“Every single puzzle basically requires that you kill off clones,” Tom Jubert, writer of The Swapper, told Eurogamer last year. “And the sound effect and the animation when they die … We’re trying to find that balance. [It’s] something that feels quite atmospheric but also something on the cusp of unsettling. Every day we get a little bit closer.”
Science fiction has long been divided between “hard” and “soft” versions: either the intellectual rigor of Arthur C. Clarke or the popcorn fantasy of George Lucas. This rhetorical teeter totter is typically overloaded with people on the “hard” side–no one apparently eager to claim the mantle of softness–but it overlooks the medium’s true beauty: that is, beauty. The genre is an audio-visual blank check, which its masterpieces cash lavishly. The opening three minutes of 2001, wherein an orchestra slowly builds beneath a blank screen, aren’t mere indulgence; that big glistening eyeball that opens Blade Runner isn’t just style. These moments are, rather, instructions. Look, they tell us. Listen.
The Swapper, too, traffics in major questions about the nature of death and consciousness. It’s full of devilishly clever puzzles that implicate us in these questions, and it sports an alluring “found” art style, in which the developers used real-world objects and materials to literally construct the game-world. But its first interest is simpler: sound.
The tiny team of two designers, one writer, and one sound designer who made this game baked a love of sound into its very structure. When I first entered the interplanetary cave that housed the swapper-gun, strings bristled against each other, building anticipation. When I picked up the titular gun barely anything happened–just a hollow chime that indicated “item acquired”. This would be my primary tool, I knew, as I explored an immense, abandoned spacecraft, creating clones to solve single-room puzzles and shooting my consciousness between them in a flurry of one-man teamwork.
But then, as I jogged out of the cave, I fired the swapper-gun for the first time, creating my first clone, and a deep, ominous blast of inhuman sound rang out. It echoed outward into the otherwise quiet hallway, sustained until I scampered from the room. This was not a sound effect. This was contextual soundtrack, tailored to the rhythms of gameplay.
That godless trumpet blast that chased me out of the room, leaving my clone alone in the lamp light, represents an evolution of the videogame soundtrack, which traditionally falls along a sliding scale of interactivity. On one end is looping background music, done artfully on games such as Silent HIll 2 or Chrono Trigger, and on the other is more player-influenced work, such as Martin O’Donnell’s Halo loops. But recently, games have tired of this spectrum and skipped clean off it. Limbo, Proteus, and now The Swapper feature audio that blurs context and composition, sound effect and soundtrack, autonomy and interactivity into a sort of primordial soup. From its murk rises … well, anything.
That initial interaction in the cave sets a precedent that the rest of the game delights in fulfilling. Just put it on pause: hear an abandoned Midwestern factory at night, a microphone clearing its throat, the bob of a ship at sea. These sounds layer over each other in arrhythmic sequence, and when composer Carlo Castellano introduces a straightforward melody it peels across this blank space like a shooting star across a black sky. In another section, gears churn in the fore and background, recalling the mechanical breakdowns of William Basinski’s 2002 album The Disintegration Loops. Solve a puzzle here and a warm synthesizer line starts playing: a sublime aesthetic reward for your efforts.
Sound is in the very creaking bones of The Swapper, then, but it is far from a “music game.” More of an ambient game, perhaps, defying the sturdy pleasures of 4/4 and melody for something slower, more miasmic. But even this new term creates critical problems. Minimalist and ambient music has always been easy enough to define (see: their names) but they’re near-impossible to discuss qualitatively. It boils the problem with music criticism down to its essence: how can the very tones of Brian Eno’s great albums strike a universal chord but three careful notes played by an amateur fail? How does one analyze a music that splits the difference with silence?
So it’s a small thing, the way The Swapper’s few sounds congeal into something greater. But then, this is a game of small things: of an empty tin can turned into a spacecraft, of tiny lumps of clay molded into humans. And even these have a way of echoing into bigger things. As with the vinyl crackle twinkling behind some of the game’s moodiest music, the magic of the game-world’s construction is in its juxtaposition between analog materials and digital manipulation. How perfect to create men from clay with a right click and give them a soul with a left click. And how coldly the game eyes you as you let these creations die, over and over again.
Somehow it only makes sense that this slim, troubling game would occur in the depths of space. Sci-fi characters seem to head skyward in search of a peaceful death. In The Swapper, I die repeatedly and extravagantly—launched into flaming gears, flung down vast caverns, electrocuted by a fray of wires—but each time, no one hears me scream because I do not scream. I greet each death silently, a feeble crunch or a chilling thud ringing out as the body makes its final impact. Each time, “press space” is printed across the bottom of the screen as both an instruction and an elliptical eulogy.
Here is a sci-fi shooter in which I create a mountain of corpses without murdering anyone. I am guilty only of abandonment and negligence. We are asked early on to consider the fate of each dead clone, but by the game’s end even these ideas have bounced around the empty corridors, growing louder until almost tangible. That dense tapestry of sounds becomes part of an obsession with death that overtakes the game; the noises evoke both the emptiness of a groaning, derelict ship and the life of something, somewhere moving within it. It remains ambiguous, to the end, on the origin of the sounds, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. The game is not about death or life but about the soul leaving the body and heading someplace new. It’s about the brief moment it spends flying.
This review was originally published for the 2013 PC edition of the game without a score.