Investigations and inquiries can proceed to a certain extent; they can search your house, compel you to testify and even imprison you. But our minds remain an inviolable environment, even though certain physical methods can make what is inside come out. What happens, then, when this barrier is overcome with the power of technology and, of course, ends up falling into the hands of governments and large corporations?
This is the Dreamwalker’s premise and also one of the most interesting points of The Signifier, although it is one of the elements that appears in the background in the story. In the work of Chileans at Playmestudio, the barriers between reality, memories, dreams and interpretations blend as we investigate the mysterious death of an executive, who brings something more than meets the eye. It is like an analogy of the game itself, which also brings, in its designs, something beyond a mere detective story.
The main plan is, yes, the death of Johanna Kast. It is from this that plots unfolding involving the designs of artificial intelligence in people’s lives and the iron fist of the government on scientific discoveries, in addition to the desire to use them in ways that are not always morally appropriate. The player is Frederick Russell, scientist and inventor of Dreamwalker, who sees his research receiving the dreamed funding from the federal hands, while having to deal with the consequences of this and also with his own personal issues.
In this opportunity, a walk through the memories of Johanna serves almost as a disconnection. Within the simulations, which transform memories into a navigable environment, even if abstract, it is just him and her memories, even though the trip itself has not authorized it. You can almost forget that as we navigate the maze of this executive’s mind, but whenever we find some revelation or struggle to open up a field of thought that she made a point of hiding, we can’t help but remember that we’re basically trespassing on property of the most confidential.
This technological fable unfolds in an artistically interesting way, with the searched memories unfolding as in a series of abstract art paintings, but totally converging with reality. It comes as a shock when we explore, in the real world, what remains of Johanna’s childhood home, for example, a harsh reminder that facts can always be more painful than how we remember them.
And here we are combing only two possible fields. The Signifier it presents a plot that happens in different planes, if we can call them that. In addition to the palpable world, we have the so-called Objective Reconstruction, which widely uses the powers of artificial intelligence to clean memories of sensations and other subjective elements, delivering a more understandable and clean, even if abstract, whole. Our memories, however, are not just that and, just as we can remember a trip when we smell food, a reconstructed memory of only concrete information will never be complete.
Then, Subjective Reconstruction enters the scene, which can bring muddled memories and facts out of place, in addition to concepts that are a bit playful, such as a photo of a dog chasing Johanna around the house, for example. Distortions are common here, as are objects out of place, especially when we explore trauma and high emotional situations. And, in some moments, we still search dreams, even more surreal and subjective scenarios that set the tone of psychological terror of the whole title.
All in The Signifier, says something, in the same way that our brain is always recording information and cataloging events in its own way. This is also how Playmestudio develops the riddles and puzzles of the title, with the transition between different planes, the observation of events in different memories and the reorganization of objects that are out of place making the abstract become a little bit more coherent. Here, anything goes, from manipulating time, walking on your back or incorporating a dog.
Technology allows this, but you will often find yourself wondering if you are really in a suitable place. And when reality appears, in the form of a call from a nervous federal agent or in the seemingly cordial invitation of a billionaire CEO to a conversation full of hidden intentions, the player may feel that there are few differences between the bonds of one and the other, with art being one of the few direct and clear distinctions of what is happening.
Deep but with limits
Explain the concept of signifier in a game, such as The Signifier tries to do it in its initial moments, it is a complicated task. Likewise, it is not possible to flood the player with long pages of texts on psychology and analysis, while the images of Johanna’s apartment can seem much more exciting to the audience at a time when it is necessary to attract players. Semiotics is present in all aspects of the game, but whoever analyzes it with the depth it requires, will also easily see the tracks on which the title is positioned.
We do have a game full of political decisions and approach choices that shape history and lead to different endings and events, even though the events of the macrocosm, so to speak, remain the same. Johanna’s memories, where much of the title unfolds, are firm in time, since she is dead, with Frederick’s work developing in a more open (but not so much), and significantly smaller, although many times more interesting.
For most of the remaining time, it is clear that we are completing an almost simple puzzle, one in which there is only one possible solution, even though it is drawn in a very interesting abstract art and deliciously bizarre concepts. Manipulating misshapen objects to find their position on the map is interesting at first, but it soon becomes a somewhat basic task since there is little variation in the use of such objects, as well as in the way they are used to unlock new memories or fuzzy passages.
The creative ways of dealing with some of these puzzles are noteworthy, but this is often due to the fact that the player wants more ideas of this type, rather than the old man walking through corridors and clicking on indicators of interest that comprise most of the experience. with The Signifier. Many of the meanings involved remain in the player’s mind, that if he doesn’t buy the idea and enter the dance composed by Playmestudio, he may end up not being captivated by the discussions and so interesting opportunities that are below the surface.
Add that to the somewhat truncated movement, with the environment behaving as if the game’s frame rate per second is fluctuating, even though it remains stable, and the difficulty of reading some of the interesting texts that mix with the background. . The Signifier it is all dubbed in English and localized to Portuguese, which is good to understand the depth of this plot, although the usability in this sense is not the best, with subtitles that go beyond the screen barrier at times.
Just as the perception of reality and memories are highly private, The Signifier it also presents a proposal whose experience must be deepened differently for each player. The profusion of elements and abstractions must be one of the factors for the short experience, which takes about four hours to complete, while the title serves as one of the many proofs that duration, in itself, is not synonymous with a lack of content.
There is plenty of material here, especially for those who buy the idea and venture into the different options and possibilities raised by the title. However, doing so may not be a simple task, although The Signifier present ourselves with direct and abstract meanings to each new layer that we decided to explore. The experience with him, in the end, ends up being like the story and opportunity presented, as well as the perceived quality, with highly subjective criteria for each one of us.
The Signifier was released for PC on October 15, 2020, with console versions still in development. The Playmestudio game was published by Raw Fury, who kindly granted the digital copy used by Canaltech in this analysis.
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