By Nathan Grayson on May 31st, 2013 at 11:00 am.
What would you do if you had a small army of identical, perfectly obedient clones? It’s a question I think we’ve all asked ourselves at least once (usually at around age six) but never really contemplated the ramifications of. Facepalm Games’ The Swapper dives deep into that particular rabbit hole, emerging with a wriggling handful of ethical quandaries and some positively brain-busting puzzles. But does it manage to balance its weighty concept with an equally scale-tipping amount of, you know, fun? Here’s wot I think.
I’ve always found the idea of having an identical clone – with all my same thoughts, feelings, and memories – to be kind of horrific. After all, at that point what stops him from being the “real” me? Or the better one? I worry that I’d come home, and Nathan Deluxe Edition With Added Director’s Commentary would just be having dinner with my family, getting his genetically modified germs all over my toothbrush, and turning my technology against me with foreign, unnatural passwords. And people would just kind of accept it. I mean, why not? They can’t tell the difference.
The Swapper examines many of the same underpinning aspects of the clone conundrum, but with a third, equally chill-inducing question: with clones in the picture, would there even be a “real” you anymore? While my hypothetical doppelganger rebels and overthrows, The Swapper’s are vessels. Tools whose skin your soul can occupy at will. Obedient little soldiers that’ll hurl themselves into the abyss for your cause (solving brain-scrambling puzzles) without a second thought, and they’ll do it with all your cries, motions, and mannerisms. You’ll watch yourself die, over and over and over and over.
At first, I found it completely shocking. I’d “swapped” into one clone’s body – leaving another abandoned and hollow, but still mirroring my every move – and carefully made my way down a nauseatingly lofty cliff. Mercifully, I eventually reached the loamy embrace of good ol’ terra firma, breathing a sigh of relief because any elevation above a steps stool instills me with the truest terror. Then – like you do – I took a step forward. CRACKTHUDSPLUT. I’d completely forgotten about my discarded clone, still perched on a rocky outcropping above. He landed right in front of me, limbs dancing wildly, free of the restrictions normally imposed by our simple human notions of un-shattered bones. It was sickening, and Swapper’s magnificent, echoing sound effects drove the point home.
I wondered if there was some element of morality to it – if the game was silently judging me for each callously crushed, powdered, or vaporized clone. Slowly but surely, however, that feeling evaporated. Eventually, all I could do is laugh when three bodies cratered right next to me in rapid succession. So many puzzles, so many brutally deceased doubles.
But they were really, really, really good puzzles!
The Swapper’s story and themes are interesting, but its puzzles are masterful. They begin simply enough, with your gun-like Swapper device being able to spit out up to four clones at once. They move precisely as you do, and you can take direct control (i.e. your body’s Swapper device actually works) of any given one at will, so long as you have line of sight. It is, then, a game of positioning. How do you maneuver your too-obedient worker ants onto switches, platforms, and things of the like, such that they’ll enable the “real” you to collect progress-gating orbs?
But that’s just the beginning. The Swapper is more or less a Metroidvania, but not so much in the sense that you can’t take two steps without tripping over some new god power that lets you BACKTRACK MORE GOODER. Instead, it’s about growing your mental arsenal and becoming more intimately acquainted with the possibilities rampant, unfettered cloning opens up. As I said before, the game begins simply enough, but it definitely doesn’t stay that way for long.
One-by-one, area-after-area, new elements pile on. Various types of light prevent aspects of the Swapper device from functioning, transport beams whip you and/or your clones from place-to-place at spine-compacting speed, gravity gets turned on its head, and crates need pushing. That’s just a light sampling of all the wrenches Swapper tosses into your well-oiled puzzle-solving machine, and it’s quite good at layering them on top of each other. One moment, I was synchronizing clones such that’d they walk opposite directions onto switches, and the next I was doing something similar while upside-down, unable to swap into other bodies, and seconds away from splatting into hair-and-skin-flavored space jelly.
The Swapper can be really hard, but not usually in the reflex-challenging, you’re-at-death-door’s-and-he’s-answering-it-and-he’s-welcoming-you-in-with-cookies sort of way. It’s the kind of game that’ll make you put down the controls and just have a long, hard think. That’s not to say hands-on experimentation isn’t encouraged, but expect your brain to sport a racing-horse-like lather before it’s all over. After a rather disarmingly gentle start, each puzzle morphs into its own beast, prowling in darkness and waiting to pounce on your mental prowess.
The Swapper doesn’t present its puzzles like, say, Portal or other recent “Here is this really cool central conceit” attempts at the genre. Those are essentially escalators, generously helping you ever upward while cleverly making you feel like you’re the Undisputed King/Queen of Brain Mountain. Swapper wants you to earn that feeling. I never came up against a puzzle that truly beat me, but each step of the way was a battle.
There were no singular, all-encompassing “Eureka!” moments. Instead, tiny observations and realizations grew into testable hypotheses, theories, facts. Slowly but surely, pieces would click into place. “Ah! I’ve got it now!” I’d think. “I just need to move this clone here and then hold down this switch to… but wait, no. Then that means this other one falls to his death, so I’ll need to swap into him first and… well, scratch all of that, I guess. BUT WAIT. Now I know for sure maybe!”
The game’s level design is excellent at accentuating a core, the piece you’re nearly certain must be pivotal. It’s the particulars of arranging everything around that piece that force you into this state of constant iteration and experimentation. Think, rethink. Get stumped. Take a break. Go outside. Have some ice crea- wait, no. Pet a dog. Or maybe go for a stroll in the park, because that would- Oh god, now Swapper’s thought process has invaded your mind. You can’t escape.
Only a small handful of puzzles ever willingly gave up their solutions to me. The rest, however, demanded perfection – especially in the positioning department. Sometimes that was one of Swapper’s more annoying elements, as I’d have finally, mercifully figured out a puzzle’s broad strokes, only to keep flubbing various clones’ locations ever so slightly. Then I’d have to run around and physically reabsorb or delete my clones (there’s no instant “undo” button, as that’d break quite a few puzzles) and start all over. On the upside, puzzles didn’t take long once I’d cracked their basic solutions, but my sweating, sopping brain didn’t appreciate the delay in gratification.
Admittedly, not all puzzles were winners. A few were too obtuse, and others were too easy. A set near the middle of the game, meanwhile, kind of dragged a bit, as it didn’t really introduce any new elements, obstacles, or tricks along the way. Also, it’s worth noting that – while Swapper’s spooky, suffocatingly solitary atmosphere and gargantuan sense of scale are very nearly peerless – puzzles are basically the be-all, end-all of the game. Its structure is textbook Metroidvania, but there’s not much to do off the beaten path. Story dispensing terminals help, but they don’t really ever dispel the notion that you’re being funneled down a fairly linear path. Even non-crucial puzzles are rare in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t necessarily dislike that, though. The Swapper is an exceedingly focused game, and while I wanted to reach out and touch its lushly handcrafted vision of a nearly dead space, the puzzles really were the stars of the show. It is, then, an exceedingly deft mix of style and substance, one that stays just as long as it needs to before bidding you adieu and letting your smoking synapses drift off into a well-deserved cryoslumber. It’s not a long game, but it’s one that will consume you for its entire duration – mind, body, and soul. Then it’ll make you wonder if any of those things are really “you” at all.
The Swapper is out now on Steam.