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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Signalis turns survival horror into a dreamlike experience I can’t forget

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The last thing I thought Signalis would be is a game that stuns me with imagery, not monsters. I read “survival horror” in its description and thought of the few Resident Evil and Silent Hill videos I’ve seen and expected a game about the dread of not being prepared. Signalis has all sorts of discarded items to pick up and monsters to pick off, but the parts of the game that surprised me the most were purely visual.

For most of the experience, Signalis is a third-person sci-fi game where the camera is fixed to the ceiling. You lead Elster, a combat-trained android, through increasingly labyrinthian, metallic hallways searching for her partner, Ariane. There are locked doors and keys and save rooms and puzzles. It’s all pretty standard for a survival horror game, or at least how I imagine the genre would be, because I strictly don’t play them. I think the only thing adjacent I’ve played is Dead Space 2, and even that is far more action-focused than the game’s people usually point to.

I was told Signalis was worth it and for the first hour or so, I wasn’t sure if I agreed, but then it suddenly stopped being a strictly third-person game.

Signalis swaps to first-person to let you zoom in on puzzles or things you can interact with, like an elevator. You can’t move anything but your head around to inspect things. This wasn’t what struck me—even if I thought it was a smart way to keep those moments grounded in the game world. No, what floored me is when you slot a butterfly key into a box, pick up a fleshy object, and the screen fills up with organs. It cuts again to a hexagon that you find out later is a map of the solar system and then you blink and you’re standing outside in the cold.

This entire sequence is only a few seconds long but it brought back memories of what it was like playing one of my favorite games of all time: Thirty Flights of Loving. The rhythmic cuts (with accompanying thuds) that then drop you into a completely different space are incredibly effective at shorthanding how the game plays and will play with time and space. Thirty Flights of Loving did the same thing to propel you through a spy love story, skipping days and years to get to the heart of the relationship in very little time. Signalis uses it to pull you into its world a little closer, so you can hear the wind rush past your ears as you start to explore the concrete base you’ve just been dropped into.

This short sequence has you enter a room not unlike the ones you’ve already been in but at a level of detail you couldn’t quite make out when looking down from above. It shows an entirely different discipline with the game’s level design. This place has to feel lived-in on a microscopic level. And from then on, every room carries the same possibility of intentionality. You are encouraged to ask yourself about why a certain enemy type is here or why this room is packed with monsters and soaked in red light. What happened here? Very few games have a logic, let alone answers, that relate to these sorts of questions about the very structure of the game in relation to its narrative, but Signalis cares very deeply about imbuing everything it can with meaning.

I love it when games, or any media, use dream logic to stretch your imagination. I wouldn’t be so obsessed with the Souls series and Elden Ring if I didn’t. The gap between what’s happening in front of you and what’s happening on the periphery elevates what would otherwise be a serviceable survival horror game. Signalis is a literal nightmare where the monsters you fight are both echoes of how androids are seen in this world (a manufactured labor force with repressed humanity) and symptoms of a personal conflict that’s going on in Elster’s head (or Ariane’s). This isn’t a secret, you realize what’s going on the moment you start reading emails and the game starts playing with perspective and imagery. You know very quickly that it’s metaphorical, not straightforward. So when I found myself pulled into the eyes of Elster as she walks down The Shore of Oblivion, translated into a 3D liminal space from Eugen Bracht’s original painting, it was as transfixing as seeing a creature pace in front of me.

I’m not sure what’s going on in the margins of Signalis, but these moments are so evocative and stuck in my brain that they’re satisfying enough. I don’t necessarily need a coherent narrative to piece everything together as long as it all feels like a part of the whole. It doesn’t take much to realize that Elster owes something to Ariane and she’s stuck in a loop of corridors and monsters that don’t want her to figure it out. The most hostile force isn’t the bloody androids that claw at you, it’s all the physical and metaphysical obstacles in the way of Elster’s journey to accept something she doesn’t want to do.

Any fear I had about trying to combat the genre conventions of survival horror games dissipated when it was clear those parts were simply a framework. Signalis isn’t in love with purely aping other games; it has a very distinct experience it wants you to have and it’s willing to play with the very format of the game for it to work. The horror of running out of ammo or having to reload while being chased takes a backseat to the horror of its depiction of grief and loss in a world where the identity and reality of its own protagonist is at stake. I may not be a survival horror game fan now, but I’m into everything that Signalis pulls off.

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