If you think modern-day technology is great for invading your privacy, as smartphones and computers act as a conduit into our minds and habits, just wait until the brain scanning technology of The Signifier is invented. Now your whole brain, your memories, your feelings, everything about you can just be dumped to a hard drive. Cool…
Thankfully, the governments of the world see fit to put some kinds of checks and balances in place here. The Technology Safeguard Bureau (TSB) is founded to try and protect democracy from the abuse of this technology – huh, haven’t we heard that one before? – and international regulations are put in place to try and protect a semblance of data privacy… and yet the march of technology continues on, this brain scanning tech going hand in hand with the advancement of AI, new ventures into automated architecture and construction, and so much more, all trying to hide something from the prying eyes of the government.
So when a VP at Go-At, one of the biggest companies in the world, ends up dead of a suspected suicide, Tom the TSB agent turns to Frederick Russell – and his experimental deep brain scanner, the Dreamwalker – to seize on the opportunity to ferret out some clues as to what really happened and what Go-At have really been up to.
The Dreamwalker is a fascinating bit of technology. Dumping the hard drive into the computer for the AI Eevee then trying to process everything, it allows for Russell to step into snippets of her consciousness. Having visited her opulent apartment (some strings were pulled with the cops to allow for Russell to get a glimpse of her flat and an impression that something doesn’t quite add up about the suicide story.
Asking Eevee to reconstruct the last memories that Johanna Kast (the Go-At VP) had drops Russell back into that same apartment. However, it looks very different. Instead of glitzy high-rise fanciness and modernity, it looks more like you’ve zoomed a bit too far into the 3D maps generated from satellite imagery and photogrammetry – something that has actually been done in some areas. Everything is low poly, lacking in detail, but giving the vague mottled impression of the apartment it represents. It’s utterly in keeping with the technology though. Memories are often quite hazy, easy to manipulate, and it thematically fits that for Eevee to reconstruct an environment from a snapshot of memories, there would be a lot left to the imagination. Wandering around this environment, Russell quips that Eevee always struggles with glass, the view to the outside world just blurry white windows, the table a fuzzy grey shape.
Something’s not quite off about this place though. There are some glitches, things that still don’t quite add up – the time of day simply isn’t consistent with the estimated time of death. Russell has to go deeper, to go beyond the objective reconstruction and into the subjective reconstruction that leaves nothing filtered out and can leave more perception errors.
It’s darker; it’s more twisted like a surrealist painting that takes the familiar form of a squared-off tablet and warps it. Here Russell can dig in and try to hunt down bits of corrupted data that Eevee simply couldn’t figure out, like how current machine learning often struggles to figure what a dog is until it’s been trained with enough dog images. Finding them in the world presents a trippy puzzle where you manipulate a shapeshifting representation of the data, spinning it around, winding time back and forth, trying to figure out what it is both from how it looks and how it sounds. The ticking, the shape, the memory not being at the right time; the data could only be a clock, and taking it over to where the clock is missing from the world allows Eevee to give it the context it deserves.
Of course, this being the subjective world, the clock leads to something utterly surreal: a ladder of time that allows Russell to climb up to reach the actual time of Joanna’s death, finding a key clue that shows that she was not alone at the time of her death. Knocking at the door to her flat, a picture of a dog following you around (remember what I said about AI’s struggling with dogs?) the symbolism of spiders webs ensnaring Joanna’s bed, and another data fragment that reveals a hand floating by her bed.
It’s a case that sees Russell drawn into a multi-layered conspiracy within this world. Murder investigations weren’t the point of Russell’s research – those are more academic, exploring a particular branch of brain scanning and AI technology – but he was forced into this situation by signing a collaborative agreement with the TSB to enable his research to continue.
What’s intriguing is that you’ll be afforded the opportunity to put yourself in Russell’s situation. Where do you stand on the use of this new technology? Does the TSB’s own manipulative use of it amount to the kinds of abuse that they are supposedly sworn to protect against? You can play this out through deciding how much information you give to Tom, how you’ll navigate branching dialogue with other characters, how you’ll navigate the deepening web of intrigue that Russell finds himself in, and ultimately how you try to disentangle it.
There’s plenty of parallels to the real world coursing through The Signifier’s veins, from the way it represents the strengths and weaknesses of the brain-scanning technology, to how it imagines the various ways this could be used and abused. Through it all, I’m looking forward to unpicking a conspiratorial thriller that could shape the world.
The Signifier is coming to PC on 15th October, with a planned jump to consoles in 2021.