the artistry and psychology of gaming


The Swapper

The Swapper

The Good:
+ Tightly-crafted puzzles will test the limits of your ingenuity
+ Subtle uncanny atmosphere is masterfully executed
+ Broad philosophical themes are punctuated by powerful narrative moments
+ Inventive use of existing game mechanics
+ Controls are practically perfect

The Bad:
– Story and gameplay completely contradict each other

There seems to be an unwritten rule that approximately once a year, some indie developer must come out with a puzzle-platformer that puts every other game released around it to shame and reminds us that beneath the aggressive DRM and interchangeable focus-tested tripe, video games are pretty fucking amazing. The trend began in 2008 with Braid, and continued with And Yet It MovesLIMBOVessel, and Fez. 2013’s entry into this strange pattern is The Swapper, a sublime effort whose complex themes and ambiguous narrative are backed up by near-perfect gameplay and cosmic horror atmosphere.

Said gameplay revolves around the titular Swapper, a device that can create up to four clones of the user, and then transfer player control to them, as long as they’re within its line of sight. The clones each have a rudimentary intelligence that forces them to mimic the movement of whichever iteration of the protagonist has control (to the best of their ability). At the most basic level, this makes them decidedly mortal paperweights, which is more useful than it sounds, becauseThe Swapper‘s puzzles are all about positioning clones just right in order to activate series of switches, allowing access to the next area.

So it plays like the sci-fi equivalent of the doppelganger levels from Braid mixed with the “save the Mudokons” puzzles from the PlayStation Oddworld games. Or at least, it would, except that that’s the game at its most basic. As you progress, you’ll encounter physics-based puzzles and areas that negate certain functions of the Swapper, forcing you into brain-stretching situations where the perspectives, positions, and behaviours of entire rooms worth of clones must be tracked and predicted in order to succeed. And then the gravity-changing floor panels get introduced.

This is one of the easy puzzles.

It’s astonishing how much mileage Facepalm Games has got out of this concept. While neither clones, movement mimicry, nor gravity changes are entirely original concepts, they’ve never been executed to such ingenious and, in some cases, disturbing effect. Swapping between clones can allow you to ascend ledges, and there’s a brilliant mechanic where time slows down while you create new clones. Skilled manipulation of this slowdown can allow you to climb enormous distances, juggle your character in mid-air, and survive otherwise lethal falls. There are also a handful of eerily tranquil zero-gravity sections in which you propel yourself through space using the Swapper. It all combines for a perfectly-paced experience where even movement offers a form of challenge and entertainment.

To add even more layers to the already mechanic-rich gameplay, later puzzles play off the fact that new clones are affected by the gravity setting of the person they’re cloned from, and some puzzles even force you to strategically kill your own clones to accomplish your goals. I believe all puzzle games should strive for the “Eureka moment”, where the player discovers a deceptively simple solution after a perfect amount of time experimenting. But The Swapper goes one step further and reaches the “I Can’t Believe I Just Had To Do That moment”, an accomplishment I haven’t seen since the “collide in mid-air” solution from Portal 2‘s co-op, or the “bounce off your doppelganger’s head” level from Braid.

The thing I find most remarkable about The Swapper is just how unremarkable it appears at first glance. The environments are constructed from clay and everyday objects, but honestly, if the marketing blurb hadn’t told me, I wouldn’t have even noticed. The colour palette also ditches the extravagant artistry or stark monochromes that normally characterize indie games in favour of sterile grey with splashes of primary colours. The soundtrack is similarly understated, being primarily composed of piano chords and atmospheric hums. Don’t misunderstand; none of these things are negatives. On the contrary, they demonstrate one of the defining characteristics of the game: subtlety.

Nothing is immediate about The Swapper. It’s not particularly eye-catching, it’s not overwhelmingly trippy, and there are no sections I’d consider scary, per se. But the game is filled with eye-opening moments – such as when you first start to drift through a zero-gravity section, or when you nonchalantly walk away from the crumpled corpse of a clone you sacrificed to save yourself – moments where the atmosphere, music, animation, and mechanics click into place to form something either beautiful, unsettling, or just really fucking weird. The game is clearly paying homage to Super Metroid in many ways, with its nearly-identical character and environment design, as well as its space setting and largely female cast. It’s a perfect allusion, because if you’re the kind of person who appreciated the silent storytelling in that game, you’re going to love the narrative techniques of The Swapper.

Notice the glowing, dome-shaped door? So did every other Metroid fan.

I say “narrative techniques” because the narrative itself is ambiguous and impenetrable for 90% of the play time. The first thing you need to know is that the whole cloning business is not the Swapper’s primary function. It’s meant to be used to send the consciousness (or the soul, or something completely different, depending on which character you ask) of one person into the body of another, and the “mindless clone” part only seems to exist as a backup in case there’s no second body available. This decidedly science fantasy functionality is explained with a neat little plot device wherein the Swapper’s own creators don’t know how it works. It was designed to adapt the communication of a race of telepathic creatures (note the terms “race” and “creatures” are being used very loosely here – they’re actually sentient rocks), and everything else it does is just a by-product of that original purpose.

But the draw of the narrative in The Swapper is how it’s told, not necessarily what it’s telling. It’s about the questions raised, rather than the answers provided. What exactly the Swapper swaps, and what it means for concepts like identity and mortality are driving themes throughout the game, and the scattered insights into the thought processes of both the Watchers (the rock creatures) and the scientists studying them make for some truly profound discussion. Anyone familiar with any story involving clones probably guessed the first major plot twist about 800 words ago, but the game still has a few surprises in store, including one that’s cleverly hidden in the casting of its excellent voice acting. And special mention must go to the game’s absolutely haunting finale, which is no less powerful for being split in half by a last-second player choice.

Unfortunately, the game’s only notable faults are also born from its story. Specifically, the fact that the core puzzle-solving gameplay that makes up 75% of the play time may as well be taking place in a completely different game. Most problematic is the fact that, in gameplay, the clones are completely devoid of higher brain functions, while in story, they are undoubtedly not, and no attempt is ever made to reconcile these two depictions. Since the in-story explanation isn’t concrete until near the end of the game, I feel like it was meant to make you feel guilty for the deaths of all your previous clones, which would have tied into the game’s tone indescribably well. It’s baffling, then, that the game doesn’t even try for an easy explanation like, “They develop intelligence eventually,” instead just letting the question hang uncomfortably. The inclusion of gameplay-only devices that destroy all created clones just compounds the problem.

Similarly, the game’s level design is completely nonsensical from a narrative perspective, and just screams “This is a video game!” at every turn. This was kind of true for most of The Swapper‘s cadre of like-minded puzzle-platformers, but it was usually justified. Vessel used a steampunk setting, and having overly elaborate, barely-functioning machinery everywhere is kind of the whole schtick of steampunk. And most of the others were working on some level of abstraction. But we’re never given any indication that the gameplay of The Swapper isn’t necessarily happening, so we’re just left to wonder how people possibly got around this damn space station pre-Swapper. And even worse, why do key station functions require “security orbs” that are inaccessible without solving a complex Swapper puzzle?

Climbing up to the 100-foot-high walkway doesn’t make much sense, but it sure feels good.

While this gameplay-story disconnect is disappointing, I find it impossible to stay disappointed with The Swapper, because the gameplay, on its own merits, is nearly flawless. The deliberate pace alleviates the difficulties usually encountered when controlling a side-scroller with a mouse and keyboard, the graphics convey exactly what they need to, the Swapper’s slowdown mechanic is extremely intuitive, and the hit detection and physics are perfect. It kind of bugs me that we don’t get to use the Swapper for its original purpose in gameplay at all, but it’s possible that would undermine the all-important ambiguity of the device, so maybe its exclusion is for the best.

The Swapper is, in a word, refined. It takes the often-pretentious narrative of its inspirations and hones it into something relevant, and then marries it to challenging, sophisticated puzzle gameplay. The final product is a unique, memorable, and disturbing intellectual experience, and one of the finest games of the generation.

Score: 8/10

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