The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 7

By RPS on December 7th, 2013 at 10:00 am.

Christmas shopping is a pain. A leg-straining, brain-draining pain. If only there could be more than one of you. Then you’d also have time to bake those cookies, assault those obnoxious carolers with a rake, and ponder the link between body and soul or, indeed, if there is one at all. If only…

It’s The Swapper!

Nathan: Let’s get this one out of the way upfront: The Swapper is an abysmally, almost laughably terrible name. The Swapper emerged from its test tube dripping both handcrafted style and brain-beguiling substance earlier this year, then promptly fell off the radar. I don’t know for certain, but I can’t imagine the name helped.

In addition to sounding rather cheesy, it failed to communicate the simple, elegantly focused brilliance of its game’s core mechanic. You clone yourself, then you swap (thus, the name) back-and-forth between bodies as you please. Your literal army of one, however, moves in lockstep, so positioning and placement quickly become quite challenging. However, there’s no penalty for killing an unoccupied (or, I suppose, soulless) body, so – after some initial revulsion at the idea – my clones became entirely disposable organ sacks, mere tools for puzzle-solving or even bone-splintering ragdoll “comedy.”

How’s that for a heavy message embedded in the mechanics? Are humans disposable if they lack perceivable consciousness? If they’re essentially “vegetables” and we can just poof new ones into existence at the drop of a hat? Am I? I probably killed “myself” over a thousand times during The Swapper, largely without batting an eyelash. Sometimes I even laughed. I’m still not sure how to feel about that. Not guilty, necessarily. Just… odd.

In fairness, no name could’ve adequately communicated all of that. Or, if it attempted to, it would’ve been, well *checks wordcount* 270 words long, officially putting it on a pedestal with the true name of god and just behind the new Barkley Shut Up And Jam Gaiden. But enough about that. Let’s continue talking about why The Swapper is great and you should be wracked with at least four clones’ worth of guilt for missing it (I’m looking at you, rest of the RPS hivemind).

Modern adventure puzzlers often take us by the hand and guide us to solutions in a way that makes us feel smart even though we’re hardly doing any of the heavy lifting, but Swapper quickly dispenses with the formalities. It’s like showing up to a martial arts gym expecting to be handed your black belt on a silver platter, only to instead be strung up as the punching bag. And just when you think it’s done walloping your brain – that you’ve learned all of its tricks, which it absolutely refuses to communicate to you overtly – it finds a new way to float like a butterfly and sting like 30 brainfreezes all at once. Each puzzle is less a step toward some grand end and more an individual mountain, a thing you fritter and fret over like you’re solving a Rubik’s Cube for the first time ever.

I guess you could call it a Metroidvania, but it’s not about amassing a collection of cool, conveniently placed toys (there aren’t many, really). Rather, the tools you collect strengthen and reinforce your mind. You continually come away with new ways of viewing that core clone-and-swap mechanic, and they’re rarely predictable. Which is, on some level, all to say that if I tried to play Swapper again right now, I’d be utterly horrendous at it. Unfortunately, my brain has largely forgotten its language.

The Swapper was strange for me, though, in that I actually enjoyed getting stuck in it. In part, it’s because, at the time, the language of the game infected my mind so effectively, so profoundly, that it felt strangely natural. As I wrote in my review: “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.”

I got stuck constantly. Even when multiple main path puzzles were available, I often felt mentally exhausted, defeated. Each would send me reeling in a different way. But I couldn’t resist going back for more. I’d walk away, think about something else entirely for a bit, and then – apropos of nothing – go, “Wait! I haven’t tried that approach yet!” At which point I’d rush back to my PC and overload my brain with a dopamine surge born of both pride and exhaustion. What a feeling.

All that in mind, maybe The Swapper should actually be called The Stumper. Because, you know, the way it makes you… and then…

Yeah, OK, that name is even worse. I’ve got nothing.

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24 Comments »

  1. Lars Westergren says:

    Lovely game. For me, the puzzles were just hard enough. Frequently frustrating, but ultimately solvable.

    > I’d walk away, think about something else entirely for a bit, and then – apropos of nothing – go, “Wait! I haven’t tried that approach yet!” At which point I’d rush back to my PC and overload my brain with a dopamine surge born of both pride and exhaustion.

    Exactly this. I once even woke up with a solution to one of the puzzles.

  2. wcq says:

    Even though pretty much all parts of this game are great, the best part for me was that despite it’s metroidvania-style structure, it didn’t give me any new toys after the beginning. When I came to a new puzzle, I knew that it was solvable with what I had on me right then.

    Physically, that is. Mentally, perhaps not.

  3. airtekh says:

    One of my personal favourites from 2013 for sure.

    The atmosphere is fantastic, and the puzzles are just hard enough to stump you, but allow you to solve them after a bit of thought.

  4. Lambchops says:

    This is another game that I’ve seen recommended recently that is on my list to buy in the Christmas sales.

    I think at the time I thought “oh look, another puzzle platformer” and was unconvinced that it was doing anything special enough to warrant purchasing. However, it seems like people have a lot of good things to say about it and I do really enjoy a well crafted puzzle platformer, so on the list it has gone.

  5. Vandro says:

    The Swapper’s my game of the year. In an odd combination of bad and good luck I was knocked of my motorbike by an ambulance leaving me housebound in gloomy late autumn Essex for a week recuperating. I decided to use the time to try to clear up some of the shorter games in my Steam backlog and this was one of them. Under the circumstances the sense of isolation and existential angst deeply resonated with me. I found some of the puzzles very difficult but that just made it all the more satisfying to solve them. The ending was just beautiful. It’s been a long time since a game’s had such an impact on me and all I was expecting was cool puzzles.

  6. Shadrach says:

    Does it support using a controller? I’ve been looking at this and I guess the apparent lack of controller support is what makes me sceptical – It looks like a perfect game for the big screen but keyboard and mouse is too clunky for playing on the couch.

    • cpt_freakout says:

      No controller support for now. I bought it thinking the same thing as you, except for some reason I didn’t even bother to check (I usually do). I don’t know if controller support is even in the works, but I wouldn’t expect it. You should get it anyway and play on your desktop, because it’s really good. :)

    • kaer says:

      It doesn’t use many buttons, so it does well with a gamepad and it’s mapping software. I played it through like that. Until you asked, I had forgotten that it doesn’t have native gamepad support.

  7. MeestaNob says:

    For the last 1/3 of the game I used YouTube walkthroughs to get through some of the puzzles. Even for a relatively short game, I found any puzzle I couldn’t solve within a few minutes was just holding up the flow of the story. I think it would have been nice if they had implemented a hint system that could detect if you had been stuck on a room for a while, and dropped a subtle hint or two to get you moving again. The female astronaut would have been perfect for this, she almost always seemed to know where you were on the ship or what you were doing when it came to the overall plot, so having her interject on the radio with some advice when you were stalled on a room wouldn’t have been out of place.

    I was also a bit bothered by the auto save at the end. It saves at the credits, not before the final scene, so there’s no way to see the alternate ending without playing the whole game through again. No one could possibly want to play through 4 more hours of this just to see a different 30 second outcome, once again YouTube came in handy…

    But minor quibbles aside, a really good game.

  8. bill says:

    It looked too similar to several other clone-based platformers, so I ignored it. Didn’t realise it was particularly great.

  9. Greggh says:

    Is there a way to pin the “Advent Calendar” posts to the top of the main page?

    It’d seem proper to me, given how good these posts are (and the thematic importance of them in this the most pagan of holidays).

  10. Wedge says:

    I’ve seen the game on sale for cheap and keep thinking I should get it, but the weird art style keeps making me hesitate.

  11. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Off topic, but did anyone watch the ‘Kara’ PS3 graphics tech video linked at the end of the trailer?

    Wow. Not the tech, which is obviously good, but the actual ‘story’. Very affecting.

  12. Syros says:

    On of the most pleasant surprises for me in 2013. Loved everything about the game – the art style, the sound design, the puzzles, the story… Even the typography is awesome! This is an incredibly atmospheric and immersive game. The thing just feels so solid and cohesive. An easy one to fall in love with.

  13. draglikepull says:

    I really enjoyed this game for about an hour or two, at which point I started getting completely stumped on all the puzzles and wasn’t able to progress any further. The main conceit is really neat and it’s obvious that a ton of thought went into it but there does become a certain point where if you can’t figure out the solutions a puzzle game just isn’t very fun any more. I did also find that a lot of the puzzles required far too much precision. There were a number of puzzles that I figured out and then spent ten minutes trying to line up perfectly.

  14. MultiVaC says:

    I really loved this game as well. The puzzles hit a good the right spot of being tough enough to get you stumped and forcing you to really think, but never so frustrating that you feel like giving up on the game. It also helps that the story is interesting, the art style and visuals are cool, and the atmosphere is outstanding.

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    try here……. http://goo.gl/iITlPP

  16. Low Life says:

    I really enjoyed this game. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the puzzle difficulty was just right. I liked that the puzzles didn’t have a big emphasis on execution – once you figured out the logic it was easy to do what you wanted to.

    Certainly one of my favourite puzzle platformers.

    • pertusaria says:

      That’s funny – I came here to post that I was enjoying the game until I got stuck a few times on the more timing-dependent puzzles that crop up as you go along. I can see the solution, but I can’t pull it off because I’m too slow. Still, I’d encourage anyone who likes puzzlers to give this one a go. It’s clever and quite atmospheric.

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  18. mineshaft says:

    I appear to be stuck in my last puzzle, the one that only lets you use four total clones. Don’t tell me, it will come.

    The game did feel twitchy and difficult to me until I figured out that time goes super slow motion when you hold down the right mouse button. I don’t think many of the puzzles actually require catlike reflexes with that in mind.

    This game does feel like an unusually complete package. Not necessarily long, but resonant and interesting. As a unified work of art, an exemplary game.