On…The Swapper

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I had heard through the indie game grapevine that there was an intriguing new puzzle platformer that dealt with some seriously meaty concepts in metaphysics, mostly surrounding the mind-body problem and the problems of personal identity and survival. Now, I’m not usually a fan of puzzle platformers but I’m willing to give them a go if they contain something deeper. Braid is a good example of a platforming game with one central mechanic (rewinding time) and wrapped in a enigmatic story (which unfortunately I found disappointingly shallow) and a beautiful storybook fantasy look. The Swapper looked to be of the same brethren. A puzzle platformer whose central mechanic revolves around creating clones and swapping places with them, it also promised a mysterious story as well as a gorgeous art style (it’s all made of clay!). I suspected that the hype about the metaphysics of the game was overblown, because far too often, any game which even slightly scratches the surface of philosophy gets hyped beyond all recognition. It is because the standard of games as non-thinking mindless activities that makes any slightly thinking game seem better than it is.

But, unlike my disappointment with Braid, I found The Swapper utterly captivating and simply sublime. I found myself actively taking notes throughout the game, to try and work out the basic concepts and to see where the game stands in this metaphysical debate. Unfortunately, I glance at my notes now and realise they’re a desperate scribble, just nonsensical phrases like ‘ethics of brain science’ and ‘ambiguity’ which aren’t very helpful. You see, I couldn’t stay away from the game long enough to actually write anything of substance. I just wanted to play through to the end to see what all the fuss was about. 3 hours later, I did it, and all I can say about the ending was: wow.

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Firstly, a disclaimer before I get more into the substantive. I am going to spoil plot points for you. I am going to discuss some of the ideas introduced later in the game. Now, the game only took me 3 hours and I suspect you could complete it faster if you’re cleverer than me and don’t get stuck on puzzles. So I don’t feel bad about spoiling it, and rather than my other reviews which are more like general impressions, I really do want to dive right into the deep end with this one. With that in mind, if you plan to play the game and don’t want to get spoiled, please don’t read on. Go read one of my other blog posts, pretty please?

The Swapper starts off with an opening sequence where you see a person, decked out in a space suit, being ejected from a ship off some kind of escape capsule. The capsule lands, and you, the player-controlled character, emerge and enter a space ship. You are slowly introduced to the gameplay elements for the first 10 minutes. You pick up the swapper gun and learn that you can make up to four clones of yourself. Later you pick up another component which allows you to swap places with your clones. The swapper device is bound to draw comparisons to another puzzle device which all you gamers know as the portal gun. It is very similar in the sense that it has two functions and those two functions allow you to complete the myriad of puzzles thrown at you. In fact, as far as comparisons to Portal go, the game is very much the same kind of fare where solving puzzles makes you feel incredibly clever. But honestly, please read on, because I do think The Swapper is a much deeper puzzle platformer game than Portal; I’d hazard to say that it is even better than Portal, and I am sad that it will never reach that level of cult fame, despite being technically more impressive.

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Back to game mechanics. As you walk, all your clones walk and do identical actions to you. Using these two central mechanics and using this small amount of control over your clones, you must navigate through this seemingly abandoned space ship and collect ‘encryption orbs’ in order to unlock consoles which progress you to the next area. The puzzle rooms are well defined areas, but you’ll find yourself using the swapper just to navigate through the hallways and the connecting areas. Now the puzzles in The Swapper range from fairly intuitively easy to mindboggling difficult. I will admit, I had to consult a walkthrough about half a dozen times because I just got stuck in certain rooms. Luckily, the game admits for some failure and you can finish the game without completing every room. The game ramps up the difficulty too at a steady pace by introducing new restrictions in the form of coloured lights. Red lights don’t allow you to swap and blue lights don’t allow you to make a clone (and purple combine both of these restrictions). You have to cleverly navigate the small spaces, turn the lights on and off with boxes and switches, do quickly timed swaps and clone creation and even sometimes lure your clones to their death so you can free up another clone somewhere else. Also, bringing two clones together into the same space will eliminate the extras, which can be another way to free up further clones. One of the most commonly used mechanics is quickly making clones and swapping with them to travel up long distances, and you’ll watch as all those discarded clones fall to their death below you. Later on in the game, there are glowy platforms which change the gravity you’re subjected to (though not those of your clones unless they also stand on the glowy platforms). This introduces a whole new level of mindfuckery and allows for some truly creative puzzles.

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Overall, the puzzle element in this game is solid. Some require a bit of trial and error, and others I just found impossible and discovered via walkthroughs that you need to do some very precise sequence of events in order to finish. But these are relatively few and far between; I solved the majority of puzzles within a few minutes. The puzzles feel very well designed and nothing requires a great amount of skill to solve, just brainpower. Of course there are timed elements to it but because time slows down when you hold down the clone creation tool, these elements are pretty easy.

Ok, enough about the puzzles. Let’s talk about the setting. When you first load into the game, I suspect you’ll be awestruck, as I was, with how gorgeous the backgrounds and the models are. Like I mentioned, the whole game is sculpted out of clay. This gives a tremendous feeling of texture and makes it all seem very solid. The art design is just sublime. The style is haunting, very mysterious, with heavy sci-fi influences. It reminded me of Rapture from Bioshock 1. If you took out the splicers from Rapture and just made it an exploration game, you would get the same kind of feel as you find in The Swapper. That hauntingly empty, slightly mysterious, slightly scary look that the game has is all enhanced by the beautiful ambient music. There are levels set in a garden-like area, where the foliage has overgrown and it all looks very alien but still pretty. There are some huge landscapes which involve you floating out in space to reach other areas of the ship, navigating your way through the space debris and admiring the view of the stars behind you. Short and intricate piano tunes are tinkled out at low volumes, never overbearing, only enough is there to keep you immersed. Add that to the overlays of text indicating words spoken (or telepathically transmitted?) from some mysterious entity (which you later discover are called The Watchers, an alien species discovered by this ship’s crew) and you have a truly sublime experience.

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Later on, you’ll meet the one other survivor on the ship. Who are they? What are their motives? Why are they directing you to do certain things? You’ll grapple with these questions…and so will the other survivor.

Because, spoiler alert, the other survivor is in fact, three minds in one body. The minds once belonged to Dr Chalmers, Dr Dennett (who are, rather delightfully, female…reminds me of the scumbag philosopher meme: ‘uses female pronouns in examples; doesn’t cite a single female philosopher’) and one other scavenger, who you later discover, is you (or was you?). You are a clone, or are they a clone? Who is the real ‘you’? The Swapper integrates this metaphysical conundrum seamlessly with the game play. Throughout the game, you’ve been creating clones, swapping places with them and assuming control of another clone. Who is the real you? How many clones did you watch fall to their deaths in order for you to reach your goal?

The game pits a physicalist view (consciousness is just a byproduct of physical processes, we are just our brains) against the dualist view (consciousness is immaterial, minds are separate from brains). Throughout the game, you’ll find ‘memory terminals’ which elaborate more of the backstory but also more of the philosophical debate. Some memory logs tell you about how The Watchers infected people on the ship, made them sick until they died. Other memory logs detail the conversations between Dr Chalmers (who supports the dualist view) and Dr Dennett (who supports physicalism). Somehow I feel like the game is a nod to anyone who’s taken a philosophy class in this field, because you’ll encounter conversations about qualia, about deference to the simplest explanation etc. I hope this isn’t the only way I can put my philosophy degree to some use, but I did feel very much like I was in on some kind of joke throughout the game as a result of my background on metaphysics. Particularly when you finally see a flashback of Dr Chalmers and Dr Dennett and they are none other than…brains in a vat! I chortled.

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Now, the whole swapping mechanic does seem to heavily favour the psychological continuity view of personal identity (that personal identity/survival is just the continuation of psychological factors, like your memory and consciousness). After all, when you swap to a new clone, the other clones including your previous body become kind of mindless zombies, who just mimic your action but are incapable of making choices about movement for themselves. This to me suggests that there is one mind, and many cloned bodies, and the swapper device does not make new minds. But then comes the question, when you switch places, are you being transferred somehow? Or are you merely assuming the role of a mind that was previously inaccessible? How are these minds linked? Is there enough psychological continuity to justify the idea that you are playing the same person throughout this game, or are you in fact playing as many different people? Furthermore, I think the fact that this is a video game adds a whole extra dimension to it. After all, you the player are a mind, presumably, who is controlling this character on the screen. Your mind is psychologically continuous with your future mind states as you play through this game. So there is a sense in which you continue throughout these characters, whether the same character survives or persists throughout.

But, a rather insightful memory log mentions how terms like ‘person’ and ‘survival’ are ambiguous (which I take to be a Parfit reference), and that in the face of a device like the swapper, survival is not so easily determined. After all, how are we to treat the case of the Chalmers/Dennett/you body?  It is a body which seems to contain three minds and talks with the same voice, acts in the same body, but for all intents and purposes, appears to be three different people. Dennett is critical of the existence of souls, claiming that the swapper does not swap around souls for souls do not exist. Chalmers replies, “Maybe there isn’t a soul but there is something which remains the same. I have been in many bodies, and yet I still feel myself.” Earlier, we hear the conversation when they are brains in a vat, making the distinction between whether they ‘inhabit’ these brains, as if the brain were a vessel, or whether they are just the brains such that they are identical to the brains. Regardless of which stance you take, you must still grapple with the question who is this person after the three minds come together into one, this fusion between three souls or three minds or three whatevers? Are they one person, for they inhabit one body and can only do one thing at once, or are they three? What relation do you, the player character, bear to this other person? What then happened when this other person swapped with the Head Watcher? The body seemed to die in a crumpled heap, and the Head Watcher no longer communicates. How can we know if that person/3 people survived? Did they survive as you?

My apologies for this barrage of hypothetical questions. It is a habit from philosophical investigation that the more we try to answer, the more questions we come up with. The mind-body problem branches into problems of identity, survival, cloning etc. rather quickly, and The Swapper is a perfect example of this. It presents these philosophical problems quickly, but in a way which makes them easy to follow. Perhaps if you blitzed through the game, you wouldn’t even think about it very much. Perhaps you ignore most of the memory terminals (and some are rather tricky to get to) and skip past the Watcher slabs which impart cryptic messages as you hover over them. You might not even comprehend who the other person is in relation to the player-controlled character, the hints are somewhat subtle and can be easily missed if you zone out during the cutscenes (which are rather dialogue heavy).

That is, until the final scene, which forces you to make a choice. You manage to land the ship on the planet below, and as you make your escape, the rescue team arrives. But the rescue team scans you and deems you too dangerous to bring on board without the proper quarantine equipment. The crew man who is scanning you says sorry, and he turns around to walk back into the ship. The game freezes. And you make the choice: Do you swap places with the crew man? Or do you stay on the planet?

I chose to swap. But as I watched myself assume control of the crew member and walk forward, my previous body followed and flung herself off the cliff. I went into the ship, and the other crew members greeted me. One says, “He isn’t like himself…” and seems suspicious. The other carries on as normal, but asks, “Who was that woman who flung herself off the cliff?” and the other replies, “Does it even matter?”. Oooh how cryptic.  So who am I now? Still the scavenger? Or am I this new person, assuming a new identity? Did my mind get transferred to this new body, or am I actually now just this new person’s mind? But here, for the first time, I felt a huge twinge of guilt, watching my previous body fall to his death. I had watched my clones die hundreds of times before. But this was the last clone, the last of my old body, tumbling into the depths below to her death. Somehow, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had died…and I was now someone else. I did not survive this particular swap, despite feeling like I had survived all the other thousands of swaps I had utilised throughout the game. How strange, that a game could make me feel the intuitions that Williamson had failed to in his mind-body thought experiments. The game made me endorse the bodily continuity position…if only for that minute.

I looked up the alternative ending online. If you choose to stay, you eventually choose to jump off and fall down the abyss. As you fall, you hear (or is it telepathically beamed?) The Watcher say some rather obtuse things. “This mind is dying.” “Is it another mind?” It leaves you on a disturbing tone, as you watch your helpless body fall deeper and deeper into the bellows of this mysterious, lonely and horrifying planet.

This game is unsettling in many ways. The atmosphere, the music, the story, they all combine to give an experience which is truly immersive, a feat which is not easy for a puzzle platformer. I can honestly say this is one of the best indie games I’ve ever played, though admittedly my philosophy background biases me towards games which reference that. It is a game which I hope other indie developers look at, and learn from, because far too often, indie developers just make a bogstandard platformer with maybe one or two ‘quirky’ mechanics, stick a funky art style on it and call it a day. What they don’t do, which The Swapper does, is link all these aspects together. The puzzles fit perfectly with the metaphysical considerations and all the game mechanics tie perfectly to the setting and the story. It doesn’t feel pretentious or tacked on. It all comes together into this short but sweet, little bundle of cognitive considerations. If I ever met someone who denied that video games were an art form, I would show them this game. This game is a masterpiece.

But it now on Steam for a special discounted price of £8.99 until 6th June, after which it’ll be £11.99.

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