IndieCade 2011: Molding The Swapper out of clay

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IndieCade 2011: Molding The Swapper out of clay
The Swapper is one of IndieCade's most fascinating finalists this year. While the trailer will definitely pique your interest about the title (it features some really interesting "create-a-clone" gameplay -- more on that in a bit), what's most incredible about this one isn't how it looks or plays. It's how it was made.

The Swapper was created by Facepalm Games, which is actually two teenagers named Otto Hantula and Olli Harjola (along with a sound designer) from Helsinki, Finland. They've created a few games, "but nothing as big as this one," they told me. You may think, given the amazing textures and bump-mapping on the game, that they used some kind of high-end engine to create it. Unreal Engine 3? CryEngine, maybe? Nope.

"They're actually made of clay and some other stuff," said Harjola. As in, actual physical clay, which he modeled, photographed, and then put into the game with lots of dynamic lighting. "I probed a lot of different graphic styles," he says. "I don't really like 3D modeling, but I really like doing stuff with my hands, and this is what I came up with."

The original idea for The Swapper (before any of the models were ever made, apparently) came from a book Harjola read, A Living Soul, about a brain in a jar. "After that, I made a prototype in which you can swap your mind into a different body while shooting it. And I started thinking it was better to express this idea using a single-player game, because that way you can get a better atmosphere."

Atmosphere is certainly something The Swapper doesn't skimp on. The player controls a person in a spacesuit arriving on what seems to be an alien planet, with intricate temple-like carvings in the very detailed 2D background. A few steps in, you find the Swapper gun, and then, very much like Portal, things get complicated quickly.

The Swapper gun allows you to create clones of yourself with the right mouse button, which will make the exact same actions you do -- walking forward or backwards, or jumping. And once you've created a clone (you can create up to four at a time), you can then shoot it with the left mouse button to "swap" into that clone, controlling it directly.

As you might imagine, that opens up a lot of possibilities. You can fire a clone up to a higher platform to hit a switch out of reach, or just take over that clone once fired and hit the switch yourself. The player will die after falling only a relatively short distance, so when moving across a big gap, it's usually easier to just fire a clone to the other side and then swap over to it. Clones can step on switches for you, block moving objects, or even take a deadly hit, as you swap out of your own body into safety.

It's just as trippy as it sounds, and when you start including different colored lights (blue light in the game blocks clone creation, while red light will keep you from swapping through it), and various switches and mechanisms, the puzzles get hard. All the way, though, those graphics and the game's sound design really sell the mood, and as you start to use clones of yourself more and more mercilessly, the whole game feels quite alien.

Facepalm has spent about two years on the game's development so far, including making the game prototype and those graphics, and they said there's at least a year's worth of work left. "At least," emphasizes Harjola. Though the pair does plan to add an overarching story to the gameplay, there's nothing in there yet.

Platforms for release haven't been determined yet either, says Harjola. "It's going to be PC and Mac, maybe something else." They haven't yet tried the game's WASD and mouse control scheme (you move a little glowing mark around in 360 degrees to aim and fire out clones and the Swapper) with a console controller, but they have thought a little bit about how that would work. "Maybe use the triggers for cloning and swapping," says Harjola.

Nevertheless, even in its current form, The Swapper is quite a feat, both of artistic and game design, one that earned Facepalm its status as an IndieCade finalist (and Special Recognition award winner).
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