The Amazing & Astonishing RPS Advent Calendar: Day 7
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.