Signalis and the Art of Influence
Influence in art is a difficult thing to pin down. On one hand, many artists speak fondly of the work that influenced them, and it’s easy to see in their work, whether it’s an epigraph in the front of a novel or a “quote” in a film, a shot that is a direct recreation of a shot from a work the director is fond of. But influence is also subtle, rising subconsciously from the hundreds of works of art that artists consume and that leech into their work without their intent. Much literary criticism is based on this idea, the notion that the author is “dead” and that any arguments about a piece of art, including its similarity to another, is valid as long as it can be supported by evidence.
But rarely has a videogame made such powerful use of its influences as the 2022 survival-horror title Signalis. It wears proudly on its sleeve the media that has influenced it, and astoundingly, it carves its own new ground out of this synthesis of ideas. The developers at rose-engine understand the power of medley and remix, taking familiar elements from disparate media and combining them into a sublime new experience all their own.
We begin with the most obvious influence: that of other videogames. The majority of attention Signalis has received is as a survival-horror throwback, taking bits of Resident Evil and Silent Hill and crafting a love letter to those classics. This is true, and the game is not subtle about it. You have limited inventory space; much of the game’s background story is told in files and documents you pick up in the environment; there is a limited number of resources in the entire game; and fallen enemies will sometimes stand back up and attack you again unless you burn their bodies. All of these features are taken directly from old Resident Evil titles.
The enemies move with jerky motions and have strange proportions, and environments shift in impossible ways that speak more in metaphor than any kind of literal space, all hallmarks of the Silent Hill franchise. In Silent Hill 2, you encounter a room with walls full of pistons pumping in and out of holes, evoking the sexual trauma of the person trapped there; in Signalis, you drop down a fleshy hole on one planet and find yourself on an entirely different planet, seemingly trapped in someone else’s traumatic memories. You pick up items and use them to solve puzzles, you flick a black light on a bunch of tarot cards that you placed in a specific order because of a riddle you solved, it’s all so, so reminiscent of classic survival horror titles that, to anyone familiar with the genre, it all feels comfortable. Pedestrian, even. It fits together and makes sense because the underlying logic of the game’s design is indistinguishable from the logic that guided years of survival horror design in the 90s and 00s.
There is one unique mechanical feature in the game, a radio that your character has installed in their head that you can tune to different frequencies. Only one enemy type ever makes use of it, and although those encounters are tense and interesting, there are only a handful of them in the entire game. Mostly the radio offers a slightly different axis on which to solve puzzles. Activate a transmitter to send the correct radio signal to your head to get the code to a safe rather than just finding the code written down somewhere. Another layer of complication, but not one that typically adds much more than being another variant of “key” and “lock,” of “puzzle” and “solution.” A subtle remix rather than a wholesale re-imagining.
Lovecraft and Anime
Mechanics do not only exist as tools to interact with the game, though. They are aesthetic in and of themselves, supporting a certain mood by regulating the way you interact with the fictional world in which you find yourself.
That world has its own influences. The quote that appears in the options screen and several times throughout the game (“Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learned to walk that ought to crawl.”) is from a lesser-known H.P. Lovecraft story called “The Festival,” and just after Signalis’ tutorial, your character finds a copy of The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers, both authors often considered the two primary pillars of eldritch horror. Both stories return throughout the narrative, The King in Yellow especially playing a pivotal role. These influences present themselves, make themselves so obvious that their role cannot be misunderstood: They are sign and signifier that there is something very, very wrong with the world around you.
Less obvious, perhaps, are the influences of David Lynch and Dario Argento, both artists known for the kind of strange doubling of people and events that occurs in Signalis as your character finds photographs of people who look identical to others you’ve met on your journey. The game is dripping with Hideaki Anno’s Neon Genesis Evangelion and the work of Mamoru Oshii, some Ghost in the Shell but especially his most surreal film, Angel’s Egg, a film which understands the ways in which mood can push a story forward in more ways than strict linear narrative.
These anime influences are most obvious in the way Signalis expresses its narrative. Outside of the files and notes, the story of Signalis is delivered in disjointed images placed next to one another and in screens filled starkly with bold reds, whites, and blacks. Text appears onscreen unattributed to any character despite clearly being dialogue. A real-life broadcast from a numbers station—radio towers transmitting coded messages for purposes of espionage during the Cold War—plays over and over again in the game, taking on its own meaning and attributions even though in real life the broadcast is functionally meaningless, any potential recipient long dead or out of action.
And then there are the science fiction influences. Your character is a Replika, an android whose programming is based on a neural copy of a real human made long ago through a poorly understood technology called Bioresonance. Old wants, likes, and dislikes of that original personality bleed through in something akin to Altered Carbon, and much of the narrative’s doubling occurs as a result. The fascistic Nation you find yourself serving—a space-autocracy if there ever was one—reeks of hundreds of “federations” or “empires” across dozens of works of science fiction. It has smothered the life out of people and treats Replikas, who are essentially human because they are copies of humans, as fodder to be churned through in a never ending hunt for expansion. It churns through humans, also called Gestalt, the same way. It’s fascist. Of course it does. The trappings of the setting are as familiar as the mechanics of the survival-horror.
Something Old, Something New
So far, Signalis proves a mishmash of other well-developed ideas. How much fruitful ground is actually here to be found? Perhaps in the story itself, which begins with your character, Elster, waking up from hyper sleep and finding that your shuttle has crashed and your pilot, the only other person on the ship, is missing. You set out to find her and discover a mining station called Sierpinski-23 where something has gone very wrong. There is something in the ground (“Great holes secretly are digged” and all that) and it’s turning people into monsters. Fight the monsters. Find your pilot. Simple in premise, but it is merely the bedrock upon which everything else can stand.
Signalis wallpapers its house with all of its influences, but the glue is original. In combining all of these elements, it squeezes novelty out of familiarity. Yes, we’ve seen themes of memory and identity arise in other stories about androids, but when they’re placed on top of a mechanical experience that is so familiar, Signalis becomes a meta-text whose mechanics embody its themes by the sheer fact that they are homage. It carries the memories and impressions of its predecessors, but it is not them, just as Elster is not the person she is a copy of no matter what bleeds through. The eerieness of characters having doppelgangers is right at home in the profound atmosphere of eldritch horror that the game cultivates. And elsewhere, by placing fascism and eldritch horror not only as dual antagonists, but as things that are in tension with each other, a new dynamic arises in which a third element is required to balance them out and prevent the narrative from becoming depressingly bleak. That element is love, the organizing principle that pushes Signalis beyond merely being an homage to its influences.
Love drives Elster to seek out her missing pilot, Ariane. The exact nature of this love is unclear, but it is clearly love from the beginning. As the game goes on, it becomes obvious that Elster has been through a lot for Ariane, and goes through even more over the course of the game. Other characters on Sierpinski-23 are searching for loved ones, or are corrupted by their twisted devotion to their hierarchy, or are aching to join their comrades in whatever eldritch infection is destroying them just so they can be part of their community again. These loves, distorted by fascism and the terrible influence of an unknowable eldritch entity, serve to contrast Elster’s love, which is pure and indomitable. She made a promise to Ariane, and she intends to keep it no matter what. Corrupt officials and huge, subsuming masses of flesh won’t stop her.
Here, Signalis becomes beautiful. So many stories of eldritch horror titillate and horrify, and some even ache with a kind of cold, distant beauty. But as eldritch horror has been reimagined in the 21st century, works that incorporate it often find new elements to deepen and widen its potential meaning. Lovecraft Country does it with race, the Arkham Files novels do it with 50s adventure pulp, and Signalis does it with love. It explores love from such an oblique angle that it casts it in a new light. Even here, among all of this, among the fascism and the horror, among the blood and the monsters and the total loss of oneself to a maddening landscape of impossible, endless red, love prevails.
And it’s a love that’s shown through dance, through repeated memories, none of which are clearly true or clearly false, through the determination to push through failure and the excavation of your lover’s past as you hunt through the surreal landscapes of her childhood. It’s shown through parallels between your journey and the journeys of those around you, people who both help and harm you but are doing all they can for love. The fascist government of this world has attempted to destroy love, to choke it to death and bury its ashes under the ground. But evil lurks under the ground, and it will fill in the hole left in love’s absence if we aren’t careful. Influence, homage, and callback get Signalis far; it would be a good game with just these things because it does them all well. But the developers understand medley, and they understand remix, and they know that without a new organizing principle, without a reason to use all of the different pieces, and without a vision of the new whole that all of the parts could combine to form, nothing great will come of it.
They have that organizing principle, that reason, that vision. The love does not end at the edges of the game. The creators clearly love the media that influenced Signalis. Love is the answer all the way to the beginning. It’s the thing that makes Signalis ache in a way all its own, and what a gorgeous ache it is.
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