'The Signifier' Aims at Noir Psychodrama, but Ends Up at Remedial Psych

An intriguing premise and a clever idea for a visual style go badly wrong in this ambitious but clueless sci-fi murder mystery.

Nov 2 2020, 2:00pmSnap

The first time I entered the dead woman’s memories of her apartment, it was on the night she died. Johanna Kast, vice president of fictional tech colossus Go-AT. It’s helpful to think of them as the combined tech utopian nightmare of Google, Amazon, and Elon Musk’s twitter account. Their special interest is in Artificial Intelligence, but they have their hands in a lot of pies — most prominently using AI to construct megabuildings. They promise a new paradigm of human existence, better living through technology. They swear that unlike the Industrial Revolution, or the tech boom of the 90s that this time it’s for real. They swear they'll bring the Good Ideology.

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Well, their VP is dead and I’m in a digitization of her psyche, so clearly it’s not all coming up roses.

Frederick Russell is an expert in psychology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence. In order to maintain his research he’s had to make certain deals with the newly created (and ill-defined) Technology Safeguard Bureau, who are keen to slam the breaks on Go-AT. Russell has the specific technology and the capabilities that make him ideal for delving into the memories of dead corporate executives to dig up dirt and solve mysteries. Tom, Russell’s contact, is pushy and desperate for a win here, Russell is too, his research is on the line. Being caught between a governmental agency and a corporate titan is a lousy place for an academic, and negotiating this space provides for limited narrative branching. Suffice to say, you’re going to have to pick a side, or play both off one another while guiding Russell through this dead VP’s memory of the night she either committed suicide or was murdered to find out which, and why.

As hooks go, this isn’t bad. Delving into memories and/or psyches of another person with some kind of technological mcguffin is a well-trod path for speculative fiction. “Murder or suicide?” is a staple of crime fiction. As is the non-detective having to put on his amateur gumshoe hat and Miss Marple his way to solving a mystery. Slap those together and, in theory, you have the basis for a solid tech-noir narrative. 

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In a way, video games themselves are a limited form of solo psychodrama (though obviously multiplayer games like Phasmophobia take this much further). Adopt a role and work through a series of scenes—whether these explore realms of fantasy and desire, fear and anxiety, or any combination of human impulse and emotion. Exploring the psyche was always going to be a natural narrative and thematic fit for games. Psychoanalytic theory finds in the depths of the human mind places where myth and archetype, metaphor and symbol express themselves actively. It is a space for representation and signification, a plastic fantastic landscape home to secrets and shame. Where the tug of war between impulsive want, personal mastery, and externally-coded restraint play out as the individual attempts to grow. You could argue this literally describes Dark Souls, and many if not most games. And, obviously, the Persona franchise dives face first into Jung like a child into a ballpit. 

The engine that propels the narrative forward in The Signifier is the aforementioned technological mcguffin — The Dreamwalker (clearly not a name that has been focus tested). Little of how it works is explained, but it appears like fancy VR, which loops into the nervous system of the user as they merge themselves into whatever digitized psyche has been uploaded. Orchestrating all this is an artificial intelligence called Evee (I’m really hoping the three Es aren’t a very forced Three Faces of Eve reference).

Gameplay primarily revolves around using the Dreamwalker to explore recovered memories of the dead VP. Pinging back and forth between fond recollections of childhood, tragic memories, moments of comfort, and one particularly shame-charged (and unbelievably awkward and uncomfortable in ways unintended) batshit David Fincher by way of Early Nine Inch Nails sex club. Sometimes you'll have to do some legwork in the real world, or go home to rest or talk to your daughter.

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Memories in this game have two layers. Objective (or as close to a quantifiable representation of reality) and Subjective (the same memory interpreted and warped through Johanna's emotions). These states are toggleable (though sometimes Evee is unable to recover one or the other initially) and switching between them to solve puzzles, unlock deeper memories or simply navigate their spaces is the core experience. 

Inside of memories you'll find software glitches and psychic (Freud, not Professor X) defense mechanisms. Sometimes Evee can't interpret all of a memory and remnants called Raw Data will turn up and must be deciphered by the player and put in the appropriate location. Other times memories will require time to be shifted within them like scrubbing through a video to advance elements to a usable state. At one point you get to play a perspective game that involves scrubbing time from particularly vantage points (a lot like in Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice). 

Puzzles are actually very thin throughout the game, and solutions are readily telegraphed (when not outright stated). Mostly the game is spent guiding Russell through the memories, and clicking on things as he or Evee comments until something else happens. Repeat.

Visually the game places a major emphasis on how surreal and cool memories can look. At least, it thinks that. Making extensive use of lower budget photogrammetry (mapping real photos to 3D objects as literal game textures). While Capcom and its exorbitant budgets can support extensive and frankly ludicrous excesses of photogrammetry for games like the remake of Resident Evil 2, in The Signifier it's not nearly as photorealistic as it needs to be to sell the distinction it's trying to evoke between real, simulation, and subconscious impression. Some objects look like they were pulled in straight from an asset store and character models stick out (Russell's arm hair is terrifying and the CEO of Go-AT doesn't even have facial animations — it's character development, they say so).

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The Signifier comes with a massive epilepsy warning. Which is necessary, because the graphical effects and rapid switching of frames in the memory sequences are excruciating even for me, who does not have the condition. It's here where the game starts to break down under its own self-importance. It just looks bad. There's nothing truly interesting happening here visually. Textures smearing and warping, unnatural color grading, glitch art effects, objects breaking down with missing polygons and textures or rendered solely as voxels. 

You've seen it before. You've seen it better. 

Observer is a disaster of a game, but even it was more visually compelling in this regard. And really you could just go play Kitty Horrorshow’s games

The most impressive moment was finding out I was being followed around the memory of Johanna's expensive apartment by a photograph of a dog on a low stool, complete with distorted yelps on a short loop. It's an arresting image that the rest of the game just never matches up to. The Signifier just generally fails to evoke the weirdness of the subconscious or the permissiveness of memory. It rests too proudly and contentedly on the wackiness of its graphical weirdness, but it's undeserved. Even the representations of defense mechanisms, shame, or abstracted impressions of people are unremarkable.

Being visually unremarkable is something I could overlook though. And I feel like a heel blasting a game for its failures at photorealism (a trend I hate). But the game doesn't just squander the promise of visually surreal psychic investigation — it squanders the entire premise the game rests on.

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Games frequently resort to the player being an outsider. Either someone from a completely different continent like Morrowind's literal “Outlander,” mind-wiped like Revan in Knights of the Old Republic, or a neophyte in the game's specific context, like Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s Soap. Think of the number of rookies that populate video games. It's not by happenstance — game developers, marketers, and gamers alike constantly conflate both player and protagonist. They talk about immersion and player embodiment as though we are entering the game Captain N-like and Omikron: The Nomad Soul-ing Commander Shepherd (please stop thinking this). Most game protagonists are outsiders because it makes exposition and tutorialization easier. If the character doesn't know anything, them being talked to like a child or out-of-towner seems more natural. It makes writing easier. 

As I said, Russell is an expert. He created the hardware, software, and AI that orchestrates the entire Dreamwalker project. The bookshelf in his house is a Who's Who of major real world psychoanalytic theorists, philosophers, and technologists. He goes on radio shows to talk about his preeminence. He is extremely not an outsider. He can't stop talking about it, and neither can any other character. Early in the game I got flat out offered a heavily-funded partnership by Go-AT's CEO. Yet despite how well-versed he is in psychoanalytic theory, he never talks like it. The game won't let him, because it can't assume the player is. And it's too timid to challenge the player to stretch beyond their own understanding. The Signifier wants the player to feel smart, and it can't think of any way other than by making Russell seem ignorant, even dim. The Signifier wants to have a character who isn't an outsider, but can't commit to writing him as one.

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One of the first things the player will encounter in his lab is a colossal print of Rene Magritte's "The Treachery of Images" when interacted with, Russell simply says "This is not a pipe. But a painting of a pipe. The famous painting by Magritte." Just in case the player doesn't miss this spectacularly silly commentary, Russell's daughter will show up later, walk to the print, and immediately repeat this dialogue in an unskippable scripted event. Below the print, on a sofa, is a dossier on Jacques Lacan's theory of the Mirror Stage. While some players might not know even the rudiments of this theory, this is undergraduate Intro to Psychology stuff. I learned about it in greater depth in Introduction to Critical Theory course my sophomore year. Magritte's painting is literally the basis for internet memes.

The title for Chapter 1? Yep. "This is not a pipe." 

One could say there’s something to giving the player the opportunity to outsmart the expert. But that should be a matter of narrative pacing and puzzle design — not character dialogue. When I figure out things that Russell won’t for another two hours, it’s demoralizing. Instead of making me feel smart, it does the opposite. For most of my gameplay, I was muttering textually-supported readings under my breath as Russell was once again baffled by the appearance of the Mother-Spoon or the appearance of a dog or why a mirror might not materialize in the subconscious representation of the night a woman maybe killed herself. 

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The Signifier, insists on letting players know how much they read. But for what purpose? So little of it ever manifests in the game. Russell never provides an analysis of the subconscious he's investigating beyond blunt statements of what the character is looking at. Where the developers have included a long blurb about the Mirror Stage, and how this is the phase of development where a child comes to understand themselves as an individual, the only way it manifests is in an objectively broken/subjectively absent mirror. It never investigates (or provides avenues for the player to investigate) what Johanna feels about herself, or her creation of the Ideal Self that is or a failure to recognize herself throughout her life. Mirrors simply exist. When the game introduces concepts of shame and sexuality, it never explores them psychoanalytically. Masks are simply a weak puzzle element. Shame is literally identified as "Shame. Interpreted." But what does any of this mean to Johanna? We'll never know, and while players could do this work through critical reading on their own—none of the tools or materials to do this are provided. There's just nothing for the player, Lacan, or Russell to do here.

Where Tell Me Why approaches memory from a slightly flexible dualist approach—letting players choose which subjective memory must be objective truth, Playmestudio takes a monist approach. Ambiguity can only enter through the parts they fully leave out of the game or simply gesture at, but there is an objective truth. And while that works in a purely Mystery context, if that's all were provided then all the work of layering the psychological research is just set dressing. It never gives the player nothing to truly sink into or engage with.

As for the solution to the mystery—you’ll see it coming a mile away. But you won’t anticipate the ending. Rushed and full of last-minute revelations (though some critical things remain loose ends) that are never given weight, explanation, or time to resonate. While there are four total endings (and three different outcomes with a particular character which can happen in any of the main endings), they don’t amount to much as it’s really only a tacked-on “Gotcha!” coda that changes. 

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I’m skeptical of branched narratives with multiple endings. Seen as a way to give players “agency” in the narratives we play, to create their own story, they make sense in theory. But I’d argue that players only venture down these paths because they feel compelled. It’s game content, and game content must be conquered. There are achievements to earn, and cutscenes to see. I love Dragon Age 2 — but I’ve only ever played it once. My first, and only, playthrough was my canonical experience. Would I make different choices a second time? Arguably no, unless I was deliberate about not choosing them again. 

I played through the Signifer twice, purposefully making different choices, and watched the other endings to see if something, anything would make it all worth it. But it never offers up anything substantial. Johanna’s dead memories are still her dead memories. And each time it felt further and further away from the truth of my original playthrough. Other games may make use of this space for player characterization and narrative expression, but here it’s just variations on a theme. 

The Signifier gestures at something much grander. A tense, erotic thriller. A twisting surreal dive into the psyche. The humanity of blossoming AI and what it means to be an intelligence. The endless recycled failures of technology corporations and the ability of capitalism to endure and self-sustain as long as there are those at the bottom to churn through. Even a tense battle between an oddly aggressive regulatory body and reckless corporations. It gestures at so much, but it reaches out to grab none of it.

When speculative fiction is at its best, it’s as a toolbox to explore and question. The Signifier opens itself up for a panoply of inquiry, but follows through on none of it. Taking both a tepid stance on technology and capitalism, acting weird and judgmental about paraphilic expressions of sexuality, and even taking shots at the effectiveness of psychopharmacology—the game offers up so little and what it does is murky and often feels regressive. It’s not capable (and I’m not sure it even wants) of telling us anything about society, the tug of war between progress and regulation, or the psyche. In the end, because of it’s unwillingness to be daring, or trust the player, the best it can even muster up is parroted references to the books the developers read, never bothering to do more than show off the bibliography.

Tagged:

cyberpunk, psychology, Adventure Games

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