The Signifier is a smart sci-fi murder mystery with some of the best surreal visuals out there, but will leave you clueless if you don’t pay attention.

It’s not every day you get to explore the mind of a murder victim (hopefully). To sift through their memories, subconscious, and trauma for the smallest of clues that might solve their death. That is precisely what you do in The Signifier, a new tech-noir thriller – to great effect.

A Layered Narrative

The Signifier casts you as Frederick Russell, an expert in AI and psychology. Russell has invented a device that lets him scan and then explore a person’s memories. Unfortunately for him, two competing powers are coming after his new technology. He must choose who to help, if at all.

Who you choose to confide in and what you decide to tell them matters. It might influence what resources you get, who has your back, and what information you become privy to. But the best thing about these choices is that almost every one of them feels like a serious moral dilemma.

But all that stuff is actually happening in the background. While it does affect the story, it’s not your focus. Your main focus is investigating the murder of a higher-up in the world’s leading tech company.

The Signifier review

The Signifier is essentially a murder mystery where you search for clues, interrogate people, and try to reach the hidden truth. But you won’t necessarily get to that truth, which is one of the things I love most about this game.

The story has layers, and you have to be very thorough if you want to dig through them all. I personally don’t feel like I’ve cracked the full story on my first go, and you can be sure I’ll be delving back into the mystery soon to see if I can figure it all out.

Into the Mind

Just like the story, the spaces you explore also have layers.

First, you have the real world, which is mostly as dull as real life. There are only a handful of real-world locations to explore, all fairly limited in their scope. Some of them hold secrets vital to your investigation, but you won’t spend a lot of time in each one. Which is fortunate because The Signifier is at its very best when you’re exploring the victim’s digitized mindscape.

The Signifier has some very visually impressive (and often disturbing) environments

From the real world, you delve into a sort of VR representation of a memory. When you just start the game, these spaces seem oddly normal, with only the occasional glitch or missing data. That is because you first get to experience what the game calls the “objective state” – a representation of only the visual and auditory data. But as you dig deeper, you’ll find yourself in the “subjective state,” where the real fun begins.

While the objective state is more-or-less true to reality, the subjective state is twisted by the subconscious. This results in some very visually impressive (and often disturbing) environments. Walking through these surreal locations while trying to understand what everything represents can get confusing real fast. Though, I’m pretty sure that’s on purpose. You won’t get lost or anything, but figuring out what it all means is a challenge all by itself.

Dream Logic

Admittedly, figuring out what’s going on is where most of the game’s challenge is. The Signifier isn’t about banging your head against an obstacle until a solution pops up – it’s about the mystery, the tech, and the morality of it all.

That’s not to say there aren’t any puzzles, though. The few you’ll encounter are pretty clever. Some require you to “think outside the box” or quite literally change your point of view, but they all have one thing in common – they all need you to pay attention.

The Raw Data puzzles are a great example. From time to time, you come across a corrupted bit of data floating around, and you can grab and manipulate it to try and decide where it needs to go. It could be the clock you noticed in the real world but is missing from the memory, or something way more abstract. The game won’t tell you when and where to use this data, but all the information is usually there for you to piece together.

More often than not, the solution won’t be in front of your face. You’ll have to travel between all three layers – the real world, the objective state, and the subjective state – to find what you’re looking for. You can even jump between memories on the victim’s timeline to reexamine a scene with the new information you gathered. Not all of them will be open to you from the get-go, but the more you explore and the more you solve, the more access you’ll unlock.

The puzzles train you to pay attention to your surroundings

I love how every mechanic in The Signifier trains you to pay attention to your surrounding. But the game never spoon-feeds you, so it’s really up to you and your sleuthing skills. You can play through the game, miss a clue here, a clue there, and still get to the end. The gameplay doesn’t stop you from progressing; instead, it just hides layers of information from you.

This Is Not a Pipe

However, that is also the game’s weakness. You can solve every puzzle and still not fully understand what happened. And it could be frustrating, especially if you thought you were on the right track. The game’s fragmented structure doesn’t help, either.

The more curious among you might opt to play through The Signifier again and try a new path, but I suspect most will just shrug and move on.

The Signifier review

The Signifier is a game that asks you to think and really pay attention to what you’re doing. The story, and how it unfolds with every decision you make, is the real star here. The dreamlike visuals also do a lot of the heavy lifting and will draw you deeper and deeper.

Fans of the true crime subgenre, investigation, and psychological thrillers will enjoy this game, but also those who appreciate the surreal or a good mystery. If that’s you, then take the time to play The Signifier – I bet it’ll be an experience you remember.

Developer: Playmestudio

Publisher: Raw Fury

Release Date: Oct. 15, 2020

Genre: Adventure

Available On: PC

Reviewed On: PC

Our The Signifier review copy was provided by the publisher.

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