For all their top-secret military bases and heavily guarded castles, the worlds of video games are still terribly reckless when it comes to security. Look no further than the likes of Dying Light 2, The last of us part 1or death loopin which computer passwords and safe combinations are scrawled on pieces of paper hidden only feet away.
The same cannot be said signal, the throwback survival horror game that was released on Game Pass a few weeks ago. It takes place in the outer reaches of a fictional star system, on a wintry planet not unlike John Carpenter’s Antarctic research base. The thing. Something has gone wrong in an underground facility, and as an android recently awakened from hibernation, it’s your job to descend into the complex, fend off feral zombies, and solve a bunch of environmental puzzles from a top-down perspective.
[Ed. note: Light puzzle spoilers follow for Signalis.]
One of the first hurdles of the game is a locked safe in a classroom on the east side of the map. After encountering the safe, I threw a heavy sigh and, dismayed that an otherwise stylish game invoked such a tired video game trope, I began tearing through the classroom and the room next to it to find the telltale note of Code. I came up short.
Instead, I found a service request form. It read: “The wall safe in classroom 4B continues to reset to the default combination. What’s the point of the whole radio code transmission system if our safe can only be opened with the code in the manual? Naturally, this prompted a search for the manual.” But first I found an aperture card – a largely completed technology that, among other functions, allows viewing an embedded piece of microfilm. I brought it to a microfilm viewer I had stumbled upon earlier and voilà: It was the standard secure code, in mental, enlarged print.
This puzzle not only struck the ever-elusive balance between challenging and intuitive, but it also made sense in the context of signal‘ 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 turns out that the bureaucratic elite do not keep important safe combos lying on a table or in an open locker. It took an agitated written complaint (which, judging by the file number, traveled through several layers of red tape) to send me, a lowly android, the right way.
In certain cases I don’t mind finding a keyboard code on a marker board. There’s a certain self-awareness in the game — something that says, “Look, this is a video game, and sometimes characters have to be stupid for you to have fun.” (Advance is still my favorite Arkane Studios game, and it’s one of the biggest offenders of this trope.)
But there’s something exciting about existing in a game world in which NPCs are actually careful, thoughtful, and quick. It increases the voyeuristic quality of the parsing by having someone who has done it explicitly don’t I want to do that. Developer rose engine has flooded signal with puzzles that provide that thrill.
I’m not saying that I want every game to include two-factor authentication puzzles (in fact, that could be pretty fun), but I think that the vocabulary of video games is widespread enough that traditional safe-cracking and computer-hacking puzzles have to go the way of go to the opening card. When studios fill their worlds with intelligent people, they trust their players to respond in turn. We throw the word “immersive” around so often, but it’s a rare game that actually deserves the label. signal deserves a spot on that list.