Signalis and the Art of Influence

Signalis, the survival-horror videogame.

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

I wear no mask

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.

The King in Yellow
The King in Yellow in Signalis.

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.

Neon Genesis Evangelion.

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.

Ariane and Elster
Elster and Ariane. Art by ordicanary.

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.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Writer and teacher based in Indianapolis. Obsessed with existential videogames and the live-action Scooby-Doo movie. Looking for ideas in all the wrong places.
Edited by Sunni Rashad.

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  1. What if the Ariane we meet at the end of the game is not actually Ariane but Alina that, since we know that in Alina’s notes her hair turned white and she looked very similiar to Arianne, also noting the fact that Arianne’s memories might have transfered to Alina in A wish to be her while she was dying. Also In one of the endings Arianne is not able to recognise the elster unit. So maybe Elster never meets Arianne but Alina.

    • I’d call that a stretch myself but the devs have made it clear that there isn’t a true ending. They wanted people to do exactly what you’re doing, hence why so much of the story is left out.

  2. Great article on this game. It’s about two people exploited and thrown away by an uncaring society.

  3. Signalis is such a magical game, having lost someone I loved dearly at a young age my memory of her began to blur as I’ve gotten older which this game reflects so very well as Elster looks so desperately for Ariane and she “remembers” things about her.

    The core memories however are absolutely unbreakable. The phrase Elster keeps hearing as she tours this nightmarish horror show “remember our promise” always hits so deep. There exists the promise that Elster made and she has to be able to keep it and find Ariane. I haven’t seen a better intro to a video game before either, It begins so normal and standard for survival horror then you get a photograph that perplexes you- then you find a literal hole in the ground, another hole that leads to a retro looking room with a copy of the king in yellow on the desk- it’s so damned odd and I love it.

    The rendition of Chopin’s raindrops while you hear Ariane repeat the same numbers while you see the Elster unit slowly rot. The people who designed this game are on the same par as some of the greats. In an effort to avoid spoilers because it’s important to learn the game yourself and interpret it yourself it’s so important that one does.

  4. The game is so friggin’ good…

    • I know right. It’s a probably gonna be one of my regular Christmas vacation games from here on out.

      • I was gonna dungeon master a tabletop one-off over a spring vacation and I was gonna do a Silent Hill, in space! I was gonna use android, cyberpunk cyborg, and regular human as stand-ins for the usual fantasy races. Signalis is literally everything I was thinking of just done far, FAR, better.

  5. Kassandra

    This isn’t a horror game but a really well made romantic tragedy. I wish rose engine made another game in this universe.

  6. I am glad I could play this phenomenal game completely in german and understand all the little flashes of german text. I was able to understand the heart of it all on my first playthrough.

  7. Which references did you all pick up from playing this game? Maybe beside the obvious Evangelion.

    • Mister Diaz

      Another possible reference actually might be to the NieR game series. The first NieR game has two versions, NieR: Gestalt and NieR: Replicant. (If you haven’t already and want to start playing the NieR series, I recommend playing the remake of NieR: Replicant first, and then going straight to NieR: Automata. Replicant and Gestalt basically have the same story but in Gestalt you play as a father taking care of his daughter while in Replicant you play as a brother taking care of his younger sister.) Furthermore, in the NieR universe human souls are called Gestalts while Replicants are cloned human bodies. This mirrors how in Signalis Gestalts are humans while Replikas are basically human copies. Something a bit more obvious as well is that in NieR: Automata you literally play as an android but that could easily just be a coincidence.

    • Finally, IMO, Signalis takes all influences, combines then in a way that is thematically consistent AND introduces it’s own original work into the mix (MINOR SPOILERS) such as Replikas being ‘coplies’ of humans, reproduced over and over. I’ve never seen this before, and it’s a delicious recreation of corporate cyberpunk hell future which is starting to become tired for me now.

    • The homages to Evangelion were too much, even scenes were straight ripped from The End of Evangelion, including one of the endings. What I liked the most was the art direction and that was straight up copied from Eva, I cant praise something thats so based on something else that almost lacks own identity.

  8. Yay, another amazingly written game that makes me feel depressed, and that I’ll keep thinking about for the next month.

  9. Beatrix Kondo

    This piece fascinates me because it emphasizes the intricate nature of influence in art and how it affects artists’ creative processes. Particularly noteworthy are the notions of the author being “dead” and the emphasis on the veracity of arguments backed up by facts. Video game Signalis serves as a shining example of how well-integrated influences from many sources may provide gamers a fresh and original experience. The game’s creators appear to have a profound understanding of how to use medleys and remixes to create something novel out of the ordinary. The future of art and how artists might employ influences to create new works that transcend the limitations of conventional mediums are some of the intriguing questions it poses.

  10. This is gorgeous prose, but it’s also well-researched and astute. Thank you; I’ll be thinking about this for awhile.

  11. I really enjoyed Signalis. Great sound design and atmosphere.

  12. Leo Best

    Playing this now. I love the extremely limited inventory since it forces you to make decisions about what you carry.

    • Yes! Just wanted to note as well that the 6 item inventory limit is perfect… and the game focuses more on challenge than what is convenient/easier/”best” for the player.

  13. I couldn’t stop thinking about this game for a whole week.

  14. Rylie Yu

    Lovely article. I love reading peoples analysis about Signalis; it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what other people think, and it helps me further hash out the specifics of how I personally see the game.

    Upon reflection, it probably says something about me that my personal reading of the game is bleak.

    In my reading, Ariane put herself in stasis and drifted through space until somehow, through some combination of her staggering bioresonant power and cosmic coincidence, she managed to unconsciously interface with the song of the spheres so fully that she polluted it. The Penrose-512 never actually crashed beyond the reaches of the Eusan nation. Reality simply…decayed, until it found itself back in the solar system where it started. That’s when the cycles began. They weren’t so bad, at first. Just…a sense of deja vu; the vague notion that things are oddly familiar when you could swear it’s the first time something has happened. The more cycles passed, the more things deteriorated. People, places, and events began bleeding into times and spaces they don’t belong. Isa was never on the Sierpinski station, but Ariane’s memory of her drags her to somewhere she never should have been. Those caught in these cycles were put under greater and greater bioresonant strain over time. Every other Gestalt save Isa, by the time of the game, has been reduced to a lingering shadow by this inexorable force, and most Replikas are rendered insensate things.

    This is because in Signalis, we only ever get to see two cycles. In the first, we see how the decay of reality that stems from Ariane’s human limitations being woven into the song of the spheres affects those caught in its grasp. It all appears to be horrific on the surface, but once we arrive in Nowhere, we see the true extent of the cancer that has been festering through the countless cycles that have already occurred. Then comes the fake ending. The cycle begins anew, but as the cancer metastasizes, whatever mechanism was wiping the slate clean up until then finally fails entirely.

    I saw Adler as the only person in the story with any semblance of true clarity. The line that was most key to my reading came from him: “It’s like everything was taken apart and put back together by someone who doesn’t understand how it works.” When I read that line, I think, “How could any person understand how the universe works? Of course it’s all falling apart.” Unfortunately for him, he was just one cog in a vast machine, with no power or position to change any outcome for long. He could see a glimpse of what was coming, but he never had any agency in this story. Maybe someone else could have changed things, but they were all too focused on their own problems to look up and see that they’re just following their own footsteps in circles.

    The regular endings, then, are all things that have occurred before, even the fake ending. They are the places that Elster’s obsession and Ariane’s influence over reality meet and cause the record to skip. Elster destroys herself trying to reach the Penrose, only for the next Elster to pass her corpse as she proves herself more resilient. Elster leaves Ariane, the pain too much, but the next Elster might be able to shoulder that pain. Elster lies down by an Ariane who doesn’t remember her and dies, or strangles Ariane and dies, and the final Elster scavenges the body for parts.

    In my eyes, it doesn’t truly matter which of these endings is reached. It’s just how the final iteration concludes before everything is enveloped in a repulsive, pulsating stasis.

    Perhaps the worst tragedy of Signalis is that Elster would do anything for Ariane–but the one thing she could have done that wouldn’t further the suffering was something she only might have managed if she wasn’t so caught up in her obsession.

  15. As a huge Evangelion and sienen manga/anime fan. It’s interesting because it almost uses so many references that it IS nothing without them, Which creates its unique identity. Since the game mechanically feels like a reference (RE/SH games) the visual references come off as extensions of that same ideal so it becomes less intrusive on the original works.

  16. KelvinTImeline

    I’m not familiar with this game, but I love a good piece about video games.

  17. If you never watched Evangelion you will think that Signalis invented the concept, because it gives the feeling that it is something 100% original.

  18. Alright you’ve sold me on this.

  19. This game was indeed a MASTERPIECE. I’d love to play more games from Rose-Engine in the future.

  20. This game is the only game in a very very long time to make me actually smile as I played it, my favorite horror game of all time, and it has my favorite soundtrack of any game I’ve played. I loved this game.

  21. I was very confused by all of the details and contradictions SIGNALIS gave me by the end of the story, but I think what’s so great about the game is that they presented all of these non-sensical and dreamlike moments in a way that makes Elster’s love for Ariane unavoidably clear.

  22. Allison

    Signalis! You know, I’m not sure if this is adding anything at all, but I just got this weird idea that this kinda reminds me of the cycle of karma/suffering in Hinduism and Buddhism? Basically it goes we’re all trapped in a cycle of suffering, characterized by reincarnation, living, dying, reincarnation. We’re trapped in a cycle of existence in the material plane and the suffering that comes with it, and only when one reaches spiritual enlightenment (Nirvana) can one be released from it and go to heaven. So the Lily ending of the game is reaaaally making me wonder some things related to that idea.

  23. This is perhaps the first game i’ve played which is so loaded with metaphorical imagery, meaning beyond the surface and genuinely important and profound messages, all the while still being an amazing game mechanically.

  24. My journey with this game started when I was going to at first play The Witcher 3, in which I just couldn’t get in.

    I decided that I want some “small” games for in between.

    Well, now here I’m, quite shocked at how much depth this game provides. It has fully fulfilled my Outer Wilds itch and let’s me for sake even question my gaming attitude.

  25. This game will stay with me for a very long time.

  26. Well I wanted Signalis to be great, but it ended up being a disappointment for myself personally.

  27. I think I had a very particular and unique mind-fuck when it comes to this game. My name is Isa. When I first met the character Isa, I thought her name was a bit out of place, since it’s an Islamic name. I thought for a second that the game had somehow looked at files on my computer and named the character that just to fuck with me. In hindsight, that’s a dumb assumption, especially since Isa is not even the username on my computer, but I still had to double check the wiki to make sure the character was actually called Isa. Also, when it was revealed that Isa’s surname is Itou, that was another mindfuck, since Isa Ito is a pseudonym I use online.

  28. Elizabeth

    Ariane and Elster really deserve some semblance of a happy ending.

  29. The weird cuts to a colored screen in the game with black bars to me feels very reminiscent of how the Monogatari anime series does stuff.

  30. I was thinking this was going to be sad sure, it’s a survival horror game, but usually it’s just “oh no zombie apocalypse has ended the world” but this is just purely sad, there’s no good, no matter what you do, there is no good. Now I’m just super depressed.

  31. I finished the game today. Although I have enjoyed the gameplay very much I can’t say the same about the story in the slightest, or at least the storytelling. I’m the type of person that likes to fill the gaps using the brain instead of having it explained by the medium itself but this game… omg, all it did was raising questions and never answered a single one to the point where I lost track of what I was interested in and just kept playing till the end.

    • I played through the entire game, and liked it, but got none of the story.

  32. Liberty

    I am going to buy this game right now.

  33. I want to play this game so much and experience it.

  34. I think this game’s biggest failure is that it is the art direction. I see what they were trying to do, but having such a dark tone with a camera angle where you already lose so much of the environment makes for a very confusing setting.

    And it’s a shame because it’s a beautifully realized world, the only problem is that it requires you to squint. There should be more contrast and the lit areas should be fully lit, allowing players to see. I had my brightness so high up that I couldn’t see my menu lettering, and still I couldn’t discern aspects of the environment.

  35. I beat this game on release day and got the promise ending. I just spent 1.5 days getting the other endings and I think it’s the best game that’s come out in a long time. That’s coming from someone who doesn’t even particularly like survival horror games.

  36. I really enjoyed your perspective on how Signalis portrays love, especially the inclusion of other characters in the game, not just Ariane and Elster. I recently played Signalis for the first time and was immediately gripped by how the gamed shows the relationships between the characters. Though I understand how love can be shown as something so precious that it transcends the madness of their world, it seemed to me that love was actually causing all of the problems in Signalis. Specifically, Elster’s one-track focus with Ariane and fulfilling their promise leading to the destruction of the world around them. After all, the Elster that is controlled by the player is not the original Elster that Ariane fell in love with. The old memories shown in cutscenes are used to keep Elster driven towards reuniting with Ariane and ending her suffering, making their relationship seem less like love and more like an obsession.

    In any case, I love how open-ended Signalis is because of the different interpretations it allows. I’m not a fan of survival horror games, but the experience of Signalis was so gripping and singular that it is hard not to fall in love with it. Thank you for the interesting read!

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