Swans & Finches: Chirping with Giant Sparrow

The Unfinished Swan was a recently featured title for PlayStation Plus subscribers and was received really well, especially by those who hadn’t heard of the game up until that point. What was it like seeing more people exposed to The Unfinished Swan, enjoying it, and sharing their praises of the game?

Ian: It’s been great hearing from so many people about their experience playing the game, often for the first time. Our goal was to make something that felt strong and unusual. With the recent PlayStation Plus promotion we saw a lot of people playing the game that might not have given it a chance if they’d had to pay full price and it was great to see how many of those folks were pleasantly surprised. Hopefully they’ll join us for the next game.

Our games seem to take between 3 and 4 years to make and that sounds like a long, long time but once you lay out all the things that have to be done, and all the things that take longer than you expect, and all the time you have to spend polishing all the little pieces to get the whole thing to feel the way you want, that time goes by quickly.

The Giant Sparrow team at their weekly lunch outing.
The Unfinished Swan was Giant Sparrow's first title, initially released for PS3...
The Unfinished Swan was Giant Sparrow's first title, initially released for PS3...

Using three or less paintballs while going through the first Unfinished Swan level as a trophy – whose idea was that? Were you tempted to make it even more difficult?

Ian: Originally the idea for the trophy was that you’d have to navigate with NO paintballs, just sounds. But we didn’t actually put it into the game until the last couple weeks of development. And then we told our sound designer to tune the audio in the beginning of the game so there’d be a dense enough soundscape that you could navigate with your eyes closed.

I kind of forgot about the trophy and then a few days before we wrapped production I tried to get it for the first time and it was impossible. The first area of the game hadn’t changed much for over a year, so I was really, really familiar with it but I still couldn’t get through without splatting half a dozen times. It turned out that the audio designer had tuned the sounds based on his deluxe surround sound setup and playing the game with TV speakers or headphones the audio wasn’t nearly enough to navigate by.

...and it's also available for PS4 and PS Vita.
...and it's also available for PS4 and PS Vita.

So at the last minute we had to tune things so the trophy would be doable. I can’t remember what we changed, actually, but I think it was a mix of increasing the volume, limiting camera movements if you haven’t splatted (so it’d be harder to get turned around), and moving some of the visible objects around so players could see them better and navigate that way. Also, we raised the limit from zero paintballs to three paintballs, but based on how many people have told me about their struggles with this trophy, I do sometimes wonder if we should have made it easier. Players seem to be happy about it after they get it, but it’s definitely an uphill battle.

According to our level designer Ben Esposito, the best way to get the trophy is to not turn the camera for a while...just move until you hit a wall, then move until you hit another wall.

That reminds me: one of the bugs we had to fix at the last minute was that if you kept walking into a wall, you’d continue to hear footsteps even after the player stopped moving. Normally that wasn’t a big issue, but for this trophy it made it a lot harder to keep your bearings. So, yeah, getting that trophy into the game was a very last minute, temple-doors-are-closing-so-we’re-going-to-have-to-slide-underneath-them sort of thing.

What were some of the key takeaways that you took from creating The Unfinished Swan and how have you applied those towards the development of What Remains of Edith Finch?

Ian: I think the biggest difference this time is that I have a sense of how quickly the time passes during development on a game. Our games seem to take between 3 and 4 years to make and that sounds like a long, long time but once you lay out all the things that have to be done, and all the things that take longer than you expect, and all the time you have to spend polishing all the little pieces to get the whole thing to feel the way you want, that time goes by quickly. That’s one of the reasons we structured this game as a collection of short stories, actually, since it gave us a lot more flexibility in our scheduling, being able to cut or simplify individual stories to fit with the time we had.

A few initial perceptions towards Edith Finch trend towards the unsettling and even a little horror-esque – but there’s also a thoughtful, cerebral undertoneWhat are the feelings that you’re attempting to surface with those who play Edith Finch?

We’d like for people to feel a sense of wonder and to appreciate what a small, fragile part of the universe they are. In the modern world we have so much control over our immediate surroundings that it’s easy to forgot how little control we have over the big things, like when or if we’re going to die. I guess we’re just trying to evoke a bit of the wonder and mystery and terror of life.

One of the many rooms found in the Finch family home.

There’s a subtle surreal feeling with the Finch family home as you observe it from the outside and explore the inside – how did you settle on the home being a key part of the game, and where did the inspiration come from for its external look and internal décor?

Ian: The game is about how people approach death, both their own and the death of those around them. The house is a way for us to make those ideas concrete, seeing how the family has responded to these events and what individuals and whole generations have left behind.

As Edith, you’re exploring your family history and we wanted to find a way to tie that into the gameplay. The player exploring this house is meant to mirror Edith’s own journey. A lot of what players encounter in the game is also pretty bizarre, so the house is a way for us to bring things back to a more familiar place and keep things grounded.

The Finch house and the stories within the game are based around Orcas Island in Washington State, which is a place my family visited a lot when I was growing up. More specifically, we’re trying to capture the balance of a limited human presence surrounded by a large, untouched wilderness that you can still find on the island today.

In terms of its architecture, the house is a mix of a lot of different references, including a bit of The Winchester Mystery House, Broken Angel House and The Minister's Treehouse – all houses built by intense, stubborn people over a very long period, like our own house. And as much as we like these soaring monuments, we’re also trying to keep it from feeling like a haunted mansion, since we want it to feel like a place you could imagine a somewhat normal family living in. Hopefully it’s a place where you can feel the weight of many people making small adjustments to it over a long period, imprinting themselves and their concerns on the landscape around them.

As Edith you’re exploring your family history and we wanted to find a way to tie that into the gameplay. The player exploring this house is meant to mirror Edith’s own journey. A lot of what players encounter in the game is also pretty bizarre, so the house is a way for us to bring things back to a more familiar place and keep things grounded. 

An exterior shot of the Finch house.

Edith Finch puts you into vastly different perspectives quite literally – without spoiling much, there are times where you’re a cat, a shark, even something a bit…unknown. What inspired you to pick those particular perspectives, and what was it like designing and creating them? Were there parts as simple or easy as slapping a GoPro onto a cat for research?

Ian: The story we’re showing for E3, in which a little girl transforms into a bunch of different animals, all started from an image of “what would it be like to be a shark, and suddenly find yourself 50 feet off the ground?” Everything kind of flowed from that.

We prototyped a couple of different animals and as we improved the controls for each of them we found the designs naturally coalesced a bit. I think they all still feel quite different, but there’s an underlying commonality that helps players pick them up quickly and also helps reflect the fact that this is a little girl’s dream so there probably would be some overlap in how she’s imagining each of these creatures.

We also did look at a lot of GoPro videos for reference, especially for the cat sequence. YouTube is full of bizarre videos of cameras stuck on top of cats. You can easily lose whole days on searches like that.

Which perspective could this view be coming from?

Speaking of that, what kind of first-person view would you love to experience for a day?

Ian: Being a bee and having compound eyes that see the world from hundreds of different spots at once would be pretty incredible.

Finally – any Unfinished Swan Easter eggs planned to be snuck in for Edith Finch?

Ian: Yes, there’s at least one amazing Easter egg from The Unfinished Swan that’s in the game now and there might be more by the time we release.

What Remains of Edith Finch is shaping up to be quite the narrative experience on PS4, with a collection of eclectic stories told from equally unique personalities and perspectives. Keep an eye out for more Edith Finch coverage on our Twitter account and elsewhere as E3 continues! Finally, for more info and to stay updated beyond E3, visit Giant Sparrow's website and make sure to follow @giantsparrow on Twitter as well.

topics: development, game
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