The Signifier Review: A dark sci-fi adventure with a psychological tinge

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Playmestudio’s dark sci-fi adventure is a complex web of mysteries hidden in the folds of the unconscious.

review The Signifier Review: a dark sci-fi adventure with psychological tints

It happens less and less often that we come across productively small projects that aim as high as The Signifier, available on Steam from October 15th. Not because the title falls into a particular or extravagant genre: basically it is still a subjective adventure game, in which various areas are explored in search of data and dialogue with non-player characters, so as to proceed in the narrative hand in hand.

The first video game by Chilean Playmestudio, published by Raw Fury, instead raises the bar from the point of view of the topics that, from inside its fedora from interactive yellow, intends to extract and bring to the attention of anyone who decides to give him about six hours of their time. Important and contemporary themes ranging from the delicate relationship between man and technology to the treatment of post-mortem privacy, disturbing on the one hand the studies on Artificial Intelligence, read here in a techno-science fiction key, and on the other the foundations of the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan (hence the same “signifier“, or signifier, which gives the name to the work).

In short, a lot of meat on the fire to manage. Perhaps too much, for those who do not yet have the experience of Croteam – just to mention the authors of another video game steeped in philosophy and existentialism, as can be seen from our review of The Talos Principle).

The secrets of the mind

Johanna Kast died. The media and the authorities speak insistently of a case of suicide from drug overdose, but peering through the rooms of his loft, the place where the tragedy took place, something seems not to return. A broken mirror, traces of blood on the bathroom floor and a closet full of strange objects suggest that there may be something else behind the sad story. Solve mysteries of this type, in the universe of The Signifier, however, is a far from impossible task.

The times are those of a rather advanced civilization, so much so that a brilliant researcher, Frederick Russell, has even managed to develop a sophisticated brain scanner, a cornerstone of the so-called Dreamwalker Project. It is a device capable of reconstruct the residual memories of the deceased through the contribution of Eevee, an AI that transforms fragments of audiovisual data into virtual realities that can be practically explored by anyone who decides to use the machine.

Now, it is clear that the controversies related to the use of such a device are many. Yet the Technology Safeguard Bureau, an office created to defend democracy from the risks associated with technological abuses, does not seem to be able to do without it, if only on this specific occasion. Johanna is in fact the vice president of Go-AT, the largest tech company in the world that has done so much – and continues to make – discuss for its not completely transparent activities. Russell is then hired by the TSB in great secrecy in order to dig into the woman’s memories, with the hope of bringing out as much information as possible about a evidently dark and problematic past.

As we will explain better later, the functioning of the Dreamwalker is quite complex and articulated, based on notions of psychology and machine learning that anyone who is minimally distant from these issues could have difficulty approaching.

From this point of view, The Signifier is immediately willing to provide the player, in the form of props, with all the elements needed to get in tune with what is treated, from a series of written documents to some (fake) interviews. radio, passing through some demonstration video recordings. Very useful and detailed material which, however, it is important to specify does not benefit from an Italian translation, as indeed also all the parts in dialogue, fortunately written and recited in a not too difficult English.

In short, it is not difficult to sink into the fascinating parascientific universe of The Signifier, which reminded us so much of the bets better than Black Mirror (by the way, here the review of the fifth season of Black Mirror). It is therefore a pity that the thriller plot created by the authors, on the distance, does not know how to fully live up to its excellent diegetic background. Frederick’s investigative journey starts off on the right foot, showing off a good mix of dreamlike atmospheres, gloom and mystery, and even a hint of horror – fortunately devoid of easy jump scare – starting from the second half of the story.

The meeting with a couple of potentially interesting secondary actors can only create good expectations regarding their characterization and the evolution of the plot as a whole; hopes that are unfortunately betrayed when the final stages arrive. In fact, without valid reasons, suddenly the story begins run at breakneck speed towards the conclusion, which moreover varies according to a handful of moral choices that the user will have to make during the game. Few decisions of dubious significance that, if handled in the “wrong” way, can lead to some really abrupt and disappointing epilogues, which do not do justice to the previous storytelling hours.

A “three-dimensional” investigation

Speaking of gameplay, we mentioned that The Signifier is neither more nor less than a classic first-person exploration adventure, spread however on three different space-time planes, two of which are true parallel tracks. The starting dimension is that of reality, a place where Frederick, a sort of improvised detective, has the duty to inspect various locations and question the main subjects involved in the story.

These are purely story driven moments, preparatory to the real challenge which, on the contrary, takes place within the Dreamwalker, that is to say in the realm of the psyche. Having a sufficient amount of data available, Russell’s invention can in fact reproduce, in the form of immersive events, the respective reminiscences of Johanna, in two “alternative” versions. The first, defined Objective State, reconstructs the remnant of existence required in an – precisely – objective form, both in the scenic composition and in the events that took place there.

The other side of the same coin is the Subjective State, which repeats the same instant filtered, however, by the personal experience of the deceased. In short, it is equivalent to the exact same flashback, but “photographed” by his mind; therefore it is an investigation plan bent to the laws of subjective interpretation, to cognitive errors and, on the machine side, to possible graphic inconsistencies and glitches.

Having identified the segment of Johanna’s life that you want to analyze, the Dreamwalker arranges the two different representations within a common timeline, allowing players to switch between them almost immediately, with almost no loading times. Continuously jumping from the Objective to the Subjective state (and vice versa), sifting through every smallest ravine, is important in order to be able to unlock all those portions of memory that Eevee is unable to decrypt, an operation that, playfully speaking, is equivalent to solving a series of “two-level” environmental puzzles – a game mechanic on which the next Bloober Team title is also based, as told in our preview of The Medium.

These are tasks that range from the correct relocation of some digital artifacts within the setting to the need to bypass certain system anomalies using logic, up to real puzzles that play with the rules of perspective, present in the very few incursions. in the woman’s dreams. It’s not about puzzle particularly original in and of themselves; nevertheless, they blend well enough with the narrative they support.

Occasionally it is anyway easy to get lost, wondering – or asking Eevee, who is a valid suggestion – what needs to be done to continue, a consequence of the fact that the unconscious painted by The Signifier is a kaleidoscopic realm, abstract to say the least in aesthetic terms. In fact, the Objective and, above all, the Subjective State are often disordered receptacles of rarefied echoes and distorted, torn, fragmented images: sometimes little more than curtains of pixels and clusters of monochrome polygons, in which shapes and profiles are hardly distinguished .

It is an artistic choice evidently dictated by limits of a modest budget production, clever but unique and fascinating in its own way. At the same time, in certain situations, the graphic aspect of the work seemed to us to be excessively repelling, confusing, perhaps too “imperfect” to be appreciated by gamers less inclined to the most extreme visual experiments.

The Signifier
The SignifierPC Analyzed VersionIt is difficult to remain impassive in the face of the premises of The Signifier, a dark sci-fi adventure with psychological – and psychedelic – tinges that does everything to give an adequate playful concreteness to its own, notable ambitions. Bad luck wants the final result to leave something to be desired, mainly due to an investigative plot that promises a lot but does not keep to the end. Even without hitting all the objectives set at the outset, Playmestudio’s first work remains at least a laudable attempt to bring to the stage themes and theories of a certain depth, which we hope will not go completely unnoticed.