How the Silent Hill-Inspired ‘SIGNALIS’ Tried to Forge Its Own Identity

Though Konami has done little to nurture the Silent Hill series in the past decade and change, its influence has rarely wavered. You merely needed to know where to look. Nowhere was the power of Silent Hill more pronounced than in 2021s SIGNALIS from rose-engine, a sprawling and sci-fi intimate story about love and death, a game with the upsetting vibes of Silent Hill and the inventory management of classic Resident Evil.

In other words, SIGNALIS was sick as hell.

SIGNALIS struck a chord with a lot of people at Waypoint for many reasons, but one that stands out is how SIGNALIS wears its influences on its sleeve, while forging an identity all its own. It’s a difficult balance to pull off, where you can regularly sit up in your chair, Leonardo DiCaprio-style, and point at an element of SIGNALIS that feels deeply, beautifully in sync with rich veins of gaming history, while recognizing it adds up to much more than references.

It’s also, intentionally, a game with friction, both in gameplay and storytelling. It’s a game where the ending is determined not exclusively by solving the combat and design puzzle boxes placed by the creators, but by how you played. You quite literally get a different ending in SIGNALIS depending on your playstyle. Do you need to collect them all? Is one ending canon? It’s even possible to never reach this point in the game, because at one point, SIGNALIS seems to end, and some players might not realize there’s more left to experience.

Or does none of this matter?

Thankfully, I was given a chance to ask Yuri Stern and Barbara Wittmann, the two co-founders of rose-engine, about their work on SIGNALIS and the nature of ambiguity.

Would you be surprised they have interesting thoughts about the nature of game endings? Probably not.

Waypoint: SIGNALIS wears its influences on its sleeves, but looking back on the project now, how successful do you think it is at forging its own identity separate from those?
Yuri Stern: I don’t know how to quantify such an identity. A central question of SIGNALIS is, what is the worth of a replica, a copy of a copy? What does it mean to exist primarily in reference to something else? I think that's up to each player to decide for themselves. Does the strength of art lie in how well it pretends to exist in a vacuum?

Barbara Wittmann: For me, the game exists in a conversation with the works it’s inspired by. I’ve seen people say that the references contribute to the story, but that the game also works perfectly fine if you don’t recognize anything at all. Quite a few people even seem to see coincidental references in SIGNALIS to works we didn’t even know. In the end, we can’t fully control what people might project onto our game.

Waypoint: Much of SIGNALIS is about ambiguity. It's hard to tell what did or didn't actually happen, but much of it feels emotionally real. It gives the game weight. When crafting the story and the journey these characters go on, did you start with specifics and work backwards, or has the hazy ambiguity always been there?Yuri: SIGNALIS went through many iterations. I always felt a strong urge for the story to have a dream-like quality, but often felt things ended up feeling a little too banal, so I'd reflect on what my dreams feel like and applied that to the way we told the story.


**Waypoint: A point of contention, at least among some of the people I know who played the game, is the inventory system. You always feel like you're one slot short of feeling comfortable, which feels intentional. Can you talk about the evolution of the inventory system? How did you land on the number of slots in the game? It helps dictate an enormous amount of pacing in a game that's delicately paced.
**Yuri: Personally, I think if you're comfortable in a survival horror game, something isn't quite right. To me, pushing the player to make decisions that make them uncomfortable is what horror is often about. We designed much of the game around the number six, but tested the game with various inventory sizes. It turned out testers would still always fill up their inventory to the brim with as much weapons, ammo and healing as they could carry even if they didn’t need it. I thought that was very funny. Perhaps we should have put a note somewhere that says "Only take what you need!" or "Check the room for keys before you pick up ammo".


Waypoint: Yuri, you recently had a tweet thread about the game's endings, and how people are responding to them. Specifically, that some are interpreting some endings as "good" or "bad" when the intention was more ambiguous. Can you talk about the design process for coming up with the game's endings, and how players achieve each one? Were you prepared for players to be confused?
Yuri: It might have been phrased poorly, but my tweet was really only meant to be an observation on the dynamic of telling first-time players how to feel about their ending. We were always aware that a lot of people would grade the endings on a classic good-bad scale, so we tried to balance the presentation of each story outcome a little based on this expectation, but I think we might have overdone it a little in some cases.

Barbara: Endings are determined based on the players’ overall playstyle. It was not our intention that players replay the game to try to get another ending. Rather, we wanted for each player to get an ending that fits their playstyle.

**Waypoint: There's a chance some number of players get the "first" ending and don't continue, or don't realize they can continue. Did you anticipate those scenarios?
**Yuri: To be honest, I didn't expect many players to even reach that ending. It's a bit of a strange habit perhaps, but I don't finish most of the games I play, even the ones I enjoy a lot. So in a way, that ending was my way of trying to make sure people like me get to see an ending even if they usually don't finish games. That way, they can stop if they've had enough.


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