The mind is a scary thing. Whilst we are reasonably sure of what we do and what is done to us, we have no real way of verifying if that is 100% true. You could be dreaming right now or you reading this review could be the hallucination of a madman. That would be a very dull hallucination. This is what The Signifier plays on well. We know that a witness can never be fully trusted but neither can the mind. Even if you could see through someone’s eyes, should you trust it? Should you play it? I think so but can you really trust me?
The Signifier has you, a scientist, go through the last memories of a suicide case to investigate the possibility of foul play. You are doing this as a bargaining chip to keep your project alive, and such must find out the truth at any cost. Its premise is somewhat similar to 2017’s Observer and takes little bits from various different sci-fi writings. Despite this, it is fundamentally a very human story. There’s a mundane horror to investigating your own past and trauma. There is also a very psychological horror with hand spiders, defence mechanisms, trippy visuals and more.
Speaking of visuals, Signifier feels very much like a unity project. The graphics look fine but all have a certain unnatural glossiness to them. Writing on paper can be read without a zoom or subtitles which helps add another little layer of immersion. Unfortunately, the issue with this style of graphics and world-building is everything tends to feel rather static. Bedsheets may be held at an odd angle, window blinds may not fully do their job. They exist but aren’t reactive. This can be looked past given the psychological angle of Signifier but worth mentioning to someone with a little less tolerance. Luckily, if you can stomach this, you get a great atmosphere and lots of intelligent design.
How might the subjective and objective interpretation of one’s desires play out? Should you be scared of what it is they are scared of? These are questions I asked myself for a longer time than it took me to finish the few hours of gameplay it offers.
After thoroughly reading over the case at the lab, I decided to make my way over to the victim’s house, analysing all the clues like a dirty dinner plate, a broken mirror and a mess of blood, vomit, and sleeping pills. Yeah, it gets much nastier. After getting an understanding of the house, I went back to the lab to analyse it, along with a disc that contains some of the victim’s memory.
I think it’s important to tackle the two main realms in which Signifier functions. The first is objective memory. This includes specific sights and clues that the victim could see. This might include the time of day, state of the kitchen and a multitude of other things. This what grounds you. If she sees a person here, they were really there. If she heard a whistle, she really did hear it. This filters out all levels of subjectivity from an environment to make something stable and factual. This is where you will likely be most comfortable, in the realms of reality, or what the victim can make out of reality. It is the most functional of the two, but also the loneliest, the most sterile, most incomplete.
Subjectivity is important to an understanding of the world and Signifier plays with this well. By holding down Q, you can activate the subjective state of an environment to piece together a full story. Maybe the victim believed something was there when there was not. Why would she think that if it wasn’t important? You start to psychoanalyse the victim without ever meeting her. You can explore around the same environment piecing together inconsistencies to make a full story. Due to the nature of the machine you are using to simulate the environment, it can make mistakes and subjectivity is so hard to comprehend. Occasionally, you might find glitches or items that must be put into place and swapping between states to figure that out is an interesting way of tackling puzzles.
Unfortunately, not all puzzles are equal. Some, like in the kitchen or with the aforementioned hand spider thing are interesting and rather fulfilling, where others just require you look at the right thing. This isn’t helped by some mediocre controls. Using the dialogue wheel in conversation is infuriating, as it is timed but not stable. Sometimes, the dialogue system would work fine where others it would flit around rapidly making you choose a random option. This is not confined to here and small glitches and breaks in immersion will pull you out of, what is otherwise, an enchanting game.
The controls and some general lack of polish let down Signifier’s story and atmosphere somewhat but it is still charming and thought-provoking enough to break through. It has some rather wonderful imagery like that of the victim’s parents and fears that it plays around with masterfully. How might the subjective and objective interpretation of one’s desires play out? Should you be scared of what it is they are scared of? These are questions I asked myself for a longer time than it took me to finish the few hours of gameplay it offers. Whilst those few hours were great, it could have done with more.
The Signifier is a sign of something great. Its story is intriguing and the way it conceptualises all its effort is wonderful. That being said, the general presentation lets it down somewhat and the short playtime left me wanting much more. I was not surprised to hear this was PlayMeStudio’s first effort but it’s a first outing better than most and, with a little more practice, I’m certain they can craft something I’m sure to remember for some time.
TechRaptor reviewed The Signifier on PC using a copy provided by the publisher.