The Signifier Review
Dreams, huh. What are they all about? One minute you’re having a nice little snooze, and the next you’re riding a wheelie bin down a 45% incline, trying to catch the wizard who stole your magic ring and turned into an alligator. Honestly. Please, anyone, what the hell was my brain trying to tell me? No: my mother was not the alligator.
Sidenote: what links the South American country of Chile and Sweden? Knitwear! That’s right. One is famous for its Alpaca wool, the other for its sweater-sporting criminal investigators. I like to think – or, mayhaps, to dream – that’s how The Signifier was pitched internally at Chilean game devs Playmestudio.
I’m nothing if not lazy, so I’ll lean on an oft-used and somewhat lazy trope: but what if The Signifer was a baby that was made by people? Who could have made it? Well, it’s as if Tom Cruise from Minority Report, Leonardo DiCaprio from Inception, and Razputin from Psychonauts got together and had a deeply unsettling, but ultimately empowering, sexual orgy. Before you get too excited, I have bad news: The Signifier is, unfortunately, quite dull. But don’t take that entirely at face value.
If there’s one thing TV and film don’t capture, it’s the boring but ultimately necessary drudgery involved in police work. Real life isn’t like Sherlock Holmes. You don’t flip a corpse over to find the antique cheese knife Sir Reginald purchased at Somerby’s last week. No. You take notes. You ask questions. You investigate. That’s the core principle at the heart of this game: you do the work, you get the results. Ultimately, this means a lot of walking around and looking at stuff. And that’s… pretty much the whole game.
Of course, it does go deeper than that. At its heart, The Signifier is a first-person tech-noir mystery adventure that blends investigation, experimental psychology, and artificial intelligence. You play as academic-cum-private investigator Frederick Russell, an expert in psychology and former researcher behind an experimental brain scanner called the Dreamwalker. See, I wasn’t just talking about the alligators for nothing. I guess Frederick must have been wearing a pretty loose sweater the day he left his research job, cause he’s managed to smuggle an entire brain scanning machine to his new office. Essentially, Russell is a freelance contractor for the local police, who he assists in solving crimes Minority Report-style by diving into the memories of the recently deceased. It’s a shame the brain scanner, which is inhabited by a chatty AI called Evee, looks like a toilet seat welded onto a dentist chair.
The game consists of two threads: the real world, and the digitised objective / subjective memories of the deceased. The story centers around the recent suicide of a high-level tech exec, Johanna Kast. Well, “apparent” suicide. Nothing is really as it seems, and as you make your way through the six-ish hours of gameplay you uncover a twisted web of complex intrigue. By far the most enjoyable parts of the game are the objective / subjective mindscape. There’s a recurring theme of paintings, and the art style captures a beautiful oil painting vibe throughout. The dream state is beautiful and disorientating, and it’s a genuinely unique representation I haven’t seen in any other games. The nightclub memory in particular was a stand-out section for me.
In both the real and dream worlds you solve a variety of movement and perspective-based puzzles. There’s nothing particularly taxing here, and while it’s usually clear what you need to do, there are a few John Travolta moments where you’ll be left asking “what the hell does this game want me to do?” I found these particularly immersion breaking: if Russell is meant to be some genius level thinker, you’d assume he knows how to use his own technology inside out. By not having a very good tutorial system you can end up feeling pretty dumb. The simplest of changes here would have helped: something like when you first put your armour on in Doom. I don’t expect games to hold my hand all the time, but it feels like The Signifier pats you on the butt and walks away whistling cheerfully, while you’re left repeatedly clicking on a giant spoon in the desperate hope it tells you where to go next.
Unfortunately, that isn’t the only shortcoming. Movement is pretty janky on the PC version. There is also a complete lack of any options. Don’t expect key rebinding, mouse sensitivity, and – most frustratingly – no audio volume options? Again, this would be OK if there weren’t points in the game where music was so loud it obscured the dialogue, or the ear-bleedingly loud glitch noises in dreams.
It’s the lack of polish that really brings this game down. The worldbuilding is so good, and the ideas about technology, 3D printing, the ethics and sometimes palpable discomfort of exploring a person's most intimate and painful memories. The Signifier is all seasoning and no meat. The characters in particular are flat and dull. I couldn’t care less about Russell or his daughter, who’s only reason for existing seems to be deus ex machining anything her dad can’t figure out himself. The character animations are also just the wrong side of Stepford Wives; at one point Russell’s daughter moonwalked across the floor while spinning around in circles. Goodbye, immersion.
In many respects it’s a timely release given the post-truth world we find ourselves in. AI and the rise of Deepfake technology are pretty terrifying – although in the hands of Trey Parker and Matt Stone it can create magic. It’s a shame then that The Signifier is, ultimately, an annoying and frustrating experience. There’s so much potential, but it feels like the devs didn’t playtest enough, or just ran out of time to finish the game properly. If you’re a mystery fan you’ll find stuff to enjoy here, but I can’t see the value of replaying it multiple times to experience the apparent multiple endings.
If I judged the game as an exercise in feeling out an idea, and putting some flesh on a skeleton, it would be a great title. If it was released for half the fifteen quid price tag it currently retails at, I might be a bit more forgiving. In its current state though, I’d only recommend it if you love adventure / mystery titles, or if it goes on sale.
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