The Signifier Review

Brain Games

In these times of shiny new consoles and PC components, it can be easy to take technological development for granted. So desperate are we for the latest and most powerful piece of kit that we don’t really think about the wider contexts of their manufacture and the effects that increased processing power have on our everyday lives. Technological philosophers have long debated the implications on our lives of new inventions (even writing and speech were at one point technological leaps forward) but the exponential speed at which computing has progressed over the last 50 years is unlike any earlier period of history.

Most famous of these philosophical ideas is the notion of the Singularity – the point at which technology will match and then outpace human intelligence. In popular media this had led to influential films like Terminator and the Matrix, but a very different strand of this debate has also been of continued interest. The idea of being able to upload one’s consciousness has been the focus of both optimistic and dystopian narratives and The Signifier is the latest to follow this path, reminding me of both DontNod’s oft overlooked Remember Me, and the cyberpunk worlds of William Gibson.

There is a really difficult tension at the heart of The Signifier that makes it difficult to summarise. On the one hand you have a fascinating and complex meditation on the interaction between the human and the machine that takes place through ingame resources such as magazines and podcasts, whilst on the other you have a regrettably rather clunky puzzle adventure that often veers too far towards the obscure. As a result, the story and ideas within The Signifier will live with me far longer than the gameplay.

Playing as an academic named Frederick Russell, a figure who has been making landmark progress in the field of digitising memories and identities, you are mandated to assist the state police force – the Technology Safety Bureau – to shed some light on the apparent suicide of a the vice-president of GO-AT, the largest tech company in the world. To do so you make use of your revolutionary Dreamwalker invention, a deep brain scanner that allows you to explore and unravel the memories and dreams of the deceased. Taking place across the three layers of reality, objective memories, and subjective dreamstates, you must piece together the clues and hints that you find in order to reveal the truth of what really happened.

I was especially struck at how deeply the game is influenced by philosophy, both technological and linguistic. Early in the narrative you find lengthy articles about the development of the titular term from De Saussure to Lacan and beyond, names that I’m far more familiar with in my day job as a university English Literature lecturer. This approach certainly won’t appeal to all – to be honest it felt a little slow to start with even for me – but it thankfully doesn’t talk down to the player and instead aims to introduce its central ideas through its influences. Later interludes included in-game podcast recordings that I was happy to stop actively playing to listen to. I’ve deliberately led with these discussions as I believe that they overshadow any of my concerns about the game itself. If what I’ve written here sounds appealing, then I’d recommend you give The Signifier a try.

As for the game itself, it is a visually disorientating experience. Reality as represented in the game is as you’d expect, a relatively high detailed first-person exploration of offices and corridors, but it is in the Dreamwalker’s twinned states that things get interesting. The glitches and bugs that characterise the digital recreations of deep brain scans give everything a uniquely alien feel, and the game makes excellent use of perspective and space. Flat walls of textures reveal the constructed nature of your environment whilst new paths open up as you interact with your surroundings.

When within the memory states generated by the Dreamwalker, your main interactions take the form of Raw Data glitches that you can collect and use elsewhere (effectively puzzle items) and perspective puzzles similar to those found in the recent Superliminal. These make fantastic use of the uncanny environments and were particular highlights. There are also timewarps where you must freeze the action at specific points, and moments where you must possess an avatar to negotiate areas. These gameplay mechanics are nicely mixed up, but there are a few occasions where they can be quite fiddly, and I did encounter a couple of bugs that required a reload in order for events to trigger correctly.

Given how much dialogue and verbal exposition there is, it’s fortunate that the voice acting is mostly very strong. Characters are well formed and distinctive, and the dialogue wheel is pretty intuitive – although it is worth pointing out that many options close off other paths, so be careful what you say. This approach opens up the potential for replaying the game to discover different endings, and makes for a much more involved experience than the common alternative of going through every conversation tree one after another.

The Signifier is almost an essential experience for anybody looking for a sophisticated and complex meditation on the effects of technological progress on the nature of humanity but as a game it doesn’t quite hang together. Even more frustrating is the fact that its short running time means that it ends just as it's starting to find its feet. As a result it’s a title that I am really glad that I have played but can’t fully commit to recommending it.
  • Fascinating subject matter
  • Not afraid to engage with complexity
  • Genuinely thought-provoking
  • Some ingenious puzzles
  • A little buggy
  • Quite a short story
  • Gameplay doesn’t live up to the ideas
Written by
Just your average old gamer with a doctorate in Renaissance literature. I can mostly be found playing RPGs, horror games, and oodles of indie titles. Just don't ask me to play a driving game.