It’s weird what video games you think of when you can’t actually play them. Right now, I’m in the prolonged process of moving into a new apartment and don’t actually have access to any of my gaming equipment. So it’s interesting to me that, in the absence of all the games I usually play, there are a few games that I can’t help but think of. They’re the games that you play and wiggle their way into the back of your mind. They’re the type of game that tie themselves onto a particular feeling; the kind that wait for a chord of music, a specific color palette in an image, or a resonant event in your life to surge back into the front of your mind.

For me, one of those games is The Swapper. As I sit in a dingy extended-stay apartment and wonder where I will be living in a week, I’m filled with a sense of loneliness, unease, and self-observation. I cannot think of an exact word for it, but I would certainly describe it as Swapper-esque.

I want to take a moment to express just how amazing this game is by breaking the almost perfect whole down into its parts and to give you an idea of just what works so well about this game – why it sticks with me even when I’m thinking about everything besides gaming. For that reason, I’m going to lay out the 5 reasons you need to play The Swapper

The Puzzles

It’s hard to talk about a game without talking about the raw, nitty-gritty of its gameplay. Since this is all boring, technical stuff from the game’s description, I’m going to get this one out of the way as quickly as possible. The Swapper is a 2D puzzle platformer set in a Metroidvania-feeling map. Drawing from the Portal school of puzzle-platformers where you are a person with a gun that does weird stuff. You’re in possession of the titular Swapper, a gun that makes clones of your character and allows you to switch which of the clones you’re actively controlling. I say actively controlling because you are actually controlling all of them. Movement inputs in the game move all of your clones at the same time. The trick of it all is, you only get a game over state if the clone you are controlling dies. What follows is a series of puzzles built around surfing your consciousness safely through the active clones as you climb through puzzles over mountains of dead clones.

I’m going to come clean, I’ve never been good at puzzle games – at all, really. I only beat most adventure games with the help of a guide and I have to hand off the controller to my girlfriend whenever a sliding block puzzle shows up. In spite of there being a few head-bangingly difficult puzzles in The Swapper, most of the puzzles are very intuitive as you experiment them. It’s a beautiful sort of difficulty where everything seems impossible until you discover some new usage for the eponymous device that you hadn’t considered prior.

I can imagine that, if you are the kind of person that really needs some extremely hard puzzles, you might find the puzzles in The Swapper to be a little bit too easy. Still, the overall feel of the puzzles is cool and contributes to the feel of the game. For a game about self-observation and being alone with oneself, solving puzzles by using clones of yourself is a pretty cool visual metaphor. Speaking of visuals.

The Visual Aesthetic

Having played games for almost twenty years now, I’ve seen graphics improve by leaps and bounds. Still, photorealism and intense detail are moving goal posts – chasing them blindly only ever makes a product that will age like milk. When it comes to figuring out what makes truly impressive graphics, I’ve only ever been able to come to one hard conclusion: the best graphics are timeless.

When a developer really succeeds at making graphics, they make something that transcends time; they make something like the sprites from Chrono Trigger, the pop-up storybook art of Paper Mario, or the cel-shading of The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker; graphics that fit within the resources available rather than coming into conflict with them.

The Swapper uses a beautiful array of digitized clay sculptures arranged into characters and environments. The overall effect is uncanny but not unpleasant – tactile and realistic but also undeniably off in a way that is intriguing rather than repellant. Each of the sculptures is impressively detailed and the lighting and filters placed over the assets do an admirable job of obscuring their clay composition and making it look slightly less cartoonish. The result is a world that looks real but with a dreamlike quality to it.

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The Soundtrack

Dreamlike is also how I would describe the soundtrack of The Swapper. What really sells the world of The Swapper is its absolutely breathtaking soundscape. Carl Castellano – the artist behind The Swapper’s score – manages to deftly weave between songs which lurk in the background, building tension and tracks that surge into the forefront to emphasize particularly poignant scenery without ever compromising the overall low-key, spacey, dreamy tones of the music. It’s an impressive soundtrack that is absolutely worth listening to without playing the game.

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The Atmosphere

But do listen to it while playing the game because the end result of that critical “graphics + music” equation is an oppressively melancholy atmosphere. Apart from several ominous text logs being projected from computer installations and – more concerningly – pitted space rocks. Each twist in the in The Swapper’s tale reveals that – not only are you just alone – you are alone with yourself.

At the end of the day, some of the best games are about how they ‘feel’ and what The Swapper feels like is loneliness. It reminds me of the sensation of uncomfortable self-observation; the sort of feeling you get when you look at the night sky and suddenly feel incredibly small.

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The Story

Throughout this piece, I have been trying to avoid spoilers. While I firmly believe that the Swapper is well past the spoiler-free grace period, it also seemed to get little enough coverage that I think more than a few people have managed to avoid having . In the broadest terms, The Swapper is a gentle cosmic horror-story about first contact. I say it is gentle, because this is not a story about humans opening a dimensional gate to be overrun with tentacles. It is a story of people encountering something so alien that they do not even realize it is alive and the destruction that follows.

The Swapper raises questions about how we understand the universe and what the limitations of human senses are; where the boundaries of what we know lie in a universe so boundlessly vast; where the dividing lines between body, mind, and soul are; and how we would even interact with creatures that are, as Star Trek would phrase it, “life, but not as we know it.”

The Swapper presents all of these questions for the player with no concrete answers, no real judgments, and very little pretentiousness. It’s a game that thinks the answers you can come to are better than any it could present, and in a world full of games that eagerly present moral judgments and absolutes for the player, that is a breath of fresh air.

About The Author

Contributor

Niko Berry was summoned to this plane by nerd-diabolists eons ago. In spite of the dark omens of his arrival, he mostly just writes about video games on the internet.

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