Swanning About: Zwan

I think I had a nightmare about this once, and I think it will happen again tonight
A seagull on the roof screeched and gave me an irretrievable sense of self-loathing this morning, and I opened up Zwan, a game designed for the Bosch Art Game competition, and bellowed my whole disquiet with the world into it like some anguished moose that has just been shot by Todd Palin. I have never been so unsettled by a game, and it reminded me of what an effect mood can have on our experience of games, of music, of anything really.

We often look to games to bring us out of something, we greedily look to their systems to tell us how we feel, we feel entitled to have them do something to us , without ever really considering that we put ourselves into games as much as we get from them. We have more of a soul than games; games are just a construct that we can pour ourselves into, a container with sides and knobbles, and then we mould ourselves into those rules to see what possible reward we can glean from them. But it is hard to extract your feelings from the systems sometimes, and this game’s control systems toyed with me – only a left and right arrow can be used – gratingly so – until I didn’t know if I was sad and the game was making me sadder, or if I was just pouring myself into that mould and reading myself like a thermometer with no numbers on it.

Zwan is frustrating whilst it tries to be beautiful; metaphorical. It’s only in its early stages, but I wonder if my reaction is what they want from me, or whether I am meant to be in love with the art and work of Hieronymus Bosch from the beginning. Is his work meant to fill one with a sense of existential dread, a fear of the meaninglessness of life?

When is my swan going to land

You play a swan who flies to the lulling soundtrack of something composed in cello, written and performed by Palconudo, the orchestral arrangements by Lorenzo Marmorato. This swan’s hazardous journey through the surreal works of an artist I have never been exposed to is like being a slug on treacle. The way you are meant to navigate painfully slowly flapping over bizarre landmarks, throughout a world that is round where you turn at the rate of a rusty key in an immovable lock is so hard not to be gratingly saddening. You end up flying straight into objects such as thorned hedges, giant mines, or a harp, or any number of absurd things, and your solid swan of inevitability squawks with some sort of anger at you, though you did your best to turn out of the way.

There is so little sense of freedom or meaning to any of the landscape: I look at a disembodied head on the ground, bald as I fly over, and want to dip lower to investigate, but I can’t. This is a world in which my input or my strainings to understand are unwelcome. The pain of bumping into things, and slowly, slowly, slowly pivoting to turn is inevitable, and though the strangeness of a giraffe shaking its head wants to reassure me I am a human being, I feel the opposite. Everything is alien. Two odd trolls throw indistinguishable objects at me, which hurt me, but I cannot fly away properly. I think my wings are clipped. I am going to get some coffee, and think sadly about how well this game encompasses just about everything. I think I am feeling this Hieronymus Bosch dude.

This game is in its early stages of development, and you can play an early build here. I think they are planning to put it in museums. Perhaps they shouldn’t give it to children.


Top comments

  1. Captain Joyless says:


  2. Sarkhan Lol says:

    Bosch basically did 'Where's Wally?' murals, except it was 'Where's Man's Inhumanity To Man?'
  1. NicholasTimothyJones says:

    OOPS! The entire article is on the front page!

    Edit: Damn too late.

  2. DrScuttles says:

    Billy Corgan grew antlers and made a game showcasing that his artistic ambitions are ahead of his technical fidelity in an effort to make us all feel sad and reflect upon our cold mortality. That would unsettle me, too.

    • nindustrial says:

      You beat me to the Billy joke. Smashing job.

    • Fenix says:

      I adore your joke.

      • nindustrial says:

        I gish there are a number of pumpkins fans around these parts

        • Willie Trombone says:

          It sounds like Cara had a very Mellon Collie experience with this game

          • stupid_mcgee says:

            Maybe she was just feeling Frail and Bedazzled? If they had a big Rocket that you could Disarm, then it might not be such a Silverfuck.

  3. Bhazor says:

    Andy Warhol’s Slow Flying in a Swan

  4. Greggh says:

    Holy… I thought it was a game about Charles Barkley being on fire… with antlers.

  5. Captain Joyless says:



    • Dozer says:

      I’m just very very glad they’re giving Cara Ellison articles to RPS readers. There’s been a drought and that was sad, and now there’s lots of Cara articles in the last couple of days and that’s awesome.

  6. Viroso says:

    Why do you even get killed, hit, attacked in this game?

  7. FurryLippedSquid says:

    “A seagull on the roof screeched”


    I miss living by the sea.

    • Sleepymatt says:

      Just for you my friend, I make you a special offer, so that you may once again experience the wistful call of the morning seagull, and the magnificent odour of his exquisite guano. You may buy my house near the local dump for the bargain price of one meeeeellion pounds… be quick now, this offer can’t last forever!

  8. pilouuuu says:

    It reminds me of the Amiga game Weird Dreams.

  9. honuk says:

    “This swan’s hazardous journey through the surreal works of an artist I have never been exposed to…”

    I don’t mean to be too much of a dick, or to call Cara out specifically, but it’s starting to become a problem just how woefully uncultured the vast majority of video game writers are. There is a strong move for video game writing to take it’s place among the culture industry, but most people involved in that trend are almost assuming that they can do this without anything but lazily assembled pop knowledge of their own.

    • thecat17 says:

      I highly suggest you read this. It will, hopefully, speed you along the recovery process.

    • Cara Ellison says:

      I do know of some of Bosch’s work, but only in passing in Renaissance studies at uni. But I think this game has more of an impact if you don’t know about most of it, which I wasn’t exposed to as a whole body of work.

      It’s part of my job that I have to write about some things I might not know about. I did Scottish History with English Literature at uni and lived in Japan for two years. If you want to talk about any of those things I have you covered. I don’t think knowing about pop culture precludes me from being ‘cultured’.

      • honuk says:

        you could at the very least spend some time gaining a cursory familiarity with Bosch if you’re going to write about a game apparently focused on him. that would be a given in other fields.

        • Cara Ellison says:

          Actually, this game is designed to teach people about Bosch. Who don’t know about him.

          If I was writing a feature on Bosch, I’d have read some books on him. This is a news post, designed to let you know this thing exists.

  10. Reverend Gascoigne says:

    I felt that overriding sense of sadness and existential dread too. Life has thus far been unkind to me, and its of utmost importance that the world hears about this tortured path of Christ, in who’s footsteps i’ve most reverentially followed. I’ll screech it out to the heavens in my most nasally constipated sounding voice if need be. Bah..who am I kidding. What I really want to know is…

    When do we get to screw Jessica Simpson in this game??? Or will that be added as dlc at some stage?

  11. Sarkhan Lol says:

    Bosch basically did ‘Where’s Wally?’ murals, except it was ‘Where’s Man’s Inhumanity To Man?’

  12. Jake says:

    Reminds me of World of Warcraft. You just need a little orc riding around on the back of the swan and it will be literally identical. Reminds me of the old days on a windrider over the barrens. Similar draw distance too.

    Also does anyone know of any solutions to being woken up by seagulls? I am looking for some sort of robot seagull hunter drone or similar.

  13. Reverend Gascoigne says:

    Hey Cara..

    That first line you wrote about gaining an irretrievable sense of ‘self-loathing’ this morning.. Self-loathing??? Like the sort of ‘self-loathing’ Nathan Grayson got from the ‘flash game’ that was.. Smashing Dolphins awhile back..

    You people seriously need to audit those from outside RPS who periodically impose posts’ upon you.

    I know first hand what Billy Corgan is all about…and let’s face it.. this post here…you were essentially approached by someone to write this article…weren’t you Cara??? It’s a bit of an in-joke…

    You wouldn’t be laughing if you knew that your gaming site was being used in some psychotic game..

    Have you ever heard of Aleisteir Crowley, and the occult, pseudo-religion of Thelema.. Cara??

    They belive that certain people amongst us possess an inherent majickal energy that can be exploited and mined, in order to help pre-ordained members of the inner circle to scale the ranks of the order. It essentially amounts to a form of human sacrifice…and it can only be achieved through extreme psychological abuse..

    I can say without hesistation, that Billy Corgan ranks amongst the inner circle of Aleisteir Crowley’s Thelemic Order….and he sees both you and me, as resources to be potentially psychologically mined….even if it means internment in a psychiatriac institution..

    Don’t believe it?? Google ‘Jack Parsons Thelema’ to see how deranged these maniacs are..

    I’m paranoid too..

  14. Scumbag says:

    Yeah, I’d look spaced out and grow antlers too if I ended up with a small person stuck in my ear. I feel that creepy polygon head dude’s pain.

  15. Cunning Linguist says:

    “We often look to games to bring us out of something, we greedily look to their systems to tell us how we feel, we feel entitled to have them do something to us ”

    Ignoring the “entitled” bollocks : This is the result of a crapton of modern AAA games that try to be films and a corporate marketing-created culture that is looking for emotions in games. It’s a culture created by products. EActivision and their imitators create Hollywood style products in which the passive consumer is supposed to get a recreation/simulation of “real life” stuff… which brings vomit to mind.

    It’s why I mostly play PS2 and indie games, in which I DO things TO the game, primarily.