things for me is when people come out of the game and they feel like the way they interact with the world has changed. We want to rewire how you explore the world.
"I just want the world to be a stranger and more interesting place."