Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Swapper Postmortem - What Went Wrong

This is a two-years-belated follow up to my post-release discussion of what worked and what didn't in The Swapper. What went right is here. These were my thoughts at the time.

Some reviews of the game reflected the concerns I had in advance about my work's shortcomings. Some reviews, if I may be perfectly honest, let me get away with more than I think I deserved to.

For this postmortem I am going to take quotes from this review as a way to bring into relief some of the narrative approaches that didn't work so well. It is quite an entertaining read.

Is The Swapper just the "video game equivalent of a circle jerk between fucking spacemen"?
It is my constant fear that once we as artists step beyond a certain level of obscurity of presentation, or once the intention of a work is so open-ended that it is hard to see how it could have been inspired in the first place, we are just being obscure for the sake of it.

Is The Swapper one of those games?

I wholly understand people who didn't like the story for reason of obscurity. Why is it necessary to hide these ideas away behind the fiction? Why did we choose not to have a text at the end of the game which explained everything in detail? Why didn't we have the balls to pick a particular world view and present it coherently, rather than all this open discussion without clear conclusions?

In developing The Swapper I thought about the critical reception of games I'd worked on and other games in the genre, and figured less was more. I didn't want the flabby diary entries that slowed the pace of Penumbra; I didn't even particularly want to use voiced characters. I wanted The Swapper to be an exercise in minimalism and efficient use of language to convey and engage people in a complex topic. The shorter the script the better every word had to be, and if that's also the perspective amongst the critics then all the better.

The result is undeniably not as accessible as, say, an Uncharted game, and that is not necessarily my desire. The Swapper can be dry, difficult and obtuse, and it needn't have been that way.

Is Integration of Gameplay and Narrative in The Swapper Really a Success?
Reviews have commented on how good it is to play a game where the gameplay and narrative are so seamlessly integrated. I don't want to bite the hand that feeds me, but I think we really faile don this level.

When I started on the game most of the puzzles - as well as the general station layout - were already implemented to an alpha standard; so when a review says something like 'It's clear The Swapper was designed from the ground-up to explore topics in philosophy of mind' I'll take it as a complement, but not really a deserved one.

What I think has happened is this. I made it my goal to develop a narrative which took the concept behind the Swapper device as a cornerstone of the action. This, it seems to me, is really the bare minimum: any story which didn't address the ramifications of the use of that device would just be a sci-fi story arbitrarily bolted on to a thematically independent set of gameplay mechanics (it'd also be missing a wonderful opportunity to explore something fascinating). It's like making an action game whose story is concerned with political intrigue: the two just don't mesh, and each element ends up being redundant (even destructive) to the ambitions of the other.

So The Swapper has at least a consistent central mechanic, and I think this accounts for any positive feedback we received in this area.

This doesn't change the fact that "the puzzles themselves[...] don’t necessarily do a lot to reinforce the themes and concepts[...] they’re just fun dynamical exercises using the game’s mechanics and physics."

Except in so far as the puzzles test your brain there's really no connection between what you do in the game and what the story is doing. There was nothing we could do about that by the time I came on-board, but the point still has to be made: this game did the bare minimum necessary to be a reasonably engaging sci-fi. Let's put up with it for now, and keep looking for something better.

How Big Are the Plot Holes?
There are plot holes and/or 'ludo-narrative dissonance' all over The Swapper. Here's a small list:
  • How do the security orbs work, because the player seems to be able to go anywhere they want just by picking up enough of them?
  • What happens to clones when they disappear?
  • How do the clone grids (the white reset light) distinguish clones from players?
  • How do clones gain independence?
  • How on earth did anyone ever navigate this station without the Swapper?
Some of these issues come down to the unavoidable facts of making a puzzle game. The station, at one stage, was to have a lot more broken infrastructure (catwalks, ladders etc) in the visuals which would help explain how people previously navigated the space. The security orbs, of course, are ridiculous as a genuine security policy, and so our policy was to refrain from explaining any of that and hope people would suspend their disbelief.

Others of these holes I had solutions in mind for, but left out the detail because I wasn't convinced that the exposition necessary to fill the hole was any better than leaving it be. For instance, clone grids were supposed to be security measures installed throughout Theseus and its excavation sites following widespread adoption of the device and a major industrial accident of some kind. The idea was that it would be madness to allow people to create clones willy-nilly, and so these grids are used for population control: they identify active brain processes and vaporise any biological matter that doesn't exhibit such activity. The same goes for clone independence - this is plausibly explained by some kind of metal or other barrier that severs the links between original and clone.

These explanations might basically work, but if they take a paragraph to explain here they no doubt would have taken longer in the game itself. Further, it would be abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that that scrap of text exists in the game wholly to provide fictional justification for a necessary gameplay device. If what you've got is a bit naff maybe it's better just to let people make up their own minds?

What do you think?

Like all the games I've worked on, The Swapper was a learning process, and I hope you can see some of the lessons in play more recently in The Talos Principle.