One Life Left: The Swapper

By Alex Newhouse

I’ve experienced my share of existential crises in my life, not surprisingly. But rarely have I had to confront questions of my own physical and mental existence. This is my body, and I’m inhabiting it. My mind controls my body, my consciousness is a part of my mind. Thus, I, my mind and my body are more or less one. But The Swapper challenges all of that. Like a punch to the metaphysical gut, this game forces you to confront your own vulnerability and the disconnect between your consciousness and your body. It’s not just a cleverly designed, visually appealing puzzle game. The Swapper is a journey down the deepest wells of existential turmoil, challenging the Descartesian maxim, “I think, therefore I am.”

The game begins in an abandoned excavation station on an alien planet, ambient sound echoing off the metal walls and the light flickering over damp and dusty rock corridors. Controlling a spaceman named Theseus, you are tasked with the exploration of this site and the discovery of why the crew suddenly disappeared.

Framed around platformer mechanics, The Swapper shines most in its increasingly challenging puzzles, which start at the mundane and end at the almost frustratingly complex. But what makes the game and its story special is the tool you use to complete the puzzles: the Swapper device.

The little machine gives this game its impact. Allowing you to clone yourself up to four times and to transfer control to one of the clones, the device becomes the foundational mechanic of the puzzles you have to solve. Some require you to fling a clone across a chasm. Others force you to press on several levers at the same time. Since all the clones move and jump simultaneously, coordinating them all is a challenge that quickly becomes a part of the puzzle itself. Thankfully, time slows down when you’re aiming to swap to another clone. This caused some of the most satisfying moments of the game for me – I would jump off an edge, plummeting to certain death, but before my character died, I would slow down time and fling a clone up onto a higher ledge, reaching an otherwise inaccessible place. My original clone died in the process, but the sacrifice allowed me to finish the puzzle.

Over time, however, these puzzles slowly started to gnaw at my sense of justice. As the story gradually colored the world, fed by dialogue, environmental clues, and logs scattered throughout the game, each death of one of my clones became that much harder to stomach. The Swapper device becomes a method for storytelling that I did not expect. At the end of the game, I became attached to the clones my device was fabricating which I had previously created and killed carelessly and unthinkingly.

And this is because the game made me think. As the number of different clones I had controlled climbed into the hundreds, I began to think about consciousness. The story encourages this line of thought, making you question if each clone is actually a mindless automaton, and making you wonder if you can still be intact after having switched between so many bodies.

All of this wouldn’t work if it didn’t play so well. But it does. And for the four to five hours it took me to complete The Swapper, I was engrossed. The game made me want to explore its gloomy, sinister depths, and I dove deep into the heart of the excavation site to discover the game’s secrets. Although I had to turn to the Internet once or twice, the puzzles never grew frustrating or stale, and the diversity of the environments was such that I never grew bored looking at it.

And what a beautiful game it is, too. The art uses something similar to “found” objects, and in the background you might see what looks like a block of wood, or a cloth-covered wall, or a piece of metal. It all gives the excavation site a cobbled-together look, making it even more alien and more intriguing than it otherwise would be.

What this game becomes, then, is a strong example for the potential of games to tell stories. It isn’t a cinema-style game that tells you a narrative with clear dialogue and cutscenes. Rather, it presents you with a world and a mechanic that make you think. It causes you to question your life and to wonder about the truths we hold so self-evident every day. It is too bad that so much of the best story is hidden away in secret logs, because this game tackles philosophy in a way few other games have done before. It demonstrates the power of storytelling when you are the actor – because of your role in the game, and because of your actions with the device, you become a part of how the story unfolds. This is one of the best games of the past few years. Few other experiences have captured the existential struggle as perfectly as The Swapper. Available on the PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita and Wii U, this is a game that everyone should play.