Thanks for Raw Fury for providing a key for The Signifier!
THE SIGNIFIER is a first-person tech-noir mystery adventure that blends investigation, experimental psychology, and artificial intelligence. You step into the role of Frederick Russell, an expert in AI and psychology, and the main researcher behind an experimental deep brain scanner called The Dreamwalker. Its controversial technology allows the exploration of the recorded senses and unconscious realms of the mind. He finds himself thrust into a spiral of intrigue when asked to use his creation after the vice president of the world’s biggest tech company turns up dead in her apartment. Explore the real and surreal worlds, become immersed in fringe psychology, solve puzzles, and find the truth.
A noir mystery for the age of artificial intelligence, who knew!? It’s a slightly unexpected formula that works exceedingly well. The majority of THE SIGNIFIER takes place inside the memories of Johanna, a woman who may or may not have been murdered in her own home. Thanks to a wondrous piece of AI technology, exploring her final moments is as easy as uploading your vacation photos. Unsurprisingly, you quickly discover that things are even more suspicious than they appear.
I love weird games. When I saw the pitch for THE SIGNIFIER, particularly, the line that reads, “Move freely between three dimensions — reality, objective memories and subjective feelings”, I was hooked. Dimension hopping is a key feature of this game, and it’s used to great effect. I was pleased to find lots more to love about this game as I did my first playthrough. The visuals, the mechanics, and the story itself all struck a chord with me in different ways.
Computational reconstructions of the human mind, like the ones you explore in THE SIGNIFIER, would no doubt contain scent, and touch memories. In this instance of course, the game designers have to create memories that can only be experienced through sight and sound. While that does limit the possibilities for expression, it was interesting to see how more emotionally charged memories are designed.
This game requires you to go inside the memories of a dead woman to determine how/why she died. While exploring her thoughts, you can view either an objective or a subjective rendering of the world as she saw it. Flipping between the two states helps piece together who Johanna was, and how she felt in her final days.
There are many differences between the objective and the subjective states presented for each memory. In some cases, certain people or objects are larger if they were important or scary. A tray of cookies goes from looking small and drab, to large and brightly colored through the eyes of a child.
As with all technology, this memory traversal system has it’s bugs. Some bugs serve as a kind of security system around repressed or negative memories. Others are a constant reminder of the emotional state Johanna was in at the time. Masks representing shame, for instance, are a repeated theme. These visual oddities are sometimes unnerving and made me jump a time or two!
THE SIGNIFIER is a walking sim that relies on the player’s investigative abilities. It does a decent job of not spoon-feeding answers or direction, but there are a couple of spots where I would have appreciated a bit more help.
Aside from the basics of moving through the world and interacting with items, you need to move between different dimensions quite often. This is a fairly quick change and didn’t distract too much from the story. It was always fascinating to see the differences in objective vs subjective states.
One complaint I do have is that there are a few audio tracks that are super important to listen to, for the sake of the story, but it’s easy to miss them! You could walk right by while it’s playing and not hear it at all. The game does not clue you in to listen, so it’s really up to each player to be diligent about listening to everything. It’s possible the initial patch addressed a couple of those moments, however.
SPOILER WARNING FROM THIS POINT!!
Which brings me to the last point I enjoyed the most, the storytelling. As with some unique mechanics in the game, the story is never spoon-fed to you. Each memory reveals more and more about who Johanna was. Learning about her history, and her constant emotional struggles help you come to know someone who has already died. Of course, it’s up to the player whether or not this version of her is really her at all.
Some big issues in AI are pushed to the forefront of this story. When the whole of a person’s brain can be uploaded to a hard drive, what does that mean for humanity? There aren’t really any answers given, and instead, players get to make choices that will either advance the future of AI tech quickly with little oversight or allow for government regulations that will lead to slowdowns. In the end, however, it’s unclear what those choices really lead to.
I was left with so many questions when I finished the game and sat for about an hour talking about what I thought it all meant. Thankfully I found some other players with a lot of the same questions. I do like a story that does tie off every loose end with a bow, but THE SIGNIFIER may have 1 or 2 more than I would like. I would love if this means a sequel is in the future!
The unclear ending led to me feeling somewhat sad. What is clear is that the protagonist, Russell, is dead. All of the memory sleuthing just digs up more and more questions. I would love to know for certain whether or not Johanna killed herself, and I don’t feel that was confirmed. I would also like to know whether or not I released a Skynet equivalent on the world in my first ending.
THE SIGNIFIER continually takes directions I don’t expect, which is one of the major things I loved about it. If you struggle with unclear endings, this may not be the choice for you.
Overall, the objective/subjective memory exploration mechanic is brilliant and truly wowed me. I would love to see more games in this world that could build even more on the lore and the administrative side of AI advancement. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys thrillers with very heady themes.
Content Warnings specifically for the game include: Suicide, child abuse, child neglect, murder, domestic abuse, drug use, sex, & nudity.
You can play THE SIGNIFIER now on Mac and PC, and early 2021 for Xbox One and PS4.
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