I’ve lost important people to factors that were out of my hands. We all have. These friends helped shape who I am as a person, and I will forever be indebted to them. As I struggle to reconcile the positive aspects of their identities with their actions, survival horror title Signalis asks me why I preserve grief alongside these skewed personas.
In Signalis, a fascist regime calls you a “Replika,” a robot replica of a human long forgotten. Each of these Replika robots was fashioned with specific purposes and interests, built to control and be controlled. The Replika model you play as is designated as an “Elster,” based on one particular person. Past and precedence blend as Elster faces a disease that corrupts Replika limbs and reduces robots into mindless zombies. Signalis asks you to uncover the past as you ponder over the decaying cycle of yourself, your missing companion, and those who oppress you. Grief’s long shadow tower over Signalis’ themes of fascism and fractured minds.
The realization crept up behind me as the game sprinkled references to the esoteric The King in Yellow — a book from the 1800s. A short story collection tinted with grief, The King in Yellow features a fictional play of the same name whose mysterious second act drives people insane. The collection’s second story, titled “The Mask,” is offered a striking homage by Signalis developers Yuri Stern and Barbara Wittmann. A hidden ending featuring a white lily forms a strong connection between the game and The King in Yellow.
I’d rather spoil “The Mask” than one of last year’s best games, so here’s a gist of the former. A sculptor works out the formula for a magical liquid that turns objects into marble. A white lily is among his first subjects, turning to the purest marble save for its pale blue veins. The narrator and the sculptor wonder if the lily has been preserved or destroyed. “Is it death?” asks the narrator. “You are not prepared to call it life,” the sculptor retorts.
Before long, a woman loved deeply by both the narrator and the sculptor falls ill and dives into this solution, turning herself to marble. Distraught by grief, the sculptor takes his own life, leaving the narrator to lament their fate. But just as the narrator is at his wit’s end, he witnesses a miracle. The lily returns to its original form, followed shortly by the woman waking up. The tale puts its own spin on the age-old desire to be remembered after death. Preservation through art and sculpture is a path some kings tread, but many are remembered by their deaths.
“The Mask” has an interesting tidbit that’s remarkably similar to Elster’s disjointed sense of purpose. “My chief reason for existing was to meet some requirement of Boris (the sculptor) and Geneviève (the woman). What this obligation was, its nature, was never clear; sometimes it seemed to be protection, sometimes support, through a great crisis.” In his grief, the narrator derives meaning in fulfilling the needs of those around him. Signalis and The King in Yellow present death as a form of unmasking, one where a person doesn’t just accept their versions of truths, but also the truth that nothing is permanent. The game’s loops are filled with echoes of grief that protect its outcomes from being altered. But some endings do see Elster escape her former identity.
Troubled minds tend to confront the source of their grief or run from it. Strong reactions may lead to periods of intense distress and even chronic grief. Repressing these emotions opens the mind to sleep disorders and depression. Those who avoid the truth end up living a compromised half-life, one built on a version of events they tell themselves. Signalis’ potential endings carefully account for both these reactions to loss. Experts on mental health suggest a balance between withdrawal and confrontation, but the task of taking it one day at a time is often crushing in itself.
Signalis’ tale of fractured identities and time loops attempts to justify the weight of grief as a sense of purpose. Deriving meaning from a time outside the present doesn’t just mean living in the past. It could also mean keeping a person’s quirks alive long after they are gone. The video game’s homage to The King in Yellow presents characters who struggle to separate the identity of a loved one and the grief they burden one with. One of 2022’s best survival horror games made me question my approach to grief. Can it ever be torn apart from love? Perhaps they share a room within us.