I love a good mystery—I think most people do. But the idea of going into a dead (or dying) person’s thoughts or memories has always made me feel uncomfortable. Memories are murky, and unreliable—and walking around in a physical manifestation of one would be a strange experience. The Signifier combines both of these concepts, as you’re tasked to solve a mystery by entering the memories of a dead woman.
The Signifier is a mystery adventure, played from the first person. You play as Frederick Russell, an expert in AI and psychology who has created technology that can recreate memories—and then enter them. The Signifier doesn’t hold your hand much, and you can make mistakes that carry through the narrative. There aren’t any action sequences—but it does go into some dark areas of the psyche. But you’re not just investigating the suicide of any random woman—she’s the vice president of the world’s largest technology corporation.
The story is a major part of The Signifier. I don’t want to get into any spoilers—it is a mystery, after all–but it’s a mix of psychological thriller, political intrigue, and even touches on questions of morality. Entering someone’s memories is rightly seen as controversial. Ironically, the bureau that oversees these types of activities—which you are beholden to—has asked you to use this technology to investigate the apparent suicide of GO-AT’s vice president, Johanna. To do so, you’ll have the help of your AI EVEE in reconstructing Johanna’s memories—starting with the night of her death, going all the way back to her childhood.
The Signifier has a very clever concept, and some things are well executed. Your investigation takes place both in the physical world, and inside memories. The memories are broken up into two different states: the more “real” objective state, and the strange, often nightmarish “subjective” state. Most of the gameplay consists of walking around, and interacting with objects—mostly observing, with Russell giving a bit of dialogue regarding his thoughts.
You’ll probably spend most of your playthrough interacting with Johanna’s memories. Sometimes you can occupy an avatar to get to places you otherwise couldn’t, or interact with objects differently. Occasionally you’ll come across time warps, that let you see a flash of memories moving, and can even pick up bits of dialogue. Investigating memories is perhaps the most interesting part of The Signifier. The memories look like they would if you used real-world 3D mapping technology—in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. These environments are appropriately surreal, and look “soft” or “fuzzy” as you would imagine a memory would be. You’ll also run across relics—these are parts of memories that can be carried around, and manipulated into different states. These relics act like sort of keys that unlock more information if used in the correct place. It’s also a wonky mechanic that I had trouble getting just right in a couple of places.
As impressed as I was with how the memories are represented in The Signifier, it was my least favorite part of the game. The visual artifacts and glitches were annoying, and walking around in these dream environments actually started to feel uncomfortable. I don’t get motion sick playing video games often, but something about The Signifier really triggered my motion sickness. I don’t know if it was the lack of field of view options, or the visual glitches, but I was physically uncomfortable playing it–something I usually only experience from intense virtual reality games.
The Signifier doesn’t hold your hand to accomplish a set amount of objectives. Your answers will determine the outcome of the game. I only managed one playthrough (in about 6-7 hours) and the ending I got felt a little abrupt, and unsatisfying. If the developers were trying to get me invested in a possible sequel, it ended up having the opposite effect.
While I really wanted to like The Signifier, I just couldn’t force myself to. It has an interesting concept, with interesting utilization of technology to achieve that concept—but everything falls flat by the end. And while my experience may be uncommon, the memory sequences made me physically uncomfortable to play—a rare feat for a flat screen game.
The Signifier is available now on Windows via Steam.
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