Grief can be unexplainable. I lost my grandfather a few years ago, and after his cremation, my family and I went back to his house and argued a bit about who would be sleeping in his bed. The bedroom was the same as before he passed, but there seemed to be a weird hole on the side of the bed where he used to sleep. It was like a shadow hovering just above the sheets. He was both there and not, and it was tough to put into words, even with others in the house.
This is the sensation that Signalis pulls off so well. The 2022 sci-fi horror game, developed by rose-engine, puts heavy and indescribable emotions into words. It uses themes from classic horror like The King in Yellow and H.P. Lovecraft to tell a wholly unique story about love, loss, totalitarianism, the power of memory, and, most importantly, the profound effects of loneliness and grief. All of this is wrapped in a familiar package, inspired by third-person PS1-era horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. While it’s currently free to play on Xbox Game Pass, it’s set to leave the service on October 31, so now is the best time to try it.
You play as Elster, a “Replika” android who wakes up from cryo-sleep on an abandoned shuttle with one thought: to find Ariane, your human partner. From the beginning of the game, it feels like something is missing. The isometric perspective adds to the feeling that something is always lurking just off-screen. And because you’re in abandoned locations with finicky electricity, the edges of your view are coated in shadow. Just out of sight might be a locked room or another Replika, most of which have degenerated into monsters. You’ll have to wander around all these facilities, uncovering the keys you need to move on and find the written logs and secrets that’ll unlock your memories.
As Elster explores the world she’s woken up in, we learn about the fascist colonialist society that is now occupying the planet and the horrible tragedy that befell them. However, the story also looks into the connections we can make, both with the souls around us and the systems that (sometimes literally) build us. Despite Elster being an android, she managed to form a bond with the human Ariane. Through looking into her partner’s backstory, she learns that even in the middle of an authoritarian state, she managed to grow close with other people and form deep relationships with banned art.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the story, although I don’t think I could’ve done it properly here anyway. Signalis is only around nine to 10 hours long if you just complete the story, but it packs so much into its relatively short runtime. This world feels expansive, despite the story taking place on a barren rock, and yet still familiar.
And that’s not even thinking about its inspirations, which Signals wears so proudly on its sleeve. Beyond its obvious roots in retro horror, complete with a restrictive inventory system, ridiculously dense puzzles, twitchy enemies, and a save menu straight out of Silent Hill, it also evokes some of the most important works from the gothic horror genre. Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow appears multiple times throughout the game, and it even begins with a quote from H.P. Lovecraft’s The Festival. It can also trace its roots to Japanese sci-fi like Ghost in the Shell and two specific classic paintings: The Shore of Oblivion by Eugen Bracht and Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin.
It’s definitely a lot, but rose-engine can somehow blend all of these anachronistic influences for something new. Sure, there are a billion stories these days about trauma and grief, and Signalis still successfully uses the images you know to create a sense of profound emptiness that I haven’t experienced in a game since Silent Hill 2.
This might not be exactly what you’re looking for this Halloween. There are a lot of kinds of horror games to play this time of year, and spooky season tends to lean more towards the fun side of the genre than the existential, eldritch side, but Signalis is absolutely worth your time. It’s one of the most genuine representations of grief and a reminder that despite the horrors of the universe, there is room for connection.
Signalis is available now on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, and PC. It’s also available on Xbox Game Pass for PC, consoles, and cloud until October 31.
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