A hollow, lonely silence is one of the first things that strikes you in the indie sci-fi puzzle game The Swapper.
In the game, you guide a crashed astronaut as he journeys through the seemingly abandoned Theseus space station and research facility to find out what happened, and to find a way home. The eerie atmosphere of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which Finland-based developer Facepalm Games says inspired The Swapper, permeates the setting.
The game is so named because of your main means of solving puzzles and uncovering the mystery of the space station: a cloning tool you find early in your adventure. With it, you create clones of yourself, across a chasm or high up on a ledge, for instance, and then "swap" your consciousness into the clone.
The clones, no matter where they are placed on the current level, mimic your movements. You move left, they move left; you jump, they jump. They only stop moving when obstructed by the environment, merge back with you or die.
The swapping tool is an incredibly well-conceived approach to the platformer genre (think Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog) that really puts your creativity to the test as you attempt to reach out-of-the-way spaces and activate pressure plates to open doors further into the space station. With a rather simple control scheme, it soon becomes second nature.
The puzzles themselves are also wonderfully designed in that they aren't unsolvable mind benders and don't rely on Super Meat Boy-level fast-twitch muscle fibers. In fact, some puzzles that seem impossible at first turn out to be elegantly simple once you figure them out.
A Unique Style
The storyline of The Swapper is told in subdued, unobtrusive voiceovers and texts you discover as you navigate the station. It's a little heavy, but the game doesn't cram it down your throat. At times I found myself just wandering the station simply to admire the mood and atmosphere of the graphics.
And that's another aspect of the game worth mentioning. The graphics have an amazing 3-D feel for a 2-D game. Instead of the standard sprite-based or rendered graphics, the creators molded the backgrounds and landscapes from clay models and photographed them into the game. It's an effect I haven't seen since the old 1990s ClayFighter series on the Super Nintendo.
"I probed a lot of different graphic styles," Facepalm Games founder Olli Harjola told gaming site Joystiq. "I don't really like 3-D modeling, but I really like doing stuff with my hands, and this is what I came up with."
The graphical technique brings The Swapper to life. It also solidifies the amount of hard work and creativity that Harjola and level designer Otto Hantula put into creating the game. The pair crafted it in their spare time as students at the University of Helsinki.
My Swapper Moment
One of the most profound and intense moments I had playing The Swapper came relatively early on. When you first get the cloning tool the swapping consciousness mechanic is not yet in effect, and you solve several rooms and puzzles just creating your clones, without giving them a second thought.
But then the swapping is introduced, and you start seeing the clones as more than just drones. Are they me? Are they alive? What happens when they disappear? Or when they die?
On an early swapping puzzle, you are introduced to a very tall ledge, several screens high. You certainly can't jump up that distance. You soon discover that you can project a clone high above you and then swap into it; rinse, repeat and get to the top. The moment of joy quickly turns to grim realization when you hear the bodies of the clones below you hitting the floor with a crumbling thump. A moment ago that was you, and you are dead, but you're not dead.
It reminded me of the big reveal at the end of Christopher Nolan's magician film The Prestige. Without spoiling too much for those who haven't seen the movie (seriously, go watch it), you do find yourself asking a variation of the question: Will I be the man in the box?
The Swapper is a great game for those who like moody, puzzle-platformers that can be played at a leisurely pace. Consider it recommended.
Steve Mullis is an associate Web producer at NPR who never Punched-Out Mike Tyson, but it was not for lack of trying. If you want to suggest an independent game worth featuring here, please write or tweet him.