Depending on how you play it, The Swindle can very quickly turn into a game that would be better called The Smash & Grab, as you crash, bash and explode your way through the houses of the rich and well-off to steal as much of their cash as you dare.
Derring-do is at the heart of how the game plays, your thief dropping from an airship that hangs in the sky above rickety tiled roofs of this loosely Steampunk version of 1849 London, crashing into the ground outside a vacant house. The human occupants might be away, but the procedurally generated houses are bound to be swarming with sweeping security cameras, patrolling robot guards, spikes, mines and plenty more for you to contend with.
As a consequence, this game is hard. Even overlooking the fact that I was coming to the game without gradually building up my arsenal of tools, and my general inexperience, it took a lot of concerted effort and just a dab of luck to manage to finally finish a level. Sometimes I timed bursting through a door wrong and was spotted as I knocked out the guards, other times it was bumbling into mines, and sometimes I just misjudged what I could get away with. In the end I did manage to finish a level, but only by the skin of my teeth.
I was forewarned of this difficulty though, and as the game’s creator Dan Marshall, of Size Five Games, explained to me some of the abilities and equipment I would have with me, he also added that “The point of The Swindle is that it’s a hard game. It’s a game in which you die a lot, and it’s kind of like Spelunky or OlliOlli or Super Meat Boy, where you die and you start again and start again.”
But the beauty of it is that rather than giving you set objectives to reach and steal, your only goal is to grab as much of the cash that is in the house and escape. It’s either in its physical form or in much larger sums on computer terminals within the house, with a frantic little QTE battle spicing up the hacking beyond just waiting for the progress bar to fill up. You can steal as much or as little as you want before trying to escape, and knowing when you’re getting in too deep is the key to your success.
“It’s the antithesis of stealth games, right?” Dan said, sharing some of his many ruminations on the genre. “Stealth games say, ‘Here’s six ways into a building and here’s your tools and go,’ and you’re basically going through the motions that the designer wants you to go through. Whereas what the Swindle does is it generates a building and it puts a load of baddies in that building, and it’s up to you which upgrades – whether you’re going to focus on hacking and stealth or bombs and weapons and all that sort of stuff.”
“As a designer, I’m basically saying for you to go at it your own way. There might be rooms that are impossible for you, but it’s your choice as to whether you decide to take that risk and take that gamble or not.”
There are plenty of ways to get into a building then, whether it’s strolling through the front door, crashing through windows or using explosives to blow through walls. Thankfully, the robot guards in the earliest of areas aren’t the brightest in the business, with their simple lines of sight clearly marked for you to see and avoid as best you can, and their obviousness to nearby bombs. Bopping them on the back of the head knocks them out, but stray into view and all the enemies are alerted, with the money available to steal from the computers siphoned away to safety.
Oh, and the coppers will eventually show up too, flooding the house with even more robots to avoid as you frantically scramble to get out of the house in time and back to your pod. Get bonked on the head yourself, or shot up by one of the fuzz in a minigun-laden hovercraft of sorts, and it’s game over for your thief.
Or at least it’s game over for this particular thief. You see, you’re actually quite safely ensconced in your airship, getting thieves to head out and do your bidding. The cash that they do bring back is spent on buying them new equipment and abilities, from double jumping to hanging off walls, remotely detonating mines, hacking drones to work alongside you and the excellently named Steam Purge, which embroils you in a cloud of steam, making you impossible to detect by the robots. Switching between gadgets – all quite cutely labelled as .exe applications – brings up a nice little radial menu as time slows to the crawl in the background.
And you’ll come to need every trick that you can stuff up your sleeve, as more advanced guards start to be used and houses become more and more labyrinthine. In fact, their layouts never really make sense – you certainly wouldn’t want to live in anything designed like these – with oddly shaped rooms, long vertical shafts where you can slowly slide down the walls, as well as the aforementioned security situation. It’s all procedurally generated in a rather freeform fashion each time you load in a new house.
There’s even the possibility for the game to create something that’s impossible to beat, to which Dan simply says, “Yeah, but I love that. That’s amazing. That’s so much more interesting to me!” He did, of course, clarify to say that “as long as the impossibility of the room feels like your fault for going after them rather than my fault for making them, I think that’s fine. And it’s not like anything’s truly impossible because when you get spotted it just means the amount of cash available in that building is slowly going down.”
Just as a caught thief disappears for all time, you will never see the same house again. You can’t even try and restart a level, so you will see a lot of very different houses over the course of your time with the game, as you unlock access to new areas of London’s airspace and try to stop the police putting an end to all crimes in the city.
It’s hardly the most important aspect of the game, but there is a loose and somewhat humorous justification to your crime spree. However, Dan said, “I took the plot out, because it’s not that game. Originally it had an involved story and characters and voice actors and all that sort of stuff, but I pulled it all out.”
What’s left behind is a loose and somewhat humorous justification for your crime spree. “You’re a sort of master thief,” he revealed, “and the idea is that you play as you in your airship and these generated thieves are sort of your employees. The idea is that Scotland Yard have announced that in 100 days, they’re going to be plugging in an all seeing AI – a sort of Steampunk skull thing – that is going to have total surveillance over all of London. That’s going to basically ruin your career as a master thief, and if they turn it on, you’re going to have to find gainful employment. So your plan is to steal it before they can turn it on.”
Setting the controller down, it felt to me that there was a hint of some other games like Gunpoint and Monaco: What’s Yours Is Mine in certain aspects of the gameplay and parts of the visual style, even. As ever, trying to boil a game down to such simplistic comparisons is somewhat unfair, and especially so when Dan explained that he had deliberately avoided playing those two games.
“I haven’t played either of them,” he said. “Basically, I’m waiting; I will play Gunpoint when this is done. I announced The Swindle in 2010, which massively predates Gunpoint. […] They’re not similar games at all, but they are 2D games with a building and two sides of the building are breakable.
“But I’ve seen people playing Gunpoint and I’ve seen the trailer for Gunpoint and the only thing I took from it was that I want to make it more satisfying to smash through windows than Gunpoint. A little bit of slow mo, a lot of glass shattering, and I think I’ve done that. That was the one thing from Gunpoint that I was like, ‘I’m going to do that better than you, Tom Francis!'”
And it is very satisfying to have those explosions and window shattering moments punctuated by slow motion effects. It helps to add a little extra spice to the game’s presentation, but it’s really the gameplay that shines, with the freedom to tackle a building how you see fit, in a compulsive loop of trial and error. The kinds of terrible situations and madcap escapades are always your own fault, though.
“There’s a moment of greed,” Dan said, “when your standing in the middle of the level you’ve got ten grand, and you just think, ‘I could just get that…'”