All of them. All of the people you see around you on any given day are not you. This sounds like a tautology but it really is just a proposition; there are no dependencies for it. It just is a part of life that you go around interacting with, avoiding, and bumping into other blobs of conscience and flesh that have just as much agency as you do. It’s weird to consider that that is just the way it is (and opens a bevy of philosophical quandaries once you crack open the door).
Truths, in that way, are the most fun to question. What if it wasn’t that way? What if somewhere there was someone just like you but…empty? Someone—or something—out there is like you in every single way from your hair to your eyes to your laugh but lacks anything resembling a human spark of emotion or soul. Until you see it and see how it works in concert, mirroring your every move, you won’t believe it. It’s a lot like a suit made of yourself.
That is kind of the basic premise of The Swapper, the debut release from Facepalm Games, a tiny little indie studio in Helsinki, Finland. Set out somewhere in the depths of the unknown parts of space, you explore a mysterious world with a single device in hand that allows you to clone yourself at will. There’s a “real” you that you can shuttle between your shells, and this is the one that matters, the on that needs to get places and survive and collect things. And it, too, opens up a bevy of philosophical quandaries (though the game so far seems to let these fall to the wayside).
There’s an opening bit where you’re introduced to the cloning/swapping mechanic that will be your primary means of puzzle-solving/locomotion. In an attempt to descend a sheer cliff, you end up with a trail of clones behind you as You Prime jaunts away with a pocket full of safety and solid ground. As you walk away, though—and this seems so perfectly designed, even if it turns out to be beneficial happenstance—you hear something behind you. And then you see it: your tumbling corpse. It’s you, save for the fact that it is a mangled pile of space suit and bones and you are still alive.
But you did just watch yourself die with a visual absurdity in which video games have a habit of portraying death but also with an unsettling aural precision. It’s stirring, despite you inability to see what your clone truly looks like under that cramped up, puffy porcelain-white suit. Or perhaps that’s what makes it work. By just seeing a helmet and some ambiguously shaped body forms, it’s easy to inject yourself into these copy-paste husks.
It seems to promote a philosophy of the value of consciousness. Any body that you don’t control has nothing to offer beyond its utility of press switches and dying in manically increasing droves and manically disturbing ways. But you see yourself die so many times, you become desensitized to the practice (and it is a practice, not an occurrence, as these are the direct result of your machinations). It’s a bit like when films like Kill Bill or 300 spill so much blood that you begin to lose your grip on what death means. Like semantic satiation hits when you type or say a word too many times in a row, watching yourself die over and over and over again begins to lose meaning. It turns death into vaudeville.
When something happens to the vessel you possess, however, everything stops. The entire world (or at least your run with interacting with it) ceases to be. And just for a moment, you are taken back into your own real world, the one where you are sitting in front of a computer playing a video game. It reminds you once more of that truth that you are one of many. All of the people you see around you—milling about, eating, drinking, having a riotous good time—are not you. Your consciousness determines the entirety of your existence, not this pink blob that you shuffle about for 16 hours a day, which invites the natural escalation of debating object permanence: what exists when you don’t? When you turn away, what remains?
Thematically, The Swapper never goes this far. As a fundamental concession in a puzzle game that wants you to see it through to the end, you can just start again, death a mere speed bump on the road to space glory. That death counter keeps ticking up and you continue to grow increasingly insensitive to the thought of shuffling off your cloned, mortal coil. A game that fully explores this concept of multiple selfs with a singular consciousness would be interesting (perhaps Infinity Blade already does?), a game that radically changes or fundamentally breaks upon death. And while that game is not The Swapper, it does still manage to leave you with that question: what does it mean to be you?