How The Swapper created horror out of clay and found objects
The Swapper is an ambitious look at what happens when we can create… what, exactly? Life? Another version of ourselves? I bumped into the game’s creator, Olli Harjola during PAX East and I told him the game, in many ways, reminded me of the Prestige. He told me that was a common response. The Swapper is a 2D platformer that takes place deep in space, where you're given a “weapon” that allows you to clone yourself and then move your essence between those clones to solve puzzles.
What’s fascinating about the game, outside of the subject matter, is that the visuals were created by hand, using clay. The result is a game that feels eerily physical, as if you’re looking at things that actually exist in the real world. It’s an odd aesthetic for a game this dark, and that delves into such uncomfortable places, but the decision was made out of necessity as much as artistry.
“Originally the game was a prototype project where graphics didn't really matter that much. As I started thinking that the mechanics could be used to build a whole 'actual' game I of course had to figure out how to get the visuals up to the same par with everything else I was planning,” Harjola told the Report. “This is probably where the things I'd done as a child started leading me towards a solution.”
Harjola’s mother is a ceramic artist, and he worked in ceramics as a child. He had also experimented with clay animations. Now he was in a position where he wanted to make a game that looked good, with minimal resources, and very little knowledge of 3D modeling.
“I felt hand-drawn, super-stylished abstract or cartoonish art wouldn't really support the kind of atmosphere I was going after,” he explained. “I thought photographed real-life objects - like Dream Machine, check that game out if you've not - weren't really the solution alone because they offer super realistic shading that looks good only in certain, limited conditions.”
He had stumbled on an article that explained how to create normal maps using real-world objects, and began experimenting. The results were impressive.
“I tried the technique with a random piece of rock and immediately fell in love,” he said. “It allowed making art that looks like 3D but doesn't have the clinical feel of cheap 3D assets. And making the assets is faster than building them using a 3D package.” He then got to work making the physical clay models for the objects that make up the game’s world.
“I think what makes it interesting is that the models look super-detailed while the amount of time put into building them is a fraction of the time spent creating a real 3D model,” he explained. “This art style wouldn't really work in anything else than a pseudo-3D game but for us it's the perfect choice.”
The other attractive aspect of doing graphics in this way is that once the images are taken, there is very little that can be done to adjust the model. Either the clay reference models work, or they don’t. This saved Harjola from endlessly adjusting the in-game models, and focusing on the quality of the clay source material.
“I need to be quite confident with a model when I take the photographs but it's sometimes really hard to see how something works in the game until it's too late to make changes,” he said.
“The only clay model/texture that I've completely redone is the main character. Compare this process to 3D modeling where you can tweak a single model forever. Now we can still do that tweaking inside the level editor but the tweaking is limited to relatively big chunks of the level, not single vertices in a 3D model. I think it gives the game a certain imperfect look that makes it feel unique.”
I've been able to play through a decent portion of the game, and the clay models and found objects create a desolate, wrought look to the world. It's dark, and it goes to some interesting places in its themes, but it also feels as if it were created by hand, giving each object a sense of history and purpose. It's a tricky thing to describe, but works very well in practice.
The Swapper is coming to Steam on May 30th.