There’s something appealing to me about isolation. It’s the want for wanting, the need to be needy. It’s a compelling force that drives me to seek out the tiniest shred of human contact, and makes every minor discovery feel like setting foot on a new continent. Nowhere is that duality of isolation and discovery more prevalent than in the concept of space. The universe holds infinite possibilities, but to discover them means a long, lonely journey through endless emptiness.
Like Metroid before it, The Swapper puts you in the shoes of a lone explorer, tasked with exploring and escaping the puzzles and history of a labyrinthine dungeon. This particular dungeon is Theseus, a research station orbiting in deep space which has been, predictably, completely abandoned.
Theseus, along with the everything else in the game, is gorgeous. Rather than utilize digital textures like any sane developer, the two-person team at Facepalm Games created art assets for The Swapper completely by hand out of found objects and clay. The result looks like the smoothest stop-motion animation you’ve ever seen. The game’s tin can rocket ships, and charcoal asteroids lend unsettling touch of reality to the world, highlighting the sense of displacement in an alien environment.
Much like the Myst games, another series devoted to lonely exploration, the loneliness and not-quite-reality provide an irrational sense of dread. Intellectually I always knew The Swapper was a puzzle-platformer, completely devoid of enemy encounters. In the back of my mind, however, it’s hard to shake the sense that something is just slither out and tear apart our hero, the nameless, faceless astronaut. It’s like sensory deprivation for my imagination, constantly forcing you to consider what you aren’t seeing.
Your only tool and light within this claustrophobic blankness is the titular “swapper,” a device which allows you to duplicate the protagonist up to four times and “swap” consciousnesses between the clones. Each copy mimics the actions of the original, and doing so allows him/her/them to platform their way through the puzzles of Theseus. The objective being to collect key orbs, unlock new locations, and discover the fate of the suspiciously absent crew.
Better puzzles through cloning isn’t new to video games — not even to the puzzle-platformer genre, in fact. The Swapper doesn’t just make use of the well-worn conceit, though. It elevates it to an art form.
There’s very little in the way of tutorials, and there really doesn’t have to be. At first, solutions require only the proper positioning of clones on switches, or working around blue and red lights which block either clone placement or body swapping, respectively. New problems arise, and new problems present themselves as the environments actually trick you into learning new uses for the swapper which, in retrospect, seem obvious.
There comes a point, however, when the answers to puzzles stop being obvious, and start feeling intentionally obfuscated. Towards the end of your journey, the game trades in its “Aha!” moments for puzzles which seem more difficult and obtuse because “that’s what happens in video games.” Some will welcome the challenge, while others will become frustrated by the halt in the unravelling story — a story which is darker and more poignant than the genre and title would impress.
The overarching plot — mostly told through diary terminals scattered about by the missing crew — is engrossing on its own. When coupled with how the gameplay presents the themes it tackles, however, it becomes high point of storytelling in the medium. Questions surrounding the ethics of how you play organically arise — Is it alright to “kill” these brainless clones? What actually happens when I transfer my character’s consciousness to a new body? — and the story doesn’t leave them unaddressed, even as it incorporates them into larger ideas (which I won’t spoil here.) The issues are handled deftly and subtly throughout, and culminate in one of my favorite endings to any game.
The question becomes, what do you do when a particularly fiendish puzzle gets in the way of seeing that story playing out? The pressure to use a walkthrough in the late stages is crushing. It’s a testament to the game’s story and atmosphere that you’d actually want to skp such pitch-perfect puzzle mechanics just to experience it faster. Which sense of discovery and accomplishment is more important to you will likely be the deciding factor.
Whichever you choose, The Swapper remains an outstanding achievement. Minor frustration It’s the sort of game that makes wading through the sea of empty, soulless cash-ins worthwhile — a specific vision crafted without compromise, executed
The Swapper is the discovery at the end of a long, lonely journey.
This review is based on a version of the game purchased by the reviewer.