Elden Ring is great, there’s no denying that, and love for the FromSoftware RPG is more than equalled by plaudits for God of War Ragnarok, with the big Game Awards winners predictably taking home prizes for best game and best narrative respectively. Only problem is, one of the greatest games of the year wasn’t nominated in even a single category – Signalis, the Steam horror game with shades of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, is 2022’s best sleeper hit.
When I think about what I want more from videogames, Signalis embodies almost all of those preferences and aspirations. It’s the rare combination of design, narrative, and a thematic kind of potency that feel like they come from individuals – that have heart and uniqueness, and a subjective willingness to ‘say something’ without patronising the audience – mixed with high-quality production and intuitive, enjoyable mechanics.
Signalis, in short, looks great and plays well, but that mainstream, big-studio quality never comes at the cost of identity or dramatic or aesthetic purpose. Owing to budget and other constrictions, independent or non-mainstream games seem to struggle with delivering big genre kicks – you don’t get to see the writing quality or good, characterful drama of say a Life is Strange or a Firewatch wrapped around a mechanically, or pyrotechnically, ambitious FPS or open-world game.
I think it’s what we used to call ‘AA’ as opposed to ‘AAA’ games, idiosyncratic ideas or stories, but channelled through reliable, playable, and often spectacular genre tropes. It’s as if that classification of videogame has all but died out. Signalis feels like the rare survivor.
But to talk about it purely in philosophical, what-does-it-all-say-about-gaming terms is to shortchange Signalis of its own, individual qualities. On the surface, it’s a game about a humanoid robot searching an isolated moon base for her lost friend and partner. Her cybernetic peers have been infected by some mysterious digital virus, transforming them into mutated, deranged murderers. There are puzzles to solve, files to find, and a highly restrictive inventory to manage.
A lot of the imagery – bleeding walls tentacled masses that grow inexplicably from the floors and ceilings – is lifted from Silent Hill, with Akira, Alien, David Lynch, anything cyberpunk, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo The Iron Man also serving as influences.
At its core, however, Signalis is a game dealing with identity, panic, and death. From the bizarre and bewildered NPCs who litter Sierpinski Base, to the dilapidated analog machines choking on broken fuses, old diskettes, and screeching radio signals, everything in Signalis is in the process of dying.
For some, the end is marked by brutal, unforgiving pain. For others, death is the process of slowly fading, losing your memory, and your own likelihood of being remembered, as you futilely cling to something, anything, anyone. Signalis is like a dream, or nightmare, of dying, a bleak and feverish cascade of moments that washes over the mind in the closing seconds of life. Everything is so tangible, so tactile – you can interact with the smallest parts of the world and puzzles, manipulating doors, dials, and decrepit computer banks and panels like you’re really there.
At the same time, the environment, the meaning, and the reasons why all this is happening are perpetually unreachable and inscrutable. It’s a relentless low-hum agony, a sense of being trapped between control and confusion, living and dying, that I don’t think I’ve seen any videogame, from 2022 or otherwise, embrace with such style. Frightening, visual, and paced in such a way that you feel constantly under pressure, but also like you never want to stop playing, Signalis is an authentic romantic tragedy, a game about the end of life and the death of love that fundamentally deserves more attention. You can get it on Steam now.
Alternatively, try some of the other best indie games, or perhaps, given Signalis’ retro survival horror style, some great old games to scratch that nostalgic itch. There are also plenty of fantastic new games to get into, and with this year’s TGAs done and dusted, we’re looking ahead to the best upcoming games of 2023.