The Swapper

The Swapper is a game that appealed to my intellect a lot more than it engaged my heart, and as such it is perhaps an odd place to start this…. whatever this blog is. Anyway, it left me feeling curious, and interested, but not fascinated, except for the final scene. I’m not saying that as a negative judgement, although I usually do prefer to be emotionally engrossed, but in this sense it’s a unique approach to storytelling in a videogame.

It’s not necessarily a limitation imposed by the subject matter either: the idea of cloning and transferring your consciousness or “soul” to different bodies can and has been used to explore many different themes, like mortality and empathy, and as a transwoman I have often thought about it and wished to replace my body, to swap it with somebody else, to be able to experience things in a different shell. But The Swapper is not interested in any of that, its focus is very specific and circumscribed to the Philosophy of Mind.

The questions it poses concern the relationship between mind and body: whether our experiences, our consciousness, our sense of identity, of being “me”, our “rich Inner life” (Chalmers) are simply a product of the brain, of neurons and biochemistry, or if there is something more, something different than pure matter, something that maybe we could call a Soul, perhaps something a little less grand and loaded with connotations of the magical and supernatural, but nonetheless not completely identifiable with physical matter.

Plot

Let’s start from the plot: in the world of The Swapper, humanity has nearly run out of resources. In desperation, they start a project that will sacrifice the lives of thousands of people for the greater good of the species. The Sisyphus Project sends 7 highly-autonomous spaceships to far reaches of the universe, years of travel away, in order to mine for precious materials, make scientific experiments and send everything back “home”. The Research Station Theseus, on which most of the game takes place, is one of these spaceships. It’s clear, though, that the project fails, contact is lost with every outpost, the results have been insufficient and there are hints of political instability and uprisings due to the critical situation. We don’t know any more about the world at large.

Theseus is excavating a planet called Chori V. There are interesting findings, most importantly a silkworm-like creature (that is often mentioned and yet hard to place a significance on, in the economy of the story) and the Watchers, a rock formation that exhibits electro-chemical activity that seems to indicate they possess some sort of intelligence. Samples of the Watchers, including the Head Watcher, a sort of communication hub in the shape of a giant human head, are brought on board for further research. There, they start having strange effects on the crew, almost polluting their minds, entering their dreams and driving them mad.

From studying the Watchers, and the way they communicate telepathically, scientists build the Swapper, the main gameplay device. Besides the ability to clone the subject who is operating it, the Swapper has an interesting, if mysterious ability, that Dr Chalmers describes as “swapping souls about” and Dr Dennett as something “far less benign” than that. The nature of this process is at the core of the game’s question. Eventually, in unexplained ways, the Watchers start killing the crew. The only hint we have about how is in log #21, in which Sam Cook cautions the reader against talking to them. Only 2 people, Dr Chalmers and Dr Dennett, manage to survive by swapping into a couple of brain specimens and isolating themselves from the environment.

Decades later, a Scavenger stumbles upon the empty and abandoned Theseus, but in landing she damages her own ship. She finds the two brains, and the Swapper device. She tries to use the device, creates a clone of herself, and in panic ejects it into space. That clone is the player character (PC). Meanwhile, the scavenger, seeking an explanation and a way out, returns to Chalmers and Dennett, who warn her about the fact that they will die in a matter of hours, unless they do something. On what is needed to save themselves, Dennett and Chalmers disagree: Chalmers wants to swap with the Head Watcher, whereas Dennett interprets the Watchers’ reaction as defensive self-preservation, after being separated from their other Watchers, their mind hub and their home planet. Therefore, she wants to land the ship on the planet and return the Watchers to where they belong.

The Scavenger is simply confused and only wants to save herself: she uses the device to swap with the two scientists, in such a way that the 3 distinct personalities seem to share the Scavenger’s body. As a result, she acts like a schizophrenic throughout the plot, changing her mind depending on whose will happens to be the dominant one at any given moment.

The PC, after landing on Chori V, acquires the Swapper device and teleports herself back on board of Theseus, where she helps land the ship on the planet, realizing Dennett’s plan. Chalmers’ plan is also realized, when the Scavenger ends up swapping with the Head Watcher just before the ship lands. Towards the end, another ship catches the Scavenger’s distress signal and comes to rescue the PC afte

r she has landed, but they don’t have the adequate facilities to help without putting themselves in danger as well. At this point, the Player Character is given the final decision to swap with one of the rescuers, or stay on the Planet and die.

The whole plot is a thought experiment: if such a device existed, what would it actually do? How would it work? Could something like the Watchers exist? What would that say about consciousness, either way? Would a perfect replica of my body be alive, or would it lack something, would it be another me or just a complex machine acting like me? In answering those and other questions, we can uncover our own beliefs about consciousness and identity.

The delivery of the story itself is fragmented, and you may not catch every detail in one playthrough. It requires the player to fill in the blanks, to reconstruct what happened from the sparse details we have, from what we can infer reading the logs. But again, the focus, when doing this, is never on individuals, characters, stories, there is no emphasis on the tragedy of the numerous deaths, the bodies themselves are only shown a couple of times, in the most reflective moments. [1] There is no horror either; the game rarely tries to stimulate an emotional response, all the energy of the storytelling is focused on the intellectual, scientific mystery. And to delve into the mystery, we must first step back and talk about Chalmers and Dennett, not the characters in the game, but the real, contemporary philosophers whose ideas those characters are modelled after.

Philosophy of the Mind

David Chalmers and Daniel Dennett are two living philosophers, major and opposing figures in a debate whose roots go back almost to the beginning of philosophy itself. Perhaps we could start from Dennett, whose views are easier to explain and comprehend. He is a physicalist (therefore a monist), and a cognitivist: in other words he believes that the mind is pure matter, simply a biochemical mechanism that processes information. And although we may not have a satisfactory explanation for everything that goes on in the brain yet, science will be able to understand it eventually, and when that happens there will be nothing left to explain about conscious experience. A purely physical account of consciousness will be complete and satisfying, because there is nothing beyond matter. He also argues that our understanding of consciousness, even among specialists, is too influenced by Descartes, who famously viewed mind and body as two, linked but ultimately separate entities. The concept of conscious self, Dennett argues, is nothing more than an abstraction born at the level of behaviour, it’s a story we tell ourselves about our actions and experiences.

Chalmers’ views are very different, but I urge you not to use the word “Soul” in the purely philosophical context if possible. As I said earlier, soul is a very loaded word with a particular connotation that would mostly be laughed at in today’s philosophy, as if one tried to argue for the existence of ghosts or the truth of the Greek divinities. Tom Jubert himself (Narrative Designer for the game) is dissatisfied with the use of the word inside the game, and he admits to only using it as effective shorthand for capturing the essence of Chalmers’ position as opposed to Dennett’s materialism. Chalmers’ view is much more grounded in reality and preoccupied with a reasonable, likely explanation of certain phenomena than the word “soul” suggests. He is dissatisfied with physical explanations of consciousness: it’s not that he doesn’t believe them, but he finds them incomplete and ultimately unfulfilling. He mentions this “explanatory gap” between the scientific explanations of the workings of the brain and the subjective aspects of consciousness, the existence of a “rich inner life”, of qualia. In other words, he finds psychological truths irreconcilable with physical, biochemical truths. He proposes the theory that information-bearing systems, if they satisfy certain criteria, may give rise to conscious experience of a degree of complexity comparable to the complexity of the underlying physical systems. If one had to use the word soul, even if very inappropriate, one would say that certain physical information-bearing systems give rise to a soul. In those systems there would be both a physical aspect and a phenomenal, or experiential aspect (the “rich inner life”), and while the two would be intimately linked, a purely physical explanation would be incomplete, as the experiential aspect cannot be described in terms of biochemistry and physics.

I wanted to give a slightly more accurate account of these two positions, but in fact the game itself wonderfully manages to capture the core of the two philosophers’ beliefs in very few words. In log 18 we read about Dennett (including his denunciation of the influence of Descartes), in log 11 about Chalmers (with a subtle but effective reference to his argument for information-bearing systems when mentioning the Watchers’ communication) and in log 16 we have a debate between the two (Dennett appeals to scientific laws, Chalmers mentions qualia – “with no amount of physical explanation can you communicate to me what it is like to see red, to feel pain, to be afraid of death”).

Tom Jubert takes pride in always striving to achieve a satisfying degree of ludonarrative harmony, that is, in having gameplay mechanics and story reinforcing each other and working towards communicating a common theme. The game makes a good attempt at this: the Swapper is in fact both the main gameplay device and the focus of the thought-experiment, and the player is required to clone herself, swap between clones and sometimes sacrifice those clones in order to solve puzzles as well as to navigate the map. I should say that the puzzles themselves are a bit contrived (why are there these many rooms with these weird and impractical panels to push, and lights placed just so?) and depending on your ability to solve them, you may end up stuck long enough to completely break the pacing of the story and the immersion in the game.

On the other hand, solving puzzles forces the player to use her clones as nothing more than tools. They encourage us to think of them as means to the end of reaching the orbs, as expendables. And yet, they don’t lose their physicality.

Most often, the clones will meet their end via a long fall, each of which concludes with the truly sickening crunch of breaking bones, followed by the sound of air leaking from their suit. The deaths are not visually gruesome, but the superb sound design lends a nauseating punch to each clone’s end. (From Medium Difficulty)

The effect on the player will differ, depending on her beliefs: are those being sacrificed perfectly good lives, maybe even sacred lives? Are those just androids, soulless mannequins telepathically controlled like we are controlling the PC through wireless mouse and keyboard? Is that just meat being wasted, or is there something leaving the suit, other than air? Do their deaths matter, if they’re even deaths, or is the only death that matters the one of the body currently holding the “soul”, the only one that leads to a game over/retry screen?

Here, I want to quote Tom Jubert one last time two more times:

I think consciousness will turn out to be identified with some kind of physical function or arrangement, with its experiential quality essentially explained away. (Source)

When we were writing The Swapper we made a conscious effort not to overtly push a particular conception of mind at the player. […] Rather, whatever assumptions about the mind you come in with we want to challenge them. (Source)

Jubert is a physicalist; but at face value the game mechanics seem to favour a dualist view like that of Chalmers. And not only because the Game Over screen suggests only one of those deaths truly matters, or because we play from the perspective of a Soul being placed in different bodies, but because there are three main gameplay features that one would be hard pressed to explain otherwise. First of all, the fact that only the clone we are controlling, supposedly the one with a Soul, has the ability to reabsorb other clones is strong evidence that all clones are not equal, that the others are lacking something. Secondly, if every clone is equal, there is no reason why they would be able to pick up the Orbs at the end of the puzzles only after being swapped to. And thirdly, how would the lights that double as checkpoints be able to discriminate between the clone we are controlling and the others, if every clone was equal like a physicalist would believe?

However, that is not to say that there isn’t a more physicalist-minded explanation for nearly everything that happens in the game, and one shouldn’t be tricked into believing the simplest explanation (The Occam’s Razor has never been a hard rule, only a recognition of certain trends at best and situational advice at worse). I may very well suppose that the clone we are controlling acts as a main hub for the other clones, like the Head Watcher does with the other Watchers. Remember in fact, that the Swapper is based on the Watchers’ system of communication. And we may very well assume that this telepathic communication is so strong and intense that they all feel part of a whole, acting as one, rather than each clone thinking of itself as a separate individual, just like the Chain the Watchers mention. At least until the Chain is not broken by distance.

There is an interesting precedent for this idea in Sci-Fi videogames: the Geth of Mass Effect. I’ll paraphrase liberally from my playthrough of Mass Effect 2, a few years ago, but the Geth talked about their lack of individual identity, being that they all share the same information and act on the same, shared thoughts. Legion, the Geth encountered by Shepard in ME2, mentioned that something like an individual would only arise if a Geth travelled so far into the universe as to disconnect from the network of the species. This Geth would then acquire information that wouldn’t be shared with the group, affecting its thought and effectively turning it into a unique individual. If it was then re-acquired into the network, it would be perceived as an outsider, at least at first.

I’m mentioning them because they may be useful not only to understand the Watchers, but to describe what happened to the Scavenger after she swapped with Chalmers and Dennett. Putting aside another plot hole [2], the question is how to account for her multiple personalities: whether there are 3 souls, each of them pure and unadulterated identities, inhabiting one body together; or whether something different is going on, something like an intense, telepathic exchange of information, with the Scavenger’s body acting not on 3 souls, but on 3 different sets of information and beliefs that haven’t had time to amalgam into one, new and coherent whole yet. Chalmers insists that she still feels like herself in the Scavenger’s body, but precedent dialogues question her instincts:

You came anyway. You’ve seen what’s left of the ship. I suppose you had to see for yourself. I suppose watching a mind unravel into bare matter is cathartic. I suppose… WHO IS THIS ‘I’ doing all the supposing?! Is it still me? Is it them?!

“You’re wondering, I suppose, how a person could survive here so long. I’ve had time to wonder that myself. My conclusions are non-cognitivist in character: The terms ‘person’ and ‘survive’ are too ambiguous for reasonable discussion.”

There would be a lot more to say about The Swapper, a lot of details that need to be explained according to a certain coherent system. The small but subversive revelation, in the finale, that the PC, without any distinguishing signs, is in fact female, is in itself worth mentioning. I’ve barely talked about the significance of the player character being a clone of the Scavenger, or about the Watchers, whose very existence leads to questions about the mind-body relationship as well as worries about identity and about what thought would look like in a radically different body. There is also this subtle but constant sensation not only of isolation, but of desolation, of decadence, of somehow having overstepped one’s bounds as a species – aided by the mention of mythological Greek figures – of being involved in something bigger than oneself, perhaps too big to be comprehended. Towards the final moments, Chalmers repeatedly urges the player to live at any cost. And at the end, the player must act, she must decide, because everything we are shown leads to one final dilemma: to swap with the rescuer or to stay on the planet and die. There are several considerations going into this decision, but the central one is probably whether the one surviving would still be “you” in any meaningful way. Very aptly, the game pauses to let the player ponder.


One of my disappointments with artistic media trying to tackle purely philosophical subjects in philosophy’s own terms is that, often, they either don’t make for good narratives (why should I be reading/playing/watching this when I could read a more systematic account from an actual philosopher, if that’s all there is to it?) or the arguments being presented are just repetition of known views (so, the work itself may have its artistic merit, but is philosophically uninteresting, pure popularization with nothing new to say for itself). Or both. In a way, The Swapper suffers from both flaws, but at the same time doesn’t really embody either of them. It’s true that no one who is knowledgeable about the subject will really learn anything new about it, and as a thought-experiment it’s too contrived to really be useful, unlike other famous thoughts-experiments. [3] But the game is interesting in its own right, if only because it asks players to interpret it, but constantly questions the underlying beliefs on which those interpretations would be based. It succeeds in being ambiguous just enough to challenge the player’s convictions without feeling like a blank slate in which anything fits.

Still, there’s something about it I can’t avoid to mention: it’s very brainy and intellectual, to the point that that tone seeped into the style of this article. And that’s fine, there definitely aren’t enough games as smart and philosophically-minded as this one. But, perhaps because of how I approach games, I didn’t feel immersed and involved enough. It’s a game that made me interested, but not passionate, and as such I liked it, I liked it a great deal, but I could never love it.

 

Note for the Reader: this is my first article of this kind. Hopefully, the first of many. My tone has been very cold and detached, and partially that’s because of the game, but that’s also in part my fault and my shortcoming, and I’m trying to work on it. After all, one of the writers I look up to the most is the “aggressively vulnerable” Cara Ellison. Anyway, I’m always striving to improve, and I appreciate any kind of criticism and suggestions, your thoughts on what you think I did well (if anything =P) and what I could have done better, so, please, leave a comment or reach out to me.
Thank you for reading, and have a lovely day, kind stranger ❤

[1] There are also internal inconsistencies in the plot, as discussed here. But I disagree with who dismisses the plot just because something in it turns out, on reflection, to be illogical, that would be missing the point: the message and the questions the game is attempting to communicate are still perfectly valid.

[2] Chalmers and Dennet swapped into the two brains, and their original bodies lie on the floor, as if life had abandoned them; this is inconsistent with previous functioning of the Swapper – unless they were then killed – and also with the fact that the Scavenger is able to swap with the brains in a way that keeps her in her own body, and brings both Chalmers and Dennet inside her as well

[3] By the way, think about how the Watchers can be read as the opposite thought experiment to Chalmers’ philosophical zombies

Links and Further Reading:

I’d start with Tom Jubert’s own recommended reading. Here is a short post-mortem of the game (we’re still waiting for part 2, Tom!) and there’s a long discussion about what happened in the game over at the Steam Forums. I managed to find David Chalmers’ paper “Facing Up to the Hard Problem Of Consciousness”, which is very accessible and contains the core arguments supporting his views. RPS’s review and comment section, as well as this article on Medium Difficulty, are both interesting reads. As for the rest, Wikipedia may not be the most in-depth place for philosophical discussion, but there’s still a wealth of information.

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3 thoughts on “The Swapper”

  1. Hi Melody Meows! I found your blog after reading your passionate discussion on the RPS forums about the importance of plots and discussing games in a more meaningful way. I totally agree with your views: games should be discussed as much as other art forms, but still they are quite immature – they still have a lot to grow as a form of media.

    I’m a gamer from Italy, and here being a gamer (a PC gamer, even more than that) is still seen as a stygma of some sort: don’t even think about having a bit of academical or brainy conversation about a game with someone around these parts. Most of the gaming websites around here cover games in a limited way – mechanics and technical stuff the major points of talking – and I would really like to change that kind of view/mentality in Italy by starting my own blog and try to make a little bit of difference.

    In the meanwhile, discovering this blog really improved my day; I read The Swapper article in one breath and it was really enjoyable, I gotta say. Tomorrow I’ll surely check out the one on Machinarium.

    Thanks for the good, clean and neat writing, you made a very pragmatic person learn a bit of philosophy stuff.

    Oh, and sorry for the long post. 🙂

    Like

    1. Hello!
      I suppose it’s not just your country. As you’ve seen my ideas found a lot of resistance even in the RPS forums, with gamers from all over the world. I think it’s like that everywhere, unless you’re lucky enough to find a circle of like-minded people.

      Anyway, thank you for reading, and I’m glad you enjoyed it.
      Have a good day

      Like

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