The Swapper

moderate spoilers


Space is fucking cool.

I mean there’s a lot more to say about The Swapper, but I think that may be its most lasting impression of the game on my mind. No other 2d platformer has captured the loneliness, awe, and terror of space the way this game has. While its presentation is obviously influenced by Super Metroid, the Metroid games were far more about exploring an underground alien wilderness than outer space itself. The environments of The Swapper are largely traditional 2d puzzle-platformer rooms, but there are also a couple of segments where you have to navigate through a weightless environment – though, because the game is still mapped into 2d space and constrained to the boxes of the designed levels, you are never really in danger of losing your way and setting yourself adrift endlessly through a vast black void, the disorientation of being cut off from the tether of earthly gravity, the discomfort of no longer having a down to orient yourself against, still gnaws at the edge of your mind – makes you wonder, when you push away from the hull of the ship and out into the unknown, whether you will find your way back.

There are a few tricky puzzles in The Swapper, but I found most of them fairly easy. In games of this style, solving a puzzle is usually just a matter of reading the designer’s intent. All you have to do is figure out why each object is placed in the room, and the solution becomes obvious. This isn’t intelligence per se – this isn’t even exactly problem-solving. This is just reading the language of game design. An unfortunate drawback to creating puzzles like this, using a small set of game objects, is that it is easy to read the designer’s intent. It would be easy to obfuscate this, it’s true, by adding extraneous crates, buttons, switches, a sea of red herring: It would make the game feel less elegant, but also less contrived. It would make the solution harder to find, but perhaps a more genuine discovery. I’m not saying that the developer was wrong to create the puzzles the way they were created: I just want to point out an assumption, or set of assumptions, worth questioning. Is ‘elegance’ in puzzle design necessarily desirable?

The device which gives the game its title is the Swapper. It appears to have two functions: First, it can create a perfect clone of a human being and everything they are wearing and carrying, right down to the swapper itself. For some reason this capability is rarely commented on, though it seems possibly the more impressive of its two functions. Second, it can allow human consciousness to be transferred to another container.  The exact process at work here is an open question, around which much of the game’s plot centers: Does the device transfer the mind, some nebulous construct that exceeds the fleshy mechanics of the human brain? Or does it do something less metaphysical, more invasive, potentially dangerous? As the story progresses, it seems like there must be more to it than is immediately obvious. Given both that if your currently ‘active’ clone dies you have to restart the area, and that another person who uses the Swapper collapses immediately after, it seems certain that something must leave the body of the person who uses it. At the same time, as long as your clones are in close proximity they are easily controlled by the same consciousness that controls your ‘main’ body, so some connection must be maintained.

Putting these clues together, I surmise the following: First, use of the Swapper essentially destroys the ‘source’ mind it works on and stores a copy in the Swapper device. This turns out to be useful on the Theseus station in particular, since it seems to be full of rocks which act upon the mind in the same way as the Swapper, reading and writing memories, and were likely themselves instrumental in the development of the device: This is probably why usage of the Swapper was encouraged, because unprotected human minds would be quickly overwritten and destroyed by the thought-noise generated by the rocks, whereas a mind safely housed in a Swapper could operate indefinitely. Thus, the crew’s unwillingness to use the device, mentioned at the start of the game, likely contributed to the catastrophe that destroyed Theseus. It also seems to exert some ability to control nearby clones, entirely separately from the mind stored in the device, and operating some distance away – even though the mind is housed in a specific swapper device, it uses the body holding it to trigger the device to transfer the mind. This means that if the body holding the active Swapper dies, there’s no one to pull the trigger, and it lies inactive on the floor for a presumed eternity. Thus, while the Swapper can be used to transfer the stored mind into another container, if that container is not another Swapper it’s likely to stay there, since most containers won’t have the capability to transfer the stored consciousness back out.

The only restrictions on your ability to clone your body and swap between clones are line-of-sight and areas with colored lights that block the effect of your device. Using colored light to restrict player capabilities is an interesting choice: Though the effect is primarily pragmatic, a means of restricting the player’s frankly godlike powers just enough to make it possible to create a decent puzzle, and the choice of colored light to present it likely just the simplest and most obvious available solution, the fact remains that colors of light are also loaded with cinematic meaning. The blue light that keeps you from cloning also evokes coldness and loneliness, appropriate both to the setting and to the restrictions it places upon you, while the red light that keeps you from swapping evokes danger, also appropriate since it effectively closes off your normal escape route of transferring to another body. More than once in the game, I would find myself surprised to have my ability to use the Swapper restricted, only to realize a moment later that, of course I couldn’t, the entire room was bathed in a cold blue light. The blue and red light also sometimes mix together to make a purple light, which I guess mostly evokes a garish discotheque. It’s not a coincidence that this color is rarely used outside of puzzles where its presence is absolutely necessary: It’s unfortunate that the color had to be purple, because it does look a bit ridiculous, but I suppose better that than some counter-intuitive third color – though perhaps a cooler and less saturated tone might have helped.

The psychic rocks encountered throughout the game probably don’t think, as such, any more than the Swapper device itself thinks. They just remember: They’re just records of memories imprinted long ago, by other interlopers and passersby. Humans, encountering this, can easily mistake these words for intelligence, but in practice they’re just a collection of memories given voice and shape by the audience-human’s own personal history and experience. The closest thing to an emotion or opinion expressed by the rocks is “the chain has been broken”, which is essentially rock-speak for “404 FILE NOT FOUND”. Throughout the game we hear the sound of a record player under the background music, reinforcing this idea: This music is not being played by a person, it is just a record, a memory. Everything here is dead: Just because it speaks to you doesn’t mean it’s talking.

At the end of The Swapper, you’re asked to choose between two endings. A lot of the narrative up until this point has been leading up to this choice, so you have a pretty good idea of what it entails. Personally, I didn’t have a strong opinion on which ending I wanted to see, so I chose the slightly more appealing one on the basis that I could just reload and check out the other one afterwards. However, the game wouldn’t let me do so, just playing the credits sequence when I tried to continue from my last save. If I’d known this was the case, that I’d have to replay the entire game if I wanted to see the other ending, would I have chosen differently? I understand that they wanted the choice to mean something, so they made it irrevocable – but, if I only find out it was irrevocable after the fact, then it was only a meaningful decision in retrospect, with none of the gravitas inflected upon me at the time I made the decision that was supposedly so important. I don’t think it’s bad to make the player live with the consequences of their decisions in this way, but if the player has no idea what the ramifications of a decision are then it’s barely a decision at all. The entire gameplay of a game like The Walking Dead is based around these kinds of decisions, irrevocable and impossible to optimize, and this expectation is set very early on in the series. Making the player make a decision like this, supposedly loaded with meaning, without communicating the importance of the decision at any other point during the game, guarantees that the impact of the decision will be dulled. In the end, decisions like this aren’t really what the game is about: So why make me play through it again if I want to see the other ending?

I think this is a good video game. It’s pulled in a few different directions by ideas of what it’s supposed to be, and this indecision hampers it in several areas, but it brings a lot to the table: Clever puzzle design and a beautiful aesthetic presentation make it easy to engage with, and the story is, while not hugely novel or mind-blowing, definitely meaty enough to be satisfying to think about for a while even after completion.



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