This post contains spoilers for The Swapper.
In a recent interview on the Penny Arcade Report, Dan Teasdale explained his weariness with the preponderance of fantasy, science fiction, and retro game genres. I find his weariness with this “nerd triumverate” understandable, especially when it comes to sci-fi. Open up the iOS app store and you’ll find countless games about mining, fighting, or flying in space. On the blockbuster side of things, we’ve had Halo, Dead Space, Mass Effect, and numerous other operatic tales of galactic calamities. Maybe it’s time we put sci-fi in cryo stasis for a while?
But then there are games like The Swapper. The Swapper doesn’t have any gun battles, and it isn’t about interstellar war. And this actually works in its favor. By narrowing its scope, The Swapper is able to fully explore its game systems and the ethical implications they have within the game’s story.
The Swapper’s title refers to the main tool that you use to navigate the game’s world. Soon after boarding a seemingly abandoned space station, you happen upon a device that allows you to generate clones and swap your consciousness (and, therefore, your active control) between them. The rest of the game is devoted to exploring the station and collecting power cells that grant you access to increasingly locked down areas using some combination this ability to swap between clones.
It’s a straightforward concept, but it has many facets. The 2D platforming looks simple, but things get complicated since your clones’ movement is synced to yours. Jump and your clones jump. Run and your clones will run in the same speed and in the same direction, regardless of whether there are obstacles in the way. The Swapper soon becomes an intricate exercise in positioning clones to depress switches or remotely jump to inaccessible areas to progress.
As is the case in Braid, there may be a single solution to a particular puzzle, but knowing the solution is only half the challenge. Executing that solution may require precise jumping or mid-air clone swapping. There are some areas that dampen your ability to change bodies or place clones in particular areas, so carefully inching out on the very edge of a platform can make a huge difference. There aren’t any explosive set pieces, microtransactions, or mini-games, just a dedication to exploring all the permutations of the game mechanics
This focus on depth is reflected in the game’s story as well. The story comes together gradually, but it becomes apparent that the crew of this abandoned spaceship discovered rock-like formations that actually exhibited some form of collective consciousness. It’s difficult to tell if it was maliciousness or simple miscommunication, but these aliens and their telepathic powers began to kill the people that removed them from their natural environments.
At the same time you are learning about this collective mind, you are coming to resemble it. I tried to play the shell game of remembering which version of my avatar was my “real” body, but it soon proved futile. So many clones are created, swapped into, and discarded that the idea of having one true self becomes untenable. As the scientific logs you find suggest, perhaps the Swapper tool demonstrates that there is some kind of soul that could be transferred between bodies. Whether it is a collection of electric impulses or something more spiritual is a question you and the lone survivor that you find on the station grapple with, although it’s difficult to say what their conclusion is.
Like most good sci-fi, The Swapper uses fictional concepts to explore existential questions. At the end of the game, you’re faced with a dilemma: have you cloned and swapped yourself so many times that you have become more like the aliens or do you wish to integrate yourself back into normal society? Of course, doing so means you need to swap into an unsuspecting victim and then leave him to die in one of your discarded clones. Whether you choose to effectively kill yourself or kill for your freedom, it becomes the game’s only mandatory violent action. It’s a powerful metaphor symbolizing a more philosophical trauma: accepting that you have lost your humanity or killing in a desperate attempt to preserve it.
Again, like Braid, The Swapper uses platforming and physics-defying puzzles to make thematic statements about human nature. The game’s sci-fi trappings aren’t just window dressing to differentiate one killing field from another or an artistic aesthetic meant to distract you from the fact that mining for ore in space feels a lot like doing it on Earth. Cloning and soul-swapping are clearly in the realm of fantasy, but they are treated with observational rigor and consistency throughout the story. They are contrivances that are necessary to discuss the themes of individualism and morality that the game contains. They also make for some extremely tricky and extremely satisfying puzzles that fit within the game’s world.
I sympathize with Dan Teasdale’s boredom with many sci-fi games because it’s easy to use the genre to decorate what is actually an interchangeable clone of countless other games. However, when used wisely, sci-fi themes are critical to providing unique experiences. Ultimately, it’s poetically fitting that such well-known sci-fi concepts as instant cloning, the loss of individuality, and the blurry line between science and magic make The Swapper such a powerful game.