Review – The Signifier
I’m a a fan of narrative-focused investigative games, which is why I highly enjoyed games like The Wolf Among Us and Neo Cab. However, it seems like more and more of these games are being relegated to the dreaded walking sim genre. As we all know, barring very few exceptions like The Stanley Parable, walking sims are where good ideas go to die. It takes a very unique concept to get me interested in a walking sim these days. So when I saw the trailer for The Signifier, with its trippy environments and fascinating premise, I decided to give it try. Let’s see if it was worth the time.
You play as Frederick Russell, an expert in the fields of AI technology and psychology. He has developed an experimental machine called the “Dreamwalker”, which can scan a person’s brain and reconstruct their memories. He is asked to aid in the investigation of the death of Johanna Kast, the vice president of the largest tech company in the world, GO-AT. It appears to be a pretty straightforward suicide, but not everyone is so sure. Russell takes the case and embarks on dark journey that will change him forever.
The mystery alone was enough to get me hooked, but The Signifier also has some unique gameplay elements as well. While the game is mostly a walking sim, there are a few mechanics that are wholly original. For example, when Fred is in the Dreamwalker, he can delve into a person’s mind. He can even do this with a deceased person, provided it was fairly recent. The Dreamwalker scans their brains and uses the uses the data to map out the recorded senses and and unconscious areas of their mind. This allows him to venture between both the objective and subjective states of mind.
Still with me? Don’t worry if you’re feeling lost; The Signifier does a much more thorough job of explaining the science than I am. Just suffice it to say that things in the objective state are usually a lot clearer, while the subjective states are more rudimentary and based more around emotions and the unconscious mind. In order to get a better understanding of each memory, Russell will have to bounce back and forth between the objective and subjective states for each one.
Occasionally, Russell will discover a piece of raw data, which can be examined and collected. He can manipulate the data by moving it forward or backward in time in order to get a better idea of what it is. It’ll look like a jumbled mess at first, but with careful manipulation he can get it either take on its true form or give him an audio clue as to what it is. Collecting these pieces of raw data and finding where they are suppose to go in Johanna’s mind will unlock new memories to explore.
There are two other features, but I found them both to be half-baked ideas and severely underutilized. The first is a time warp. It sounds cool, but all it does is let you see a figure jerkily move along their path for what would be the course of a minute or two in real time. It really doesn’t add anything to the game, except to make certain observations register. There’s a lot that could’ve been done with this mechanic, but I think it’s only in the game two or three times. I would have loved to have seen this in the game more and used as a type of investigative puzzle element. Perhaps that was the intention and they simply ran out of time.
The other feature is the use of avatars. There are a couple instances where you will be able to take control of someone in Johanna’s memory and use them as an avatar to reach otherwise unavailable areas. This is another idea that could have added a lot of rich puzzle solving aspects to the game, but it’s hardly touched on. In fact, I think I only used one avatar my whole playthrough. Apparently, there’s another one in a later memory, but thanks to a bug in the game, I couldn’t access it. Luckily, I was still able to complete the memory without it.
By far though, my biggest disappointment with The Signifier is its ending. I won’t go into spoilers, but it took a weird left turn at the very end that I feel undercut the whole experience leading up to it. Not only that, but there were so many questions left unanswered. I unlocked every memory, collected all the raw data, and scoured everything I could, but I still felt like I only got a small glimpse into Johanna’s life. It felt like there was at least two more memories that were missing that would have explained things better and connected everything together.
I will give The Signifier some credit for its graphical presentation. This game is beautiful when you’re in the real world. As with most indie games, the people don’t look quite as impressive as the objects around them. However, Playmestudio came up with some creative tricks to get around this. Since you’re mainly in surrealistic environments, most people will have portions of their faces missing or look like they’re glitching. Since the subjective state is more rudimentary, they have almost everything portrayed in basic blocky shapes with hardly any discernible features.
Now I said I would give them credit and I do. This small indie team got pretty clever with making their fantastical ideas come to fruition on what I’m guessing was a fairly small budget. However, before long it becomes glaring obvious that they simply blurred and stretched a bunch of premade assets in order to create the dreamscapes they were going for. Each memory is rendered in a tiny area and the borders of them show exactly how messy they truly are. I get it though, cut corners where you can.
The sound design is pretty decent all around. The voice acting is solid, which is a nice surprise for a small indie game. The sound effects are also well done. The music is alright, with most of it on the more subdued side. However, since you’ll be spending a lot of time in these memories, the music will start to get annoyingly repetitive if you’re stuck in one area for too long. The same could be said with some of the sound effects too.
The Signifier is a really tough one to nail down. On one hand, it does have an interesting premise with some truly original ideas, but on the other, I found many of them to be a bit undercooked. The mysterious nature of the case was compelling and kept me intrigued along the way. However, it left many questions unanswered and ended with a weird and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. I suppose if you’re a fan of walking sims and story-driven games, then perhaps give The Signifier a try. It’s certainly a unique experience with some interesting theoretical science behind it.
It looks great when you’re in the real world. While there are some clever tricks to show the differences between the states of consciousness, it can’t hide the fact that these were cheap attempts to alter premade assets.
This is mainly a walking sim, but there are a couple gameplay elements that are unique. The ability to manipulate and collect raw data and switch mental states as a way to get past certain obstacles is good in theory, but it’s not always clear what to do.
The voice acting is good all around, as are the sound effects. The music is alright, but can get annoying if you get stuck in one place for too long.
While the ideas are unique and the mystery is interesting, it’s not always clear what to do. There are still a few bugs and it crashes a lot. Some of the questions are never answered and the ending isn’t very satisfying.
Final Verdict: 7.0
The Signifier is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC with an i7-9700k, RTX 2070, and 16gb RAM.
A copy of The Signifier was provided by the publisher.