I don’t normally write about games – hell these days I struggle to even play that many of them – but I caught a preview and this one seemed worth playing. So play it I did over one rain-sodden Saturday and discovered that not only was my initial assumption correct and The Swapper worth playing but it was also, perhaps more importantly, a game worth discussing. What initially interested me was the fact that the game draws as much inspiration from movies as it does the more immersive medium: it’s instantly obvious from the intro movie that the creators are fans of 2001 (the eerie, epic score set against abstract shapes balleting through space), the core concept of gameplay evokes Moon (You constantly create, possess and dispose of clones as a means to an end) and, later on, something of Solaris (both versions) leaks through in the feelings and philosophy of the unfolding story. Though despite these strong influences The Swapper is never derivative; it is an utterly unique experience that only playing can provide.
That said there is one more comparison that must be made and that is to Portal; a progenitor in terms of spirit and structure though entirely dissimilar in effect. Both games follow a mute female protagonist (though there is a twist on this by the end) who is given a gadget (both of which are instances of a seemingly simple idea executed to its most complex extremes) and a gauntlet to run with it (in an increasingly eerie an evocative world). As we see in the more dynamic sections of Portal 2 and The Swapper’s own stunningly dramatic ending there are few more involving experiences than a greatly written game; while both those things The Swapper tens to keep them separate. Like Portal, The Swapper is structured as a series of hermetically sealed – literally, I would imagine given the setting – puzzle rooms joined together by hallway sections scattered with subtle, sub-textual hints at a larger narrative. Unfortunately though the two are kept separate and this, while understandable in both cases, is a flaw; perhaps the only one the game has.
One can of course simply stitch these two sections of the game together in their own thoughts – and should – however without the immediacy of the interaction this then becomes more of a mere intellectual exercise; the like of which you will be well trained for by the end of this six-odd hour mental work-out session. See The Swapper makes you strain your brain in two separate and distinct ways: Olli Harjola has come up with a series of stingily smart puzzles directed at one hemisphere and Tom Jubert strings them together with a potently philosophical story that will stretch out the other.
Those puzzles are insane. After a perfectly paced tutorial section you will find yourself stumped upon entering every room, thinking each time, ‘This is impossible,’ and soon after concocting a crazy plan that couldn’t possibly work, that Harjola couldn’t possibly have coded for, only for it to flow flawlessly, exactly the answer he had intended you to imagine. Of course somewhere between those two experiences are five to fifty failed attempts, flagons of black coffee and a subtle urge to something-search a solution. Strangely though I never felt frustration; the puzzles are always fair, the game establishes one set of rules and sticks to them, finding a work around simply requires a fantastical way of thinking. This kind of thought is one that the everyday world has no room for, let alone the capacity to reward and so the sensation of solving each peculiar puzzle is a singular satisfaction.
The other half of Harjola’s craft is the creation of the world in which these puzzles take place; the game’s graphics. Claymation seems a strange choice for this sort of game: when you hear the term you think of The Neverhood, of colourful, cartoonish landscapes and not the languorous,dank-lighted inners of a decaying space station, but it works. The world has a tangibility to it that simple graphics wouldn’t convey which is important to the experience: if the walls don’t seem real than they won’t crush you into claustrophobia, if space isn’t densely endless than you won’t feel isolated in it and if the character model doesn’t crush after a fall, if compressed air doesn’t seep sadly from the tank like an escaping spirit, like the soul spoken of, then you won’t feel sorrow at these deaths. Also, it just looks really cool. The ‘cut scenes’ that occur during extended travel around the station are stunning; the cinematography mirroring the masterwork of Kubrick and the construction imbuing it a personality and life that many feel 2001 is missing.
Of course with life comes death, and so it is that you leave each of these rooms littered with vacant, now unmoving versions of you. Though its worse when they do move, when you walk to the door and out the corner of your eye see an identical figure doing the same and for a second forget which you are, forget who you are, because you’re both and none at the same time. So how can you simply take the hatch,leave them behind and move on to the next batch? The strongest subversion of satisfaction was when i figured out how to fly using clones: the newfound freedom is as immense as the guilt you feel when you realize that each jump leaves a you falling, flailing to its death and the fear when you forget to use the titular device an you are the one left falling. These moments, more than any of the text, are what conveyed to me the theme of iterative identity.
If that sounds at all critical of the game’s writer, Tom Jubert, I don’t intend it to be. For most of the game story is secondary and the few moments where it steps into the fore are all successful; again, that ending is amazing, a perfect amalgamation of narrative and mechanics. I also appreciated the slow unfolding of answers, the nature of the characters is only really clear upon replaying the intro after completing the game, while the world and ideas remain ambiguous; obtuse puzzles without orb-rewards or searchable solutions that are frustrating, but fascinating and fully-formed as well, in their own way. Chances are that much of the audience who pick up The Swapper will do so to play it, for the puzzles and not the philosophy, and so Jubert is perhaps right to stay out of the way, subliminally infecting them throughout the experience, but given my predilection for plot I can’t help but crave a little more, especially since he seemed so capable of crafting the stuff.
The Swapper is so satisfying an experience because it is so distinct and unique, not just another AAA-title clone – in a bit of Alanis Morrisette irony – and yet I want to see a looser-structured, larger scale sequel made; mostly so I have an excuse to give these guys more money, but also because there is expansive potential in this premise and in its progenitors but this game only captures ninety per cent of that. Mathematically speaking that’s still far and above a lot of games out there, which fail to cash-in on their now-frail formats. I feel that I need to be more clear and so I’ll be frank and simply say that I loved this game, it’s a great game and an amazing piece of art full-stop; say that it’s satisfying but i’m greedy and to simplify further say that I give it:
The Swapper can and should be purchased through Steam or HERE, on the developer’s site.