I’ve brought it up a couple times already, but I just cannot seem to get Signalis out of my head lately. It’s not so much because of its gameplay though. Classically good as its systems and mechanics are, I found myself much more spellbound by everything surrounding it: the artwork, the atmosphere, the characters, the music and particularly the story and themes at play.
It’s all minimally presented and done in a way that leaves it all very open to interpretation, and yet it’s struck more powerfully than almost anything else I’ve played in the last couple of years. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve had something affect m like this since GRIS or NieR: Automata. It’s that strong! Seriously, if you haven’t played Signalis yet, stop reading this and go check it out! I’m not going to be spoiling anything here (or at least I’ll try not to), but you owe it to yourself to experience this game as freshly as possible.
Okay, so I don’t want to spoil the exact details of what all goes on in Signalis or what sorts of things happen that evoke such strong feelings. I’d hate to rob anyone of that. So, instead I’ll focus on the themes at play and how the gameplay is used to enhance and express them. To start, I think what’ll strike most players first is just how desolate devoid of life the world of Signalis is. I mean, the present situation in the game is hellish and terrible, but, strangely, it doesn’t seem all that much worse than the normal state of things. Certainly it’s more dangerous, but otherwise seemingly not all that different from the world’s normal bleak and hopeless state.
What I mean to say is that the world players are presented with is one in which humans do not seem to have any inherent value as individuals. Everyone exists solely for the use (and often) exploitation of the State, and are thus no more or less disposable than any other tool. Children have no special bond with their parents. Minor infractions are punished horribly, and some are even denied the rest and dignity of death; their consciousness’ harvested and copied in order to be further exploited by the State whose iron fist they’re living under. It evokes the worst of Nazi German and Soviet Russian excesses, and you can help but burn with anger at the cruel injustice of it all.
As you play and see example after example of good people used up, destroyed, twisted or perverted by this State, you find yourself searching for some kind of bright spot within all of the horror. Signalis does provide this, and does so in ways both subtle and overt. We get glimpses of cozy spots buried within it all, and encounter characters that still somehow manage to remain bright, good and caring despite it all. They’re all wonderful little respites in this sad world, but are ultimately unable to resist it. Be it the current disaster, the State or the culture its fostered, all of these bright spots are in the end extinguished all the same. It might sound terrible, and it is, but that just makes them burn all the brighter in your mind.
It fuels the desire to learn more about this place, about its people and evokes a yearning to see the pockets of hope and resistance rewarded with success and happiness. I won’t say whether or not such is delivered by the time the credits roll, but I will say that the feelings it evokes are quite powerful. In many ways, it’s very much similar to what NeiR: Automata evokes in its players. But where that game does so overtly with dialog and cutscenes, Signalis does so minimally through striking imagery and music. It’s hard to describe without getting too into the details, but I’ll try.
In terms of imagery, I don’t think any other word besides “striking” really fits. Thanks to Signalis’ early PS1 aesthetic, the times it breaks from that are all the more impactful. Even more so, it uses imagery of high contrast that is highly symbolic in everything from framing to facial expressions to character poses and so on. If you’ve ever seen any classical artwork, are at all familiar with religious motifs or perhaps even just watched something like Neon Genesis Evangelion, you will immediately be struck by the significance behind how these flashes are presented.
Heck, even the typography has weight to it! Even innocuous images have weight to them thanks to the ideas and contrasts they’re presenting. Seriously, every frame of Signalis’ brief cutscenes (and scenery, etc.) is absolutely packed with meaning. It’s all too easy to fall down rabbit holes of thought and get caught up in it all. And that’s without the music putting big, bold exclamation points on everything.
There’s not exactly a constant soundtrack in Signalis. There’s light ambiance while exploring and creepy themes when dealing with enemies, but the game is largely quiet. When an important location is entered though or a particularly important cutscene is playing, the music is there to give it thta extra “oomph.” And boy does it succeed.
Did you watch the video? If not, take a minute and check it out. It’s brief, I promise. …Okay. Now, think for a moment about what you felt and thought about while watching/listening to that. What sorts of thoughts/ideas did it evoke in you? What were you feeling throughout? How about at the end? Perhaps it felt kind of heavy? Maybe a bit somber or melancholy? This is something that Signalis does on the regular all throughout its runtime. It uses its music sparingly, but when it does use it, it hits hard and does so with a specific purpose in mind. Whatever it evokes in you might be different from what it brought out in me, but I’m certain it’ll still linger even after you’ve put the game down for the day.
Perhaps someday I’ll do a post talking about the particulars of Signalis, but for now I’m kind of hoping this will be enough to convince you to try it first. It’s a much more powerful gaming experience than you’d expect. Heck, it was much, much stronger than I thought a game with PS1-esque visuals was capable of being. Yet, here I am a week out from finishing it STILL mulling it over and finding excuses to talk about it. In short, Signalis is a game that will absolutely hit you in the feels, and it’s absolutely worth taking that hit. Seriously, give it a try!
Have you played Signalis? What did you think of it? What games have smacked you with the feels over the years?
Image is a screenshot taken from gameplay