The Signifier Review | Walking Through Dreams

Right from The Signifier's trailer, there's enough talk of dreams and bwah sound effects to remind any movie fan of the 2010 sci-fi heist movie Inception. With a concept rooted in the human mind, The Signifier sets the stage for a murder mystery where dreams and memories are the keys to unlocking the truth. However, the question is if Chilean developers Playmestudio can take such a complex subject of the human mind and reproduce it in a way that is coherent and intriguing. 

The Signifier is a first-person psychological mystery where you play as Frederick Russell, an expert in AI and psychology who has co-developed the controversial deep brain scan technology called Dreamwalker. The still-experimental tech allows users to dive into the unconscious mind and bring to life childhood memories and past dreams. Due to the obvious controversy that this research instills, Russell must work with the Technology Safeguard Bureau (TSB), a government agency meant to protect democracy from technology, but they seem to have other interests higher on their priority list. Throughout the game, there are many pieces of information delivered through emails, podcasts, and other forms of media to allow the player to learn all about the politics and society of this world. These can slow down the gameplay but are also completely optional so it is entirely up to you how much you want to delve into the world of The Signifier. It's also worth mentioning that while I wouldn't categorize The Signifier as horror, the game can be unsettling at times with certain segments, like the ones involving the hand/spider, being particularly uneasy.

The overall story of the game follows Frederick as he uses his Dreamwalker to solve the mysterious death of Johanna Kast, a top executive at the booming tech company Go-AT. In order to solve this case, you, as Frederick, must explore 3 different dimensions. There is of course reality, where you walk around the actual locations, but you also can use the Digital Brain Disc obtained from Johanna to explore the locations in her objective memories and subjective dreams. Using these realms you must piece together all the clues to discover what really happened to Johanna Kast. 

The ending, or at least the one I got from the many possible ones, is abrupt and can leave you with a few unanswered questions. This could be a byproduct of intentionally having an ambiguous ending to encourage discussion, much like Inception did back in 2010, or it could signify the possibility of The Signifier 2. It is easy to see more games being created utilizing this complex exploration of reality and the human mind to solve mysteries, as well as the companies and agencies set up in this game. The multiple endings of this game also add to its replayability, and while I've only played through once so far, from what I've seen about the game, on a second and third playthrough the story becomes more and more clear, so if you finish the first one still feeling a bit confused, it may be best to hit play again and make different choices to better understand the story. 

Due to the first-person puzzle-solving nature of The Signifier, it can be identified as a walking simulator. Most of the four-hour campaign is spent exploring different environments to pick up clues to further progress the investigation. The real puzzles start when you use the Dreamwalker, and although there is a hint system, the game doesn't hold your hand, and if you're like me, it's easy to pad out your playtime trying to unlock all the impressions from a given event on the timeline, some of which are quite difficult to crack. Some puzzles can be a bit too vague however and the associations the solutions require, even when reached, aren't always entirely satisfying. But at end of the day, it's the game's tech-noir narrative that makes the game worth finishing.

In the real-life segments, the game can look a bit cold with stiff animations and flat textures. But in the more abstract dream sequences, the game really shines using image distortions and blurry textures to set the stage for puzzle solving. I can't be certain if it was an influence in development but playing through Johanna's memories reminded me of the 2011 research done by UC Berkeley that used computers to reconstruct the images based on brain activity. Whatever the basis, The Signifier's use of photogrammetry to construct the subjective and objective states is effective and, for the most part, coherent. It can be a bit confusing as you try to piece together all the bits of information, and with the abrupt seeming ending, but overall the world created is clear and intriguing. Sound is good for the most part with the voice acting from the lead being the highlight. His delivery of the dialogue feels pulled straight from the classic film-noirs. The techno-noir world is very subtle and feels like it could be set in the very near future and the coloring of the real world is not dark or rainy like many works in this genre, but instead opts for a more realistic feel. This is most likely to create more separation between the different dimensions that you travel between, and it was overall very effective. 

The Signifier is an interesting mystery that uses clever 3D scanning technology to explore the mind of a woman to solve the puzzle of her death. Great voice acting pushes the narrative forward and player choices lead to one of several different endings. The game's replayability in pursuit of those endings will vary player by player but the game's story is intriguing enough to warrant at least one playthrough. The Signifier is available now on PC via Steam and will release early 2021 on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. A review code on the PC was provided by the publisher.

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