Every PC gamer knows the curse of the Steam Sale/Humble Bundles/late night drunken purchase. It’s all too easy to rack up a list of games that you think you heard someone once say might be alright-ish just because it was 70% off and GOD DAMN IT I’D BE A FOOL NOT TO! Before you know it you have more games than you’re ever likely to play. If I was still a student with all these games, just enough spare cash for a big pile of snacks and a worrying aversion to social activity this would be wonderful. But I’m in my 30s now – gaming time is becoming more and more precious. Such an embarrassment of gaming riches only makes me feel more guilty for being so susceptible to Valve’s cunning ways.
So I’ve decided to take action. First off I went through the games and jettisoned the one’s I’m never likely to play into a junk folder – thanks to Steam’s insistence on not letting you delete games they’ll live forever in my Folder of Shame, a constant reminder of my greed and lack of willpower. Having hacked my backlog down to the bone I’m left with 25 games I own and want to play. And gosh darn it I’m going to play them.
If I finish half of them by Christmas it’ll be a miracle.
I’m going to write about them a bit as I finish them. Because I can’t stand the fact that the internet is just sitting there without my opinion smeared across it.
First up: The Swapper.
The first thing that struck me about The Swapper was the atmosphere. That eerie, lonely sci-fi vibe of Solaris or Moon is one that seems to be captured rather well in games (System Shock had it, as did Bioshock to a certain extent, as well as more recent indie fare like The Fall) and I’m a sucker for it: when it’s in place the battle is half won with me. Sci-fi is a genre uniquely able to capture the sense of man’s loneliness in the grand scheme of things and harness that Lovecraftian dread that we’re not all that important and will one day be crushed by powers far bigger than our own. And what’s not to like about that?
From the off The Swapper, a short but well crafted tale of folks meddling with things they don’t understand and suffering the horrifying consequences, envelops you in this sense of insignificance straight from the off. Your character has no name and seems troublingly small, the jump mechanic seeming quite puny given the size of the screen. Most modern games do their utmost to let you live out you wildest power fantasy so it’s always jarring to feel so small, but it’s exactly what the game needs to tell it’s story.
And then there’s the soundtrack – reminiscent of ambient noodlers like Helios or Eluvium it has a certain terrible beauty to it that feels weirdly serene when you hold the button that slows down time and you find yourself falling elegantly. Much like those aforementioned movies a good soundtrack is crucial to the experience – and the vibe it creates elevates The Swapper from what is at it’s core a fairly nuts and bolts puzzler into something occasionally sublime.
The actual swapping mechanic, being able to create clones that move in unison with you and having the ability to switch between them, feels like something that might have been used in a Braid sequel. Facepalm games have clearly spent some time thinking about what this mechanic could mean in practice and built a game from that. How could this ability come to be? What would be the implications? If you can switch consciousness with another living thing, what do you leave behind? What’s left? From this they’ve woven a mysterious and disturbing plot told in fragments that carries you through from the easy early puzzles to the brain mashingly difficult later ones rather well. The lessons taught by Portal run deep here but they don’t rely on an all seeing narrator/tormentor to tell the story. However not all the gamey aspects are woven into the story seamlessly – the collect x number of gems trope is a bit cliché and the puzzle rooms themselves don’t make a blind bit of sense really – but there’s more than enough intrigue to carry it off.
But as thought provoking as the plot and it’s inevitably troubling ending (spoiler: of the two you can choose between neither offers much closure) is it’s the atmosphere they’ve crafted – the solitary, melancholic wonder of space – that makes it special. There are moments in puzzles where you slow everything down while placing your next clone, where you drop so slowly as to feel suspended in place, which gels with the music and mood so perfectly it feels wonderful. It’s one of those rare moments where everything a game sets out to achieve in terms of look and feel seems to come together in one exhilarating moment.
Unfortunately some of the harder puzzles seemed easier to solve through trial and error than logical thought – I’m not sure if that’s my idiot brain struggling to keep up however so I’m willing to forgive that. Especially as it’s nice to be challenged not only through the gameplay but through the fragmented story that will require attention to piece together and raises questions about consciousness and the nature of the self, the likes of which have seldom been explored in gaming.
And then there’s that indefinable quality, that atmosphere I keep coming back to – puzzle games aren’t really meant to have replay value (once you know the solutions, what’s the point?) but the blissed out feeling of floating in slow motion and the wonderfully realised horror that gradually unfolds throughout the games playtime (which they say is about 3-4 hours but I spent more than double that fumbling around) is something I might be tempted to come back to.
If I ever finish this cursed backlog that is.