It’s not entirely honest to say that Facepalm Games’ The Swapper comes from the oldest school of science fiction—technically, that school is dedicated to guessing what the stars would look like to moon people. But it is fair to say that it comes from the oldest timeless tradition of science fiction, in which a hypothetical future technology is used to explore the human condition from the outside.
In this case, the technology in question is a device capable of creating human clones that mimic the original’s every move. But it also allows the user’s soul to be transferred between bodies, leaving the original body no different from the just-born clones. It’s a tool that is necessary for exploring the derelict Theseus research station and possibly surviving its challenges. By giving you this tool, though, the game also explores the relationship between consciousness and the physical, and the morality of recklessly manipulating their bond.
The tool is, naturally, also used to solve puzzles. The Theseus is comprised of many dead-end rooms that house encryption orbs, which must be collected to continue. Traversing each room to get those orbs requires you to carefully place and manipulate of your clones—and to snap your soul back and forth between them. As the rooms increase in difficulty, more obstacles will impede your journey of discovery. There will be blue lights where you cannot materialize a clone, for example, or red lights that block your soul from transmission. None of these are too troubling. You’ll find your way around them. But dozens of clones will die.
So it’s a struggle, both internal and external. The Swapper will try to coax you along with the beauty of its visuals. The art is literally hand-sculpted, made from clay and household items. Presented in the dimness of dying artificial light, it is at once terrifying, alien, familiar, and inviting. It also attempts to pique your curiosity about the fate of Theseus’ crew, with the story slowly unfolding through the clichéd method of text logs. Facepalm is perfectly happy to be cryptic, though, starting the game with intentionally incoherent phrases and doggedly refusing to answer almost any questions until right at the end.
It’s this lack of coherence that ends up being the primary problem with The Swapper, and not because of its phrasing—its trouble runs much deeper. Each individual component of the game is excellent, in part or uniformly, but many of them grind against and diminish the others. The story, for example, presents little information, which gives the game an enigmatic quality and a surprising climax. But it also provides no context, which makes the thoughtfully constructed puzzles feel arbitrary and pointless. This, in turn, makes the Theseus feel less like a real place, which in turn weakens the story further. And the handmade art, which is delightful to look at and lends the game a sense of intimacy, takes away from the game’s thoughtful exploration of the relationship between the soul and the body because instead of playing with unnerving simulacra of human life, we are literally playing with dolls.
What this means is that unless you’re fully invested in any one aspect of The Swapper, you run the risk of getting pulled out of the experience by the others. It can feel like The Swapper is going through the motions even as it’s trying to link game design, storytelling, and thoughts about the nature of being human in what should be compelling ways. And many aspects of The Swapper are worth getting lost in. But it’s frustrating, when the parts are this good, that the end result should be less than the sum of those parts.