The Swapper

Soul Survivor

In The Swapper, the spirit is willing, and the flesh is disposable.

By Joe Keiser • June 4, 2013

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 Swapper

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.

The Swapper

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.

The Swapper
Developer: Facepalm Games
Publisher: Facepalm Games
Platform: PC
Price: $15

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16 Responses to “Soul Survivor”

  1. Finally my Dead Space vs. The Prestige fan-fiction finds a home!

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Alas, they rejected my Dead Space vs. The Illusionist script, the philistines.

      • Oxperiment says:

         With good reason. You couldn’t even get Giamatti to come on board as a voice actor. I mean, pshaw.

  2. Drew Toal says:

    I think I saw this in that Dark Empire comic.

  3. The_Helmaroc_King says:

    Yes! I finished this game over the weekend and I thought I wouldn’t get to blather about it until the weekend thread. Loved it, but it could be stronger.

    I’d say that the characters move like marionettes. It’s not surprising, given the graphics, but it’s not as fluid as I’d like.

    I think my favorite touch is the puzzles that require you to ignominiously send handfuls (or dozens) of your clones to their deaths. Sorry, friend, but I need a fourth clone to press that switch; would you kindly jump into that pit? Break a leg!

    The game is surprisingly difficult; I can think of at least two puzzles that stumped me, temporarily. It took me a little while to figure out that you could use your clones to stay airborne, in a way, but there’s also another puzzle that requires you to leave one clone on an inescapable switch, turning what would be a trivial puzzle into a brain teaser.

    The game is also surprisingly short, but I’m fine with that. I would’ve liked the story elements to be more intertwined with the game, though; other than a few snatches of dialogue or glimpses of other characters, nothing becomes important until late in the game, and then it all seems to come up at once.

    If you like puzzle platformers, I recommend it!

    • I have some questions, because I was highly intrigued/creeped out by the trailer:

      1) is the game a straight linear path?  is there a hub, an open world, a sequence of levels?2) if you’re truly stuck, is there a hint/skip method to progress?

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        1) It has an open world in the style of Metroid or Castlevania, but it can be a fairly linear experience. There’s a few points where you’ll hit an impasse and have to find enough orbs to unlock the way, but they won’t be far. There aren’t any upgrades, either, so you can solve any puzzle room as you find it.

        To get to the ending for the game, I believe you need to find every orb available, so it’s not entirely advisable to ignore puzzle rooms, but the game has a fairly good map that shows any items in any room you’ve been in and backtracking is easy.

        2) No hint system to speak of, unfortunately. You can ignore a few puzzle rooms and still progress, but like I mentioned the ending takes all of the orbs you can find.

        I hope this doesn’t turn you off the game, but I can see it not being for everyone.

    • CrabNaga says:

      How does this game compare to The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom? I was super hyped about that game and then immediately let down when the puzzles were more about precision than ingenuity. Also, the humor was written by people who loved the “Cake Is a Lie” meme, six months after Portal came out.

      • The_Helmaroc_King says:

        I haven’t played P.B. Winterbottom, but I can assure you that The Swapper has no forced humor to speak of. No humor at all, really, unless you’re good at finding black comedy.

        There’s some precision necessary, but it helps that holding down the right mouse button (which shows an outline where you would create a clone) slows the game down by a lot. You can swap clones while the game is slowed down, so you can use this to make the more difficult swaps possible.

        I can only remember one instance where I was stymied by how precise I needed to be, but I can’t think of anything that made me hit a wall in terms of progress.

        The game is also designed that failing any given sequence or dying won’t be a big setback, so you can experiment fairly freely.

    • Marozeph says:

      The “Suddenly everything happens at once”-approach to storytelling is indeed kinda annoying, especially since the story (imho) had the potential to be a bit more fleshed out.
      Apart from that, i enjoyed the game a lot – some puzzles can be frustrating, but solving them almost always feels rewarding. And i approve of the hand-crafted look, even though it makes the main character look a bit too puppet-like.

  4. PaganPoet says:

    Kind of reminds me of the whole “Overdive” mechanic from The 3rd Birthday, where Aya can “soul jump” into a friendly NPC’s body and continue the battle. Only this has more of an emphasis on puzzle solving.

    • Chalkdust says:

       Whoa, somebody else who played The 3rd Birthday!  To my disappointment, I never got very far into it, despite my love for the first game and the interest in exploring the long-term ramifications of the events therein.

      Aimy-shooty over-the-shoulder action games just don’t work for me without a second analog stick.

      • PaganPoet says:

        I actually really liked the game in spite of everything it was throwing at me to make me dislike it. One that really disappointed me, though, was how it ditched the pseudo sci-fi stuff from Parasite Eve for more generic JRPG soul and spirituality type nonsense. 

        But you’re right, those games really do need a second analog stick to work well.

  5. EmperorNortonI says:

    Anyone interested in exploring the philosophical concepts behind this game might want to check out Kiln People, by Greg Bear.

    For once, I’d like an explore derelict space station sort of game that is more about repairing the destroyed systems to make progress, rather than obviously arbitrary door and switch puzzles. For example, to get to the objective area, you have to route cables, jump start the reactor, clear out radiation, gather scrap to repair hull breaches, deal with solar flares, puzzle out how to lay cable to inaccessible areas while keeping the overall route short enough so that enough power will get to the target without melting the cable, etc. Basically, use the theme as an arena to create a bunch of realistic physics based puzzles, instead of attaching the hackneyed door and switch archetype onto random theme.