The Swapper in the test - the new portal

Author: Petra Schmitz
Date: 2013-06-08 09:50:00
A puzzle gem in the test: Those who love good puzzle design and strange worlds cannot ignore the puzzle game The Swapper.

As is well known, opinions diverge: Expert group A claims that games make you stupid, Expert group B says the opposite is the case. We think: Expert group A should please play The Swapper and then shut up forever. Because the indie knobler certainly does anything but stupid. And on top of that, it also makes you satisfied or happy.

Satisfaction and despair

The feelings that arise after the first hour with the debut of the small, Finnish developer Facepalm, can be compared very well with those we felt when playing the first portal : amazement at the difficult to grasp because quite abstract world, amazement about the simple and yet incredibly clever basic idea and a deep satisfaction when we have once again successfully solved one of the nuts in the head.

However, just like in Portal, this satisfaction can occasionally turn into sheer despair; the game later has one or two super hard puzzles up its sleeve - which then often turns out to be not that super hard at the moment of the solution. In case of doubt, one has only ignored the corner that one should have thought about for a very long time. But as soon as you have taken this corner, you feel - even if only briefly - like the smartest person in the world.

Space station full of puzzles

But philosophizing enough, let's take a look at The Swapper in detail. As a small astronaut figure, we are stranded in the abandoned 2D space station Theseus. Notes about an alien race called "Observer", talking stones, records of body swap experiments (the English word "to swap" means "to swap") - all of these indicate that something must have gone mightily wrong in the station. Why else should all people have disappeared except for a single, apparently crazy woman? We don't know or find out anything specific anytime soon, the story remains cryptic at first. Later, however, philosophical questions arise before us about the unity of consciousness and body - and whether and from when a body is only a (worthless) shell.

Clever clone cannon

But actually we don't really care about the story at first, because just a few steps into the facility we find something that concentrates our entire attention: a cannon. The miracle weapon can create up to four clones of us that are so exact replicas of us that they do everything we do. In the exact second in which we do it. On top of that, the cannon enables us to switch between the clones. So our little astronaut can leave his body and slip into that of a clone.

What luck, because without a cannon or clones it wouldn't go on for us. We are introduced to the mechanisms of The Swapper very gently. Four massive stone walls coupled to four floor switches mean four clones positioned on the floor switches. A long shaft with no elevator far and wide requires us to shoot clones one after the other and "swap" from the first to the second, then to the third and possibly even to the fourth in order to avoid a fatal impact.

Anyone who thinks about stress from clicking quickly can be reassured. As soon as you press the right mouse button to create a clone, the time slows down. We always have several seconds to swap bodies and land safely on the ground.

Method suicides

But what happens to the clones or your own original if they fall down and hit? They die and then disappear again as energy in the cannon. The same thing happens when you touch the clones, slip through a hatch into the next room or walk through special beams of light. Sensitive minds who not only enjoy the mechanics of The Swapper, but also meticulously read and understand all the records, are likely to face the fact that they are killing themselves over and over and over again. By the way, we say "understand" because, The Swappern is only available in the English original, a German translation is missing.

Light barriers in the brain

Insensitive babes only enjoy the tricky and at the same time motivating, because clever puzzles, and that's completely okay. We can only explore the station, which is composed of umpteen corridors and rooms, and finally escape from it, if we collect energy balls that activate larger teleport portals or door mechanisms. We have to work out these energy balls in puzzle rooms by skillfully using our clones and "swapping".

With simple floor switch puzzles, however, it is quickly over. Light barriers add up, which prevent either cloning (blue light) or body swapping (red light). Every now and then, both lights mix into a single, dangerous, pink universal blockade. And to top the fun off, the developers later also throw reverse gravity between our thinking muscles.

So you stand in constructions that seem insoluble at first glance. The energy balls are enthroned on a high ledge on the opposite side, in front of which is a massive stone wall. Light barricades, two floor switches on different levels (which control light and stone wall) and a gravitational field complete the madness. And then the tinkering starts. Attempt follows attempt, idea follows idea. Until you finally come across the solution of how to arrange the clones so that, depending on your own movement, they can overcome light barriers and stone walls at the right moment and you can teleport yourself into the exact clone that stands on the heel with the energy balls felt (or real) hours go by.

Depending on a bit of luck ("Ui, the solution on the first try!") And intelligence, the puzzles can be solved sometimes faster, sometimes slower, so it is difficult to give The Swapper an even approximate playing time. However, we suspect that everyone has mastered the game in eight hours at the latest. Plus the hours spent brooding over puzzles in the bathtub, on a walk or on the bus.

Strangely oppressive

As is usual with indie games because of the generally modest budget, The Swapper is also economical in terms of staging. Every now and then there are smaller cutscenes, but most of the plot is conveyed in written or spoken texts. Which - as already mentioned - often remain cryptic. However, that fits perfectly with the strange setting. The space station, although often built from the same set pieces, surprises us again and again with skilfully illuminated corridors and rooms in which strange constructs create an oppressive feeling.

The dense ambient sound (e.g. distant machine noises) and the unobtrusive electronic music contribute to the strange, portal-like atmosphere. Even if The Swapper lacks the biting humor of Valve's masterpiece. But never mind, Facepalms debut is a masterpiece even without humor - and one that should definitely be presented to those people who stiffly claim that games make you stupid.