The Signifier: On Sex and Realism

So I’m playing Per Aspera at the moment – it’s a 2020 base-building simulator where you’re an AI terraforming Mars. It’s a pretty long-form game – I’ve been playing about fifteen hours, and I’m just starting to introduce plants and lichen and so on. I could’ve been quicker, of course – there’s a time slider option, so you can have things play out from 1x speed all the way up to 16x – and I’ve been playing mostly on 4x, as a cute reference. It’s a funny feature of video games, the time slider – games typically don’t edit time like other media. They can struggle with things like pacing and momentum, because they can’t easily editorialize moment-to-moment gameplay – especially not compared to the precise control that a film editor has with the length of a shot or that a writer has with a sentence. We talked about this back in 2020, with a game called FRACT OSC – there are a bunch of common time-manipulating techniques in other media forms (such as montage or even just the filmic cut) that don’t easily find purchase in gameplay. Thus Per Aspera has a go-faster button – because sometimes there’s not much happening, and the game isn’t equipped to cut to an interesting part. The plodding moment-to-moment gameplay isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in some games it’s a valuable part of the experience – but it’s worth noting that games often struggle to offer anything else.

One of the other things that we often see in video games is a certain dull literalism, especially around art direction. Games often lean into visual realism, almost by default. They take pride in modelling environments that imitate how we see things in the real world. In The Division (pictured above), the developers offer a world that seems like it could be real – it’s not photorealistic, but everything has a very literal illusionistic bent. That is, it looks like something that might be real. There aren’t any elements of abstract visual imagery, aside from the HUD, and there’s certainly nothing that we’d call impressionist. All the light in the image behaves like light in the real world – you can see the axe on the bottom right casts a realistic shadow that is proportionate to its location and the location of the light source, and the two pillars in the center of the frame are shaded corresponding to the levels of light that they are exposed to. As a point of reference, we might say that this screenshot reminds us of Raphael’s School of Athens (complete with those central framing pillars). The Division and many other games closely identify with the aesthetic principles of the Renaissance, specifically in their fixation on emulating the visual principles of the real world. The Renaissance painter Leon Alberti built his theories of perspective using math – using geometry to figure out how much smaller things should look as they get further away. Games like The Division use the same mathematical principles, modelling virtual space in a way that emulates how we see things in the real world.

And that’s not an ignoble venture per se. If I’m mean about it, it’s because the impulse to simulate sometimes seems to hamper creativity. Games can sometimes feel hemmed in by their realistic modelling – they play out in real time, and they use real-world perspective, and they’re lit using equations derived from how real light works. And I have to ask: at what point does the desire to emulate reality stop us from imagining different realities? At what point is the creative task diluted to an act of record-keeping? It’s not that every game has to be wacky and anti-realist, but I’m always excited by titles that have a more complex creative vision. For example, I really enjoyed the 2020 surreal psychological horror game The Signifier. It has quite an ambitious scope, discussing Lacanian psychoanalysis, AI, democracy, corporate ethics – it’s a lot, and I’m not sure it’s totally up to the task. But it also has a really interesting visual style – it exemplifies a non-realist mode of depiction.

The premise of The Signifier is that you’re a brain-scanning scientist who can digitally reconstruct people’s memories. You enter into a simulated representation of their memories through your computer, and you can look around and find details of the past. There are two modes of viewing memories – ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ modes. The ‘objective’ shows only what was factually there, and the ‘subjective’ includes aspects of emotion and the subconscious. That’s not necessarily how actual memory works – it’s a stylization of memory serving an aesthetic or narrative purpose. It allows the game to explore ideas around how we perceive things, how we make mental links between otherwise disconnected events. We don’t just remember – we interpret. We view events through the lens of things that we’ve experienced before. The gap between ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ memory imitates the gap between the modelled, mathematical computer memory and the messy associative perception of the human brain. Perhaps for that reason, your computer AI, Evee, cannot always fully reconstruct all the subjective data – she often needs you to make intuitive leaps that her purely logical computer brain can’t. So for instance in the image below, you have to figure out that one particular piece of raw data is meant to be a clock hanging on the wall. After you place it, its pendulum stretches into a ladder and carries you up into a second memory. That pathway doesn’t exist in the objective state – it’s the subjectivity of human perception that carries us from one memory to another.

Subjectivity in The Signifier is communicated visually through the surrealism of the pendulum / ladder, as well as through certain visual tricks and distortions – the kind of stuff we saw in Superliminal, actually. There’s also the warped photogrammetry, as in the previous image – the classroom starts relatively proportionate on the left, and is increasingly distorted as it moves right. It looks almost as if they took a photo of the physical environment and stretched the image across a virtual space with different proportions – it’s a really cool effect. The subjective mode also offers symbolic representations of people – for instance, in an early scene, a woman’s parents transform into a blazing sun, with rocks and detritus orbiting around them. The suggestion is that they are the center of her universe, that they are warm and comforting, nurturing. In the objective state her parents are still, but the movement of the planets suggest that it might be a freeze-frame of their slow, circular dance.

Probably one of the more potent sequences for this abstract, distorted visual approach is near the end of the game – in a sex club called ‘Kinkheaven’. The club uses a lot of obscured vision, showing sexual scenes through blocked doors, half-drawn curtains, or through cracks in the wall. The locker room scene above can only be viewed obliquely, by looking sideways through a doorway that you otherwise can’t enter. Characters are also often only half-depicted, with parts of their bodies left unrendered. In the image above, for instance, the gas mask man on the right is missing the upper half of his torso, from his upper stomach to his shoulders. The kneeling figure in the center of the frame is missing most of the middle of their body, and the masked figure on the left seems to end at the knees. All of this contributes to an atmosphere that is more readily evoking sexuality than directly depicting it.

That evocative approach is a clever move, for a few reasons. Firstly, animation is hard. It’s especially difficult bringing animated figures into physical contact without having them clipping through each other, or having some really weird, unnatural collisions. Consider, for instance, how Halo ODST shows two characters kissing only from the back – so that you can’t see their pixelated faces smashing into each other. But even outside of the animation issue, I think what The Signifier demonstrates is that sexuality is potentially more powerfully depicted by way of the evocative rather than through strict realism. The accuracy of realism seems a harsh light to cast on desire and passion – reality is, arguably, not that sexy. The dim half-light of obscured vision and sexual metaphor offers a greater range of play – allowing the player’s imagination to fill in the blanks, inviting them in to co-create the played experience. Again, the point here is not that realism is inherently bad, or that every game has to be non-realist in order to be good. But the strength of The Signifier‘s sex club sequence raises a question around how the visual aspect of a game might connect into its broader aesthetic direction. And – I mean, I would even venture a little further than that. I do think there’s something to be said for the power of the evocative over the literal. The Signifier isn’t perfect, but at points it genuinely transcends arid Renaissance modelling, elevating the video game into its proper domain – back into the mind.

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