The first time you do it, you’re not really thinking. You’re in game mode, trying to get from point A to point B, still adjusting to the unfamiliar controls. You don’t blink as your old body — the one you so carelessly swapped for that of a clone — crumples against the metal; you hardly hear it when the air in your old space suit hisses out in a final death rattle. But then you start to think about it, and very soon, you wish that you didn’t have to think anymore.
“The Swapper,” a new two-dimensional puzzle-platformer for PC from indie developer Facepalm Games, is all about thought. From the challenging puzzle gameplay to the sinister story line, “The Swapper” keeps you thinking when you’d rather not. Even the sentient space rocks around you have cryptic things to say about the mind — “Why does the other mind scream inside?” one says, supposedly telepathically — and the whole experience is strongly reminiscent of the iconic puzzle game “Portal.”
In “Portal,” you use a single piece of technology — a gun that shoots “portals,” or pairs of gateways — to move your character through the game. “The Swapper” is along a similar vein, utilizing a single gun that also allows for character movement. However, in the latter, the gun shoots up to four clones with which the character can “swap” consciousnesses, which is the core puzzle-solving mechanic and namesake of the game. The implications of using the swapping device are subtle, yet they contribute immensely to the sinister atmosphere of the game.
Sometimes you’ll find yourself falling from a ledge, and the only way for you to save your consciousness and maintain control in-game is to quickly create a clone close to the ground and swap into it. Your old body takes falling damage and crumples, but you, as far as your W-A-S-D keys are concerned, are still alive. At first, you feel a sense of accomplishment for having solved this step of the puzzle. But then you begin to think. You were just controlling that corpse — it had your “soul” in it, according to a disembodied voice in the annals of the space station. When you sacrifice it to save your own consciousness, are you committing murder? Or is it suicide?
Making the empty space station even creepier is the presence of the telepathic space rocks, which the now-missing crew dubbed “the Watchers.” As you walk past them, text flashes on-screen with a message from a Watcher, and it’s always something dark and enigmatic. Combined with the eerily peaceful music, the Watchers’ comments provide the player with both hints about the story as well as a growing uneasiness about the environment. Similar to GLaDOS in “Portal,” the Watchers seem to know quite a bit that the player has yet to discover.
“The Swapper” integrates the story into the gameplay brilliantly, combining the player’s general trepidation with a questionable (and experimental) piece of technology to ultimately create a subtly malevolent world. It’s simultaneously haunting and compelling and brings the two-dimensional world to life.
However, while a quality game and a worthwhile experience, “The Swapper” does not surpass the likes of “Portal,” which will always take the cake — pun very much intended — as one of the most compelling games of the last decade. Though it might not be fair to compare the two, “The Swapper” employs a lot of the core elements of “Portal” and makes drawing comparisons inevitable.
Still, “The Swapper” is a great experience. At only $15, it provides the same feeling of infallible intelligence upon puzzle completion that “Portal” did — and that’s what makes puzzle games worth playing.