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Horror game Signalis fixes one of gaming’s most tired tropes

And it actually earns the term ‘immersive’

Elster, the android protagonist of Signalis, reels from a would that removes half of her arm, against a backdrop of crimson red Image: rose-engine/Humble Games
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

For all of their top-secret military bases and heavily guarded castles, the worlds of video games are still woefully reckless when it comes to security. Look no further than the likes of Dying Light 2, The Last of Us Part 1, or Deathloop, in which computer passwords and safe combinations are scrawled on scraps of paper hidden only feet away.

The same can’t be said for Signalis, the throwback survival-horror game that was released a couple weeks ago on Game Pass. It takes place in the outer reaches of a fictional star system, on a wintry planet not unlike the Antarctic research base of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Something has gone awry at an underground facility, and as an android recently awoken from hibernation, it’s your job to descend into the complex, fend off feral zombies, and solve a heap of environmental puzzles from a top-down perspective.

[Ed. note: Light puzzle spoilers follow for Signalis.]

One of the game’s earliest hurdles is a locked safe in a classroom on the east side of the map. Upon first encountering the safe, I breathed a heavy sigh and, disappointed that an otherwise stylish game was resorting to such a tired video game trope, began to scour the classroom, and the rooms adjacent to it, for the code’s telltale note. I came up short.

Instead, I found a service request form. It read: “The wall safe in classroom 4B keeps resetting to the default combination. What’s the point of the whole radio code broadcasting system if our safe can only be opened with the code in the manual?” Naturally, this sparked a search for said manual. But first, I found an aperture card — a largely defunct technology that, among other functions, allows for the viewing of an embedded piece of microfilm. I brought it to a microfilm viewer I had previously stumbled upon and voilà: There was the default safe code, in ghostly, magnified print.

Elster fires her pistol at several encroaching zombies in Signalis’ med bay Image: rose-engine/Humble Games

Not only did this puzzle strike that ever-elusive balance between challenging and intuitive, but it also made sense within the context of Signalis’ world: This is a facility built on a class system that works to keep important information away from the prying eyes of miners, janitors, and bodyguards. It stands to reason that the bureaucratic elite wouldn’t leave important safe combos lying on a table, or in an open locker. It took an agitated written complaint (which, judging by the file number, had traveled through several layers of red tape) to send me, a lowly android, down the correct path.

In certain cases, I don’t mind finding a keypad code jotted on a markerboard. There’s a certain self-awareness at play — something that says, “Look, this is a video game, and sometimes, characters need to be stupid in order for you to have fun.” (Prey is still my favorite game from Arkane Studios, and it’s one of this trope’s foremost offenders.)

But there’s something thrilling about existing in a game world in which NPCs are actually careful, thoughtful, and fastidious. It increases the voyeuristic quality of parsing through the property of someone who explicitly did not want me doing so. Developer rose-engine has flooded Signalis with puzzles that deliver that thrill.

I’m not saying that I want every game to feature two-factor authentication puzzles (actually, that might be pretty fun), but I do think that the vocabulary of video games is widespread enough that traditional safe-cracking and computer-hacking puzzles need to go the way of the aperture card. When studios fill their worlds with intelligent people, they’re trusting their players to respond in turn. We toss around the word “immersive” so often, but it’s a rare game that actually earns the label. Signalis deserves a spot on that list.