The Swapper is Braid by way of 2001: A Space Odyssey
The Swapper is an uncommonly beautiful game with thought-provoking themes of existential despair and the nature of consciousness. It also still finds time to be a brilliant 2D puzzle-platformer.
But the genius of The Swapper is the way it brings those parts together to form a whole. This is not a puzzle game wrapped in a sci-fi theme with some interesting writing. The Swapper is game where the very mechanics you use throughout are meant to strengthen its themes and messages. The game play is the story, and that sort of purity of message is rare in games.
The Swapper is very much concerned with the nature of consciousness, and it wants to make you to ponder along with it.
As you make your way through the gorgeous space hulk of Theseus Station your main method of moving around and solving puzzles will be the Swapper device: a handheld machine that creates duplicates of the character's body which mirror the character's movements. Any of these copies can become the host of the character's (and by extension, the player's) conciousness. That copy then becomes the “real you” that can be controlled.
Like Braid before it, the Swapper wants its game play to help you experience some part of its exposition through your interactions with the world.
As The Swapper gets more complex you'll need to perform ever more impressive platforming feats. One way to use the device is to create a copy of yourself high in the air, then swap your consciousness into that copy, then create another copy while in mid-air, then swap to that copy, then create another copy, then swap to that copy.
It's a fun game play mechanic, but as the husks of your former bodies thud on lifelessly on the floor, you've got to ask yourself what it is that makes your consciousness more special than that of a rock-like life form you encounter. After all, if our consciousness isn't tied to the body it inhabits, then consciousness is not a human trait or even a trait of life, but something that extends beyond the body.
Thought, The Swapper seems to suggest, is not a trait of a species or a form of life, but a trait of the universe.
Depth, texture and life
The Swapper isn't just about existential angst, however. It's also a brilliant puzzle game with a beautiful aesthetic. Sci-fi games so often make the mistake of thinking that sterilized monotony is required to maintain authenticity, but The Swapper is different.
Each room is unique. The game was created by mapping individually-made clay structures and random real-world objects directly into the game. It's an interesting technique that is used to great effect to creates scenes with depth, texture, and life. Theseus Station is recognizably human and yet alien at the same time. You rarely see objects or textures being reused.
Theseus Station is thick with atmosphere and life. More than once, I paused in awe in one of The Swapper's beautiful rooms just to gawk at the scene and linger a little longer to revel in a moment the game had created.
Discussing The Swapper in discrete chunks doesn't do it justice. Yes, it is beautiful. Yes, it is intelligent. Yes, it is clever. But its real achievement is in bringing all of those aspects together in a cohesive whole that could only ever have been a video game. Your interaction is part of the experience, not just an excuse to show you the next set piece.
It will make you think. And then it will make you think about what it means to think.
The Swapper may not have all the hype and fanfare that games like Braid or Limbo had, but it's every bit as beautiful, surprising and intelligent.