The Signifier is a slow-paced murder investigation game where you explore the victim’s memories, subconscious, and dreams. It’s also a tech-noir mystery that asks some serious questions about how technology affects our minds and shapes our reality.

Since weird investigation games are my jam, I went online to speak with David Fenner, the creative director of The Signifier, over at Playmestudio. He walked me through a vertical slice of the game, parts of which you can see in this walkthrough video.

The Reality of the Situation

In The Signifier, you play as Frederick Russell, an expert in AI and psychology, and the leading researcher behind an experimental deep brain scanner called the Dreamwalker. Your research is funded by a giant tech company called Go-AT, and when one of its VPs turns up dead, you’re coerced into investigating her murder using the Dreamwalker.

Your investigation takes place in three parallel dimensions: the real world, the objective memory, and the subjective memory. What you discover in the real world might help you figure out something in the mind space, and vice versa.

Investigate the murder of Johanna Kast

While in the real world, The Signifier plays almost like any standard first-person adventure game. You explore a location, pick up and interact with objects, and talk with the people you encounter.

In the demo, we visited the crime scene to study it and get a deeper understanding of the murder victim, Johanna Kast. Her apartment was carefully crafted by the devs to reflect her personality and tell us as much about her before we violate the privacy of her memories.

Random Access Memory

We didn’t spend much time in the real world during the demo – that’s not where the magic happens. The Signifier is at its best when you’re exploring the mindscape. At first, I was expecting something like Bloober Team’s Observer – a chaotic jumble of symbolism, twisted environments, and jumpscares. But Playmestudio chose to take a different, more elegant path.

The Signifier

In The Signifier, The mind is separated into two layers: the objective state and the subjective state. The objective state looks like a frozen, slightly distorted image of reality. You’re free to explore the immediate area, but you’ll need to unlock new memories on the victim’s “lifeline” to make any progress,

From what I’ve seen, you “process” a memory by finding missing or corrupt data and help your AI make sense of it. You do that by manipulating the data, figuring out what it is supposed to be by analyzing visual and audio clues – the ticking of a wall clock, or the shattering of glass. Once you place the data correctly, you unlock the next memory and can continue investigating.

Sometimes, this missing information isn’t just floating around – you have to dig deeper to find. That is when you need to switch over to the subjective state.

Johanna's Lifeline

A Dream Within a Dream

The subjective state is less about what the victim saw and heard, and more about how she felt. It’s an emotional, unstable state, where feelings and subconscious thought reign. Thus, it’s more surreal, more symbolic, and more visually interesting.

While you’re free to move between the objective and the subject most of the time, Fenner wanted to show me an entirely subjective memory – a dream. This section of the demo was the most visually intriguing, with everything around you in constant flux. You can use the environment’s flexibility to your advantage by solving perspective puzzles.

In the demo, we had to climb up to a ledge, but the ladder kept twisting and changing every time we tried it. We had to explore a little to find the spot from which the ladder looks relatively normal. Once we did, our AI assistance was able to lock it in place so we can climb up. It was a relatively straightforward example, and there will be more complex puzzles throughout the game.

The Signifier - subject state

Perspection, a willingness to dig deeper, and attention to the world around you are significant parts of The Signifier. According to Fenner, you can finish the game without exploring everywhere or talking with everyone. However, you might not get the full picture of what happened. Your actions, decisions, and dedication along the way will also determine the ending you’ll get. Some of these decisions are subtle, and the player might not realize they’re making them.

The Signifier is an intriguing mystery – not necessarily for the crime you investigate but also for how you investigate it. Exploring the victim’s memories, dreams, and feelings is a fascinating concept, and the questions it raises about technology and privacy are challenging, to say the least.

The game is coming out on PC on October 15, and PS4 and Xbox One in early 2021. For even more information (and to wishlist the game), check out The Signifier’s Steam page.

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