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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Signalis’ is an artful throwback to old-school survival horror

The game draws on 19th-century paintings, David Lynch and the halcyon days of playing the original ‘Resident Evil 2’

(Washington Post illustration; Humble Bundle)

Signalis

Available on: PC, Xbox Series X and Series S, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch

Developer: rose-engine | Publisher: Humble Games, PLAYISM

Release: Oct. 27, 2022

This review contains spoilers for “Signalis.”

“You will be able to dream yourself into the world of dark shadows.”

In 1880, the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin promised this much to Marie Berna, who had requested a monument to her late husband. Berna wanted something “to dream by.” Böcklin, in turn, painted the second version of “Isle of the Dead,” an eerie seascape in which a small boat ferries two indistinct voyagers — a woman and an upright statuesque figure, or perhaps a coffin — toward a small island. Dramatic and desolate, the island’s grounds are a crush of cypress trees, tombs and darkness. Böcklin ultimately painted six versions of this image, as if seized by his own sorcery.

“Isle of the Dead” has since seized countless others. It supplied, for instance, the title and setting for a 1945 Val Lewton horror film, in which a paranoid Boris Karloff speaks gravely of an eldritch force infiltrating human minds at night. Now, in its latest migration, Böcklin’s island has resurfaced in “Signalis,” a new sci-fi survival horror video game that is also distinguished by anime-inflected character designs and lo-fi visuals that recall the graphics of the first PlayStation console.

In one of the game’s collectible notes, a diarist has sketched the painting; he fears it may be attacking his mind. Later in the game, many “Isle of the Dead” variations blossom within a rapid-fire Kubrick-esque montage, where they are set alongside glimpses of “The Shore of Oblivion,” another ghostly image, created by the German landscape painter Eugen Bracht. At all points in the game, Böcklin’s island stands in for an otherworldly threshold — the gate to the afterlife, or to the waking life. After all, “Signalis” proposes that existence is conjured up in a dream. But as David Lynch — another of the game’s sources of inspiration — has queried, “Who is the dreamer?”

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Let’s consider a more manageable question: Who is the protagonist of “Signalis?” That would be Elster, a morose android, or Ship Technician Replika, per the game’s jargon-heavy script. At the start of the game, she is roused from cryogenic sleep, right after an unattributed line of fleeting on-screen text: “Wake Up.” Blink and you’ll miss other oracular transmissions, like German dialogue spliced into cutscenes, or red-suffused visions of white-haired wraiths. Missing things — peers, memories, meanings — are crucial to the game’s maddeningly oblique storytelling style.

Elster rises up out of her cryostasis pod. She’s framed through the game’s top-down, third-person camera. The initial setting: a crashed space vessel, where Elster had apparently been assisting the human (or Gestalt) pilot, Ariane Yeong, who is nowhere to be found. Both Ariane and Elster are in the employ of the Eusan Nation, an interplanetary and totalitarian government with a sinister rap sheet. The Eusan regime orchestrates brutal interrogations, wages war against other nations and enforces absurd points of decorum.

In a dreamlike leap, everything changes. Elster is now standing amid the Brutalist architecture of S-23 Sierpinski, a shadow-strewn facility on the planet Leng. The facility, managed by the Eusan Nation, comprises a labor camp, a reeducation program and a subterranean mining operation. The odyssey proper begins here — or, given the game’s nods to inescapable cycles, begins again.

The player directs Elster through many of S-23’s claustrophobic rooms and corridors, which are overrun with knife-toting Replikas and other infected enemies. Elster can strike at these fast-moving assailants with electric batons, or otherwise gun them down, providing the player hastily steadies the red laser sight. If death seems imminent, Elster can try to escape into another room, albeit while hobbling forward with her arm cradling her torso, like all great survival horror heroes.

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After an enemy collapses, Elster can still their writhing with a swift kick. Yet they will eventually rise again unless you ignite their corpses with a thermite flare, a nod to the Crimson Head enemies of Resident Evil. When an enemy is so immolated, Elster can stand vigil over the fuchsia-tinged sparks. It’s a macabre respite from S-23’s drab interiors, but a respite all the same. In “Signalis,” everything counts in small amounts. One hoards resources, scarce as they are, but also visual pleasures.

“Something was unearthed,” announces a deliberately glitchy line of cutscene text, which hints at some cosmic horror. Evidently, something else has also been unearthed: the sensibilities of old-school survival horror. Elster avails herself of save rooms; per genre conventions, they have a strict no-zombies policy. While “Signalis” does not automatically save progress, one can manually do so in these rooms. The player can also activate tank controls through an optional setting.

Similarly familiar are the chests found in the save rooms. Items can be stored there, or otherwise retrieved and slotted into Elster’s arsenal, which can only accommodate six objects at a time. “Signalis” muses at length on dreams, but its greatest fascinations are these nostalgic qualities. For some players, the game will summon to mind the halcyon days of playing the original PS1 version of “Resident Evil 2” in the late ’90s, or even its miraculously faithful replica on the Nintendo 64.

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“Signalis” is itself something of a faithful replica, an acolyte in thrall to an old — and supposedly antiquated — master. But the game finds the classic survival horror genre in fine health. Survival horror still compels in part because it turns bugs into features (and man — or machine — into zombies). Action franchises like “Uncharted” thrive on fluidity and cannot tolerate much sluggishness; survival horror makes a virtue of awkwardness. If players wrestle with the laser sight, or clumsily manage their inventory slots, all the better.

It boils down to a vibe both hazy and precise. One thinks of Jerry Seinfeld straining to describe the enduring appeal of riding in horse-drawn cabs: “People love it. There’s something about the clip-clop, clip-clop.” Survival horror, too, is about irrational affinities. This is a genre enlivened by semi-redundant descriptive messages. (“An old-fashioned lamp is sitting on the table” is one of Elster’s context-dependent observations.) In this manner, ordinary objects are granted the dignity of museum plaques.

Convoluted puzzles are another indispensable ingredient. At one point, Elster must slide rings onto the fingers of a deceased empress, which recalls those lovely “Wait, what am I doing?” tasks from past “Resident Evil” games. What’s more, there’s something about the hero’s footfall — or in this case, the sounds of stilts, as Elster’s design forgoes humanoid feet — and the labyrinths, the dead and lived-in spaces, the clamor of doors.

In the end, the story of “Signalis” is not as exciting as these facets of atmosphere and gameplay, but the narrative experimentation is refreshing, as is the game’s sci-fi strangeness. The notes strewn about S-23 explain that a malady was brought up from the facility’s mines. (This accounts for the game’s “zombies”). Players learn that Replikas are based on neural data derived from humans; the infection roils the sediment, so to speak, drawing out vestigial traces of that data. Infected Gestalt quickly pass away. Replikas degenerate physically and mentally. In other words, the android personnel at S-23 were undone by a contagious existential crisis.

“The red eye beyond the gate showed me,” reads the diary of patient zero, a high-ranking Replika at S-23. “It feels like my mind has been contaminated, defiled, by another person’s memory.”

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On a dryly thematic level, the disaster at S-23 works as a satire of oppressive modes of governance. The Eusan regime’s bid to rewrite the minds and bodies of their citizenry has backfired spectacularly. The disaster also brings to mind Elster’s radio module, which the player uses to tune in to different frequencies to generate data, interact with the facility’s doodads and generally aid in the solving of puzzles. But this module does not explain the errant signals in the cutscenes, in which Elster witnesses fragments of Gestalt lives and faint signs of some flesh-bound dreamer. What’s really going on? “Signalis” asks players to figure it out on their own. In theory, that sounds agreeable. But in practice, the game’s morsels of narrative are insufficient for the task, at least on a first play-through.

Then again, the boundaries of a first play-through are not clearly defined. This review is mainly commenting on the journey to the first ending, a fatalistic cutscene that intrigues in its own right. That cutscene precedes a version of the end credits, the word “End” and the return of the title screen. The game, in other words, goes to great lengths to frame this cutscene as the actual conclusion.

Indeed, I mistook it as such. But I later realized — alas, after the publication of this review — that another section can be discovered. This final chapter, which I have since completed, is of a piece with the rest of “Signalis.” Cast across its few hours of gameplay are old and new shadow worlds, and more enigmas by which to dream. There are additional puzzles and combat encounters, a thrillingly weird boss fight with an anguished foe and story revelations that clarify — and confuse — matters. Players are assigned one of several valedictory cutscenes (this time for real). In my case, this conclusion was suitably moving but not as dizzying as the first ending. In all cases, players will find ample room for interpretation.

In engaging with the story’s opaque and contradictory surfaces, one may flail about, tentatively reaching for this or that hypothesis. But if the game wants to get nuts, let’s get nuts. Maybe Ariane is somehow adrift in her own dream, in which her subconscious is drawing from the tyranny of the Eusan regime and from Ariane’s personal torments, which are adumbrated in notes and cutscenes. Elster may be a dreamed-up figment after all, a conduit for Ariane’s vague psychic baggage, whereas Ariane may herself be subject to the dreams of a less discernible entity (“the red eye beyond the gate”). These speculations are informed by my original play-through, and that delusive first ending; the subsequent endings prompt other imaginings. In any event, Elster and Ariane seem to be searching for each other, and for some mystical escape hatch — a means of jettisoning their dismal surroundings. They do not wish to die, but they long to see beyond the veil, and to answer at last some dimly perceived wake-up call.

M.D. Rodrigues is a freelance writer based in Canada. He has also written for the Hedgehog Review, the Los Angeles Times, the Economist’s Prospero blog and other outlets.

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