Usually I don't like games enough to tell people they should play them, because evangelism isn't my style. I just don't like anime. Maybe that sets a tone for what this post is about; maybe you're done reading. Let's keep going.
I hate horror movies. Mostly for the same reason that I hate a lot of puzzle games: they lack creativity. Lots of people seem to like the fact that a majority of puzzle games are about moving blocks and boxes in sequential order, or else I guess there wouldn't be so many of them. Just the same, people probably like their modern horror movies to be riddled with jump scares– as if that's the only thing separating them from being a thriller or something. How about a little more thought put into this stuff?
Maybe because it's hard to create something new. Thoughtful game design is almost a stretch for any genre these days, when developers are happier trying to put a twist on some pre-existing mechanic, or building the best mousetrap. The Swapper starts off on the right foot by drawing from more organic puzzle games like Portal, which is a great starting point when you decide to make the next indie darling.
Also, there is a difference between inspiration and trying to be clever and re-invent something that's already out there. The handful of guys at Facepalm Games seem to be aware enough of that fact, while still maintaining a level of fun. Maybe it helps that some of their pedigree includes a team member from FTL.
I had no idea what I was getting into with The Swapper. All I knew was that everything about its style was telling me that there was a creepy sci-fi game that might be worth checking out. Turns out, I tricked myself into playing a puzzle game. One of which has its story mostly scattered about the world in emails or through psychic rocks, for that matter. Whatever– at least it's atmospheric. I don't expect much because honestly, games just aren't great vessels for plot. Can you blame anyone for having learned to air on the side of caution that someone's about to become a philosophy major on the Steam database?
The Swapper has a lot to say about what games are doing wrong with their storytelling.
Then again, there are a lot of fresh ideas in The Swapper. As a puzzle game, it falls into the only category that makes me want to play it: the one where you have to nearly break the game to solve its puzzles. This is what makes Dark Souls so popular– a title that requires players to get creative against enemies to a point that it could be called cheating anywhere else. You can only think so far out of the box within the confines of the game, though.
What matters is that the puzzles are so complimentary to the game's swapping mechanic that they inspire the same creative thinking behind a device like the Swapper. The Swapper being the game's Portal gun, it allows the creation of four copies who, as a product of duplicity, will do exactly as the one you're controlling. I guess it's a little like P.B. Winterbottom, except that the restrictions are more creatively placed. Puzzles are built with an orb at the end, cloaked behind red, blue, and purple lights across the meticulously placed geometry that's between you and the goal.
So you can make clones, and you can swap between them. Red light means you can't swap, and blue light means you can't clone. Purple means you can do neither, because that's how color works. The game revolves around manipulating these clones of yourself with a device that isn't completely explained past its two functions and their interaction with the world. You'll kill them a lot: accidentally, purposefully, sometimes it's you because you forgot who's who. You're killing so much that it starts to feel like it could be wrong, or at least that there should be some consequence. There never is, though.
This is where The Swapper begins to creep into the back of your head as off-kilter. Concerns about the game, its setting, and your regular swapping are dragged into the light of questionable behavior, but without repercussion. You won't bat an eye at the cost of a half dozen clones just to survive a 100-meter chasm. At some points you may see another person roaming the same space station you're in for story purposes, but there's never a boss fight with a villain, and the main antagonist isn't ever confronted, or even all that devious. Almost everything in the game is from an observational perspective, except for swapping to complete its puzzles.
There aren't a lot of games that deal in ambiguity, especially when it comes to the core mechanics, which makes the Swapper device one of the more intriguing guns to date. There's speculation in the game's emails that swapping is the exchange of the host soul between another body, but who can say what is happening? Is it nobody?
Anyway, if I read what I'm writing now without having seen the game through to the end, I'd hate myself for seeming to loosely attribute so much meaning to a neat little puzzle game. In the spirit of The Swapper, let's take all this groundwork to reach the ending, where it separates itself from the pack.
The end of the game:
At the end of the day, your job is to bring down the mysterious space terminal you've spent the last 4-5 hours in so that this swapping stuff can come to an end. When you're greeted by a rescue team, they scan you from across a canyon and find readings that are 'off the charts.' They also don't have the equipment to deal with that. Cool, you're fucked. It's almost hard to think of an indie or sci-fi game that doesn't end with the player ending up as a martyr in the final moments, so why does anyone care here? Because of what you've been doing for the entire game, probably.
When presented with the option to stay behind or swap across to the guy scanning you, it's almost second nature to decide on the latter. Seems just a little despicable, until you take your first few steps towards the rescue craft and notice your former self moving towards the opposite ledge. For me, I stopped walking. I stepped back a little bit, and observed the same behavior from the entire game: that bodies mimic the host.
I didn't realize how much of a one-way trip it was, and I'm still not sure who died at that moment when I decided to board the craft. After the other crew members sweep an oddness about the returning worker under the rug, I felt like shit.
Nowadays, narrative teams try to challenge players to make a decision about which path they'll take, or simply ask that they hit the X button to throw a knife at the bad guy. There are games like Spec ops: The Line, which want players to consider their actions with inelegant plot twists, and there are people like Ken Levine who rely on a narrative so disconnected from the gameplay that pulling the rug out from players' feet doesn't have the gravity that the story team thought it would.
Rarely do games manage to incorporate gameplay into the story, and this laziness is part of what holds them back from being considered any higher a form of entertainment than Pong. Developers like thatgamecompany have managed to more successfully pull this off with each new release, and every now and then we get a game like Journey or Passage (a small thing about walking in one direction), where consequence is attributed directly to player actions. Not in a cutscene, but in the moment. These are the kind of games that bring their mechanics and plot full circle when they need a story beat to hit, which is exactly where The Swapper finds itself.
I don't need every game to throw the player for a loop at the end, but the effort put into those moments makes a huge difference. Almost as much as the difference between the eerie Alien against the actiony Aliens, or Alien 3, or Aliens 4: Aliens 2 + 2. Also, weren't there way more aliens in Aliens 4 than just four of them?
At least Aliens had the class to be flexible in its naming.
Facepalm Games is doing their own thing over in Finland, and based on The Swapper, they're headed in the right direction. Its puzzles can be trying at times, but if anything about the game has struck your curiosity, you should play it. You deserve an inventive 2D puzzle game, for once. And then you can go back and read whatever I had to say about the ending.
Why are you still reading, and not playing The Swapper? It's on Steam right now.