The core mechanic of The Swapper is a gun that creates clones of the player, allowing one to transfer his or her consciousness into any of the clones at will. It’s an idea hinted at and sneakily hammered home by ship logs and the hive-minded alien intelligence you encounter across the game. Slowly, it begins to dawn on you that every clone created isn’t just tabula rasa on legs, but a fully formed human being, who may or may not have its own consciousness and knowledge of your goals. Throughout the game, advancement is contingent on sending hundreds, if not thousands, of these clones to harsh, ignominious, bone-crunching death to solve its puzzles, with zero caution thrown to the wind, thus rendering even using the gun an act of cruelty and horror.
As a gameplay mechanic, it’s a fine idea that’s been floating around the headspace of many developers over the years (even the last Mario platformer on the WiiU had a variant on this), and one so simple to craft a game on top of, that you may wonder why no one thought of it before. It makes the fact that the developer is called Facepalm Games feel like an industry-shaming joke. As a piece of the overarching story, however, it’s a factor that allows The Swapper to transcend the sci-fi smorgasbord of ideas that fuel it into something greater, which would be the case even if the puzzles weren’t as frustratingly diabolical as they are.
The Swapper’s core concepts aren’t new. There’s equal elements, ideological or aesthetic, ripped from Alien, Silent Running, Moon, Solaris, 2001, Event Horizons, and a bunch of other films. Bringing their ethics, their morality into an interactive medium is rare for the medium, possibly groundbreaking, considering how few games invite the player to read this much into the text. There’s definitely a conversation to be had about the right and wrong of what the player is asked to do in order to get off of the space station, and whether what we’ve done to the new civilization discovered could or even should be forgiven. Ultimately, however, this doesn’t bear down on the fact that The Swapper is still a puzzle game.
Like Portal, the game forces the player to destroy much of what they know of conventional physics to move onward, upward, and every other which way, and it’s just as clever in its implementation. But where a tough puzzle in Portal often has a climax that’s as exhilarating as the best amusement park ride, a tough challenge here often leaves one gripped by a feeling of exhaustion, with very little catharsis for the mental effort. It creates the usual conflict every game developer with something to say, or a story to tell, ends up with: trying to find the balance between wanting to usher the player through the game in order to say what must be said, versus placing insurmountable, devious, frustrating obstacles in their way.
The Swapper’s story is a patient, slow affair, and a lot of the later puzzles are so grueling to complete that it’s easy to see the type of gamer interested in its ideas being daunted, and better players ignoring the tiny details that make the game’s climax sing. But even the better minds that could blow through the game in hours instead of days would be forced to respect the Herculean effort in getting this particular breed of story, and such esoteric gameplay, to mesh at all.
The Swapper is now available from Curve Studios.