This post contains spoilers for The Swapper.
The Swapper is a puzzle game about clones that uses its mechanics to fuel a story that explores the psychological and societal ramifications of cloning. It compares and contrasts these ramifications with two very different societies: human society and a society of psychically linked alien rocks.
Continuing with the thoughts from my previous post, Theseus is a mining station in deep space, cut off from earth, and that separation is painful. As individuals, we still rely on large groups for survival. Our individuality does not make us self-sufficient.
The game emphasizes the horror of separation with its somber mood. The Swapper is a quiet, painfully lonely game. You spend a vast majority of your time wandering the abandoned Theseus and solving solitary puzzles while a sparse soundtrack drones in the background. It’s a spooky game with an undeniable horror quality thanks to the game world’s vacant environment. This reinforces the idea that humans can’t exist alone. Solitude is scary. It’s unnerving. Separation from the great chain of society naturally fills us with fear. We may be conscious individuals, but we still long to be part of a greater whole. Unfortunately for us, that longing will always go unfulfilled because we have a sense of self.
When we meet the scientists that created the swapper device, they have a plan to take control of the rocks. Swap into one, and use the power of their individuality to take over the hivemind. It doesn’t work. They become “one” with the rocks. You can’t transplant an individual mind into a hive mind, and by that same logic, you can’t transplant a hivemind into an individual mind.
The whole “swapping” technology is derived from the rocks, and it represents an attempt to transplant the rocks’ hivemind society onto a human society, which doesn’t quite work because humans don’t have a natural hivemind. As I wrote in the previous post, “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 higher.” When we create clones with the swapper device, we don’t create other equal individuals. Instead we create clones that obey us, empty vessels we can then “swap” into while still maintaining our sense of individuality. A hivemind for individualistic humans is really more of forced servitude.
During gameplay, your clone copies your every movement. The puzzles revolve around how to place clones around obstacles so that they all stand on certain buttons at the same time. The puzzles are a kind of crowd management. We’re corralling and controlling our clones, and the moment they serve our purpose we can get rid of them. In fact, many of the puzzles require sacrificing a clone to complete. When exploring Theseus, we’re able to travel up and down massive vertical shafts by creating clones above or below us and then swapping our consciousness into them. We can thus avoid dying from a fall by creating a clone at ground level and then swapping into it a second before we hit the floor. We live, and the body that comes crashing down is just an empty cloned shell.
Except that it’s not a shell. The big story twist is that you are actually a clone as well. Your original got scared when she saw you and ejected you from the station. The distance between the clone and the original then broke the psychic link, just like what happened with the rocks brought up from the planet. When they lost their link to the hivemind, they were forced to acknowledge their individuality. When your link was broken, you too came to understand your individuality. Which means every clone you create really is a genuine individual but only when the link is broken.
The Swapper takes the metaphorical loneliness of individuality and makes it literal. We are surrounded by other people, but we can only think about ourselves. As beings with an individual consciousness we can’t know what others are thinking, so that prevents us from seeing the clones as real people: They move just like us, so they must be clones of us. We can swap into them, so their mind must be empty. Right? Throughout the game we kill countless other people without even realizing it, all because we’re incapable of truly knowing another’s thoughts. Our ignorant assumptions lead to mass murder.
Yet The Swapper doesn’t judge us for this. The murder is, after all, forced upon us by the puzzles, and we’re never given any reason to suspect the clones are anything other than shells. Instead, the game asks us to judge ourselves. In the end we have a choice: swap into a member of the rescue team, taking over his body for life (we leave the swapper device behind, so we can’t change bodies after this) or we can jump into a gorge and kill ourselves.
The game encourages us to reflect on our individual identity and how we define that identity within a group. When everyone else mimics us, we naturally assume we’re in a position of power and the mimics are in a position of servitude. The act of mimicry itself implies a lack of individuality, but does it necessitate a lack of individuality? Are the clones really just shells until they’re separated from their original, at which point their mind is “born” or are they individuals from the moment that they’re created, yet incapable of controlling their own bodies until the psychic link is broken? Does life beget thought, or does thought beget life?
The Swapper doesn’t provide any clear answers, asking instead for us to decide for ourselves.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times.