The Swapper is fairly straightforward puzzle game: You use a special gun to create clones of yourself, and you use those clones to hit switches and open doors. Mechanically, it conforms to the typical tropes of sidescrollers and puzzles games. Narratively, however, it asks a question few games do. What if these mechanics were real? The Swapper uses its clone puzzles to fuel a meditation on individuality from both a personal and societal perspective.
The story revolves around the discovery of sentient rocks on a distant planet by a mining colony. It’s kind of a ridiculous concept on its face, but The Swapper, like a great piece of classic high-concept sci-fi, digs into this premise to explore its philosophical and psychological ramifications.
The rocks are psychically linked to each other, which gives them a hive mind even though each rock exists as a separate physical entity. Because of this link and because rocks are pretty long lasting entities, these creatures have no concept of death. The rocks’ consciousness can’t die. Even if one of them is destroyed, it will still live on in the hive mind. However, when miners and scientists remove these rocks from the planet, bringing them up to a space station for further study, they break the psychic link, and for the first time, these rocks experience existence outside of the hive mind. They hate it because to them it feels like death even though they still have consciousness. They describe this life—this living death—as a separation from the “great chain” that they once knew.
The game thus equates separation with death and argues that entire societies can still suffer from a crippling loneliness if they’re cut off from a larger source. There are dozens of rocks all over the station and they’re all still connected to each other, so they still maintain some form of a social group. However, that doesn’t matter. The rocks still share a hive mind, but it’s a different hive mind in a different location, and that concept of “different” forces them to acknowledge their individuality—if not as physically separate rocks, then at least as a separate group. The entire rock society is essentially one consciousness split into two, like a clone. For a society built around the idea of “one,” the idea of “two” is shocking and painful.
Humans, with our understanding of individuality, might be better equipped to handle such a separation, but the game argues that even if we can, that doesn’t mean that we should. The mining station Theseus is just one of many attempts to clone the society of earth in space, but cloning an individualistic human is different than cloning a group-think rock. When we clone an individual, we understand there’s a difference between the original and the copy. That distinction inevitably leads to a hierarchy, and in that hierarchy, the original is always considered as somehow more important. This is represented in the gameplay since our clones mimic our movements, but it’s also represented in the story since these mining stations were sent to far away planets in order to find precious minerals and send them back to earth. The copies are working for the original.
Throughout the game, there are hidden logs that flesh out more of the back story. The logs are sent from Mission Control, and the first few messages emphasize the heroic and sacrificial nature of this mission. The writer thanks the miners for their willingness to leave families and friends behind. He goes on to emphasize how each station must learn to be self-sufficient. They can’t count on earth to help, yet they should still send supplies back to help earth.
Continuing with the logs, it’s revealed that the other mining stations have all failed for various reasons. Unfortunately, we don’t learn the exact reason for all the failures, just that communication has stopped. It’s easy to believe that the stations, like Theseus, encountered problems and were destroyed. As small, separate entities, they’re more vulnerable to the dangers of space travel. Mission Control knows this. After all, the logs treat their separation from the “great chain” of earth as dangerous and difficult, yet necessary. Theseus is essentially created to work and die, a sacrificial clone that exists purely for the benefit of the original.
This is the inevitable result of cloning in an individualistic society, the game argues. Our ability to differentiate leads to hierarchy, which then leads to abuse. This is alluded to in the back story and in the world building, but it becomes explicit when we look at the mechanics and the story of our avatar, which I will do next week.