Our Pick for Game of the Year 2013:
Developer: Facepalm Games
Platform: Microsoft Windows
The first image of The Swapper is of your character flailing in an escape pod, being shot into space, alone and abandoned. It’s an image of failure, right off the bat; you’re left behind, all on your own. The main theme of The Swapper is isolation, mystery, and the concept of self; a fairly heavy series of existential quandaries in an interactive experience harkening the darkest dark version of Portal ever conceived. That’s not fair of me. The similarities between The Swapper and Portal are apparent at a superficial glance: puzzle platformer with a female narrator, which uses a handheld device to cleverly deploy a time-and-space bending mechanic. As soon as you start the game, that’s where the similarities end in a dead stop. The Swapper asks the player an intimate question: who is playing the game? Who are you exactly? Why are you doing this?
Play The Swapper and you’ll never look at 1-ups in Mario the same way again. It examines the very idea of the “extra life” in a tantalizing, unexpected way. In the game, you can create exact copies of yourself, then “swap” your control between them. What happens when your character dies in a game? Every time you flub in Mario, you technically “die”. Is there a pile of Marios at the bottom of a tricky jump? I found myself asking these questions the very first time I got the swapper device. And then I began thinking about how I was solving these puzzles: making endless copies of myself, carelessly letting them fall to their deaths or be crushed.
The Swapper is a dark, mysterious experience with some of the toughest, mind-bending puzzles I’ve played in recent years. They’re difficult to say the least, sometimes maddening, but when the solution presents itself, it’s a great achievement, the simplicity of the answer almost mocking you.
Playing it through for the first time, I found myself having trouble sleeping one night trying to figure out one of the more twisted solutions. Normally, such a horrendously difficult puzzler would turn me off, but the game’s tone, themes, and enigmatic narrative made solutions to situations a reward for turning my brain inside out. The puzzle’s solutions were rewards in themselves, but the game also rewards you with cryptic emails, notes, and the Watchers themselves, possibly the most tragic antagonists in any recent game.
Very few games I played this year had such a striking, visionary sense of its themes articulated through its mechanics. The Swapper‘s themes of isolation and the very nature of self are perfectly reinforced with its usage of the swapper device itself. You create a clone, swap, create more clones, swap to them, let some die, let some be atomized, and you move on. But who has moved on? The game hints at your true nature near the shocking conclusion, but if you were paying attention, its revelation only rises to more questions, more uncertainty. Its final, fragile moments, regardless of your choices, are beautiful and touching like few other games.
If Bioshock Infinite was the McDonald’s version of Big Questions, The Swapper is that one dimly-lit, seedy dive bar filled with interesting food you didn’t even know you liked, crammed with dark corners of interesting vagabonds with the best stories. It feels dark, mysterious, dangerous even. It asks big questions and doesn’t provide nugget-sized answers. The Swapper stands out as our Game of the Year because it’s a rare work of love in a bold and audacious debut for Facepalm Studios. They’ve made a carefully crafted, handmade piece of glorious, moving art, gorgeously presented with beauty and polish.
Every cell in your body will eventually die and be replaced by an exact copy of itself about even 7 years. I have been replaced 4 1/2 times in my life. Except for the cells in your brain, that 3 pound organ that some argue houses the entirety of our conscienceness. Those never get replaced, and those neurons that die, do so permanently. Your memories remain where they are until they die off, or replaced by new ones. I wonder if, in 7 years time, I come back to The Swapper, if I’ll be me, or just a rough approximation.
Time will tell. But for the time being, we award The Swapper our Game of the Year for 2013.
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Platform: Microsoft Windows
A lovely, touching experience of discovering a story, mixed with the vicarious thrill of snooping through someone’s stuff. You practically play a story burglar, and the prize is a moving story of young love and regret.
Why It Didn’t Win: I wanted more of these people’s lives. The experience of playing is exhilirating, but feels cut short by a relatively brief running time.
Developer: Cellar Door Games
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, Mac OSX, Playstation 3/4, Playstation Vita
The best SNES game that was never made. A procedurally generated, side-scrolling hack-and-slash with roguelike permadeath. Accessible, challenging, and endlessly fun to play.
Why It Didn’t Win: It cribs much of its aesthetic from previous fantasy games without adding its own take. Nostalgia’s not enough. Also, the game lacks staying power after a certain point of play, and begins to feel grindy for upgrades.
Grand Theft Auto V
Developer: Rockstar Games
Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
A technical and design wonder worth being in a museum. A fitting, if violent, swansong for both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.
Why It Didn’t Win: Rockstar’s tentpole series has a great deal going for it, but its tone is all over the map, and its story borrows too blatantly from countless crime movies without much of their own voice added, making it feel recycled and stale. Its botched multiplayer launch didn’t help.
Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch
Developer: Level-5, Studio Ghibli
Platform: Playstation 3
A Hayao Miyazaki movie come to life. Beautiful looking, exciting, frantic JRPG gameplay and a touching (if not familiar) story as well. Its Pokemon-like Familiars add variety and fun to an already magical game.
Why It Didn’t Win: It’s an impressive and wonderful visual style, but didn’t wow me with brave, new ideas in terms of story. There’s also somewhat cliched characterization in familiar fantasy tropes in the supporting cast. Oliver’s voice acting is also somewhat weak.
That’s our special for our Game of the Year! Once again, we’d like to congratulate Facepalm Studios and The Swapper for presenting one of the most exhilerating, creative, striking games of recent memory.
Video Games at ScreenInvasion.com be on sabbatical until December 27th, where we’ll return with all new reviews, trailers, and interviews for the new year. Happy Holidays!