Title: The Signifier
Release Date: October 15th, 2020
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Raw Fury
Many games have found unique ways to interpret dreams and memories, but using these themes as a way to explore death adds a layer of new elements to explore. The Signifier from developer PlayMeStudio aims to tackle this idea using some creative science-fictional set pieces and themes.
In The Signifier, you play as Russell, a scientist that has nearly perfected an AI Computer that allows him to explore dreams and memories, named Evee. Evee can adjust dreams to try and appear more perceptible to the human eye. However, since it’s an experimental tech, glitches and unfinished surfaces are more expected.
As this tech becomes more commonplace, an organization called TSB (Technology Safeguard Bureau) rears its ugly head as a watchdog group to keep things in check. This is until an executive of a top tech company named Johanna Kast is found dead of a perceived drug overdose. Russell is pressured by the TSB Organization to use his tech to learn precisely what or who killed her since her death’s timing comes off as very suspicious.
The Signifier’s narrative spans five chapters that offer various puzzles and systems to keep up the pacing, but I wouldn’t have minded slowing it down if only to expand on some of the game’s elements. With a 6-hour runtime, things can feel a little rushed at some points. The opening moments roll out memories associated with the actual killing, but as you progress, you unlock events from childhood memories to a recurring dream right before the victim’s death. Throughout some of the game’s set pieces, elements appear to be influenced by the P.T. Silent Hill demo. This seems to be even more true after a repeating environment reminiscent of P.T’s halls.
The Signifier does a great job of raising the steaks and unraveling the mystery the further you go in. There’s a moment where the tech company that employed Johanna, GO-AT, brings Russell into their massive office and begins pressuring him into working for them, all while the TSE is breathing down his neck, wanting him to get them more leads on Johanna’s death. What doesn’t help things is that GO-AT and the TSE are in complete opposition since GO-AT is working on technology similar to telepathy and AI constructed buildings, and TSE thinks that’s a flagrant abuse of technology that needs to be kept in check.
The relationships within the game are well fleshed out for the most part. You get to know Johanna through her memories and dreams, and even outside of the simulations, you get a pretty good hold on the relationships Russell has (or had) with other people. Russell is a complicated character, and throughout the narrative, you learn more about his personal life and connections that he’s lost through his obsession with work. During interactions, there’s a dialogue wheel, which affects the flow of your relationships. For example, depending on what you say to Russel’s daughter, she can be either more warm and welcoming or cold and distant.
The environmental storytelling is top-level, part of the crux to the storytelling mechanic. There is a memory where Johanna was going to the club with her husband, and the transition from the apartment, to the lobby, to the car, to the club, was so seamless I didn’t even realize where I was going until I was already there. These transitions were terrific, which made it easy to stay immersed in the narrative. Each environment has two states, the Objective State and the Subjective State. And while the Objective State is pretty close to reality, the Subjective State focuses on raw moments and emotions, really diving deep into the subconscious, which can lead to troubling moments.
In parallel, there are several real-world locations that you can travel to that are very well polished. The lighting from each surface reflects well, and everything you come across is high resolution. While it’s to be expected since the environments in the memories and dreams can be intentionally funky looking, it’s still impressive nonetheless. The characters are well animated, and the voice actors’ performance feels natural. I have to give it up to Richard Epcar, who voices the player character, Russell. Most of the time, he comes off as puzzled and intrigued, unraveling the mystery right alongside you. But the moments that require more emotion come off expertly, as expected of the VA veteran.
Something fun and rather bizarre that can happen in these memories is the perspective traps. Things that look like a new area that you can explore that just end up being static images that change with camera perspective. There are also specific character actions that appear in dreams that can be rewound or fast-forward, which can easily warp the world around you. It’s definitely a neat way to figure out how to move forward and can be very impressive to witness. Before I forget, I should mention the creatures you encounter are also a wonder. Between a hand with a large eye in the center that moves like a spider to a group of shadowy children that act as roadblocks, there’s plenty to encounter that will impede your path.
However, some environments can be unclear, considering the concept of fuzzy memories. But a few times, it can come across as a massive bubbly, pixelated mess. I understand; it’s how memories can come off when they’re suppressed, but in terms of navigation? Hoo boy, it can be tough to get through. If you’re someone who gets disoriented by many shifting, low-res, pixelated jumbles, I would not recommend playing it all in one sitting.
Admittedly the puzzles can be obtuse as well, the solution to certain puzzles being jarring and a stretch to solve. Specific objects come across as jumbled as if needing to be reformed. But in reality, they’re more literal puzzle pieces, just needing to be put in the right spot. The developers did subvert this issue because Evee can be consulted for help if you missed something during your trip. It’s something I had forgotten I had during the majority of the story, but it’s still a very nice feature to have nonetheless.
I should also say that the story’s ending feels like a climax to part one, rather than a full story. Without giving away the twists and turns, it comes off as incomplete and left me wanting more. Still, there are a few different endings, so make sure to try every option you have to see exactly which direction the story can go.
The Signifier is visually creative and quite a remarkable experience that ropes you into its mystery and keeps you guessing long past its rushed ending. It uses visual creativity that comes with the very concept of memory and dream exploration and creates some unique puzzles. While at times it came off as disorienting, those moments were in the minority and still kept me wanting more, flaws and all. Consider checking out this game the next time you’re looking for a mystery.
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