Fractured Identity and An Impossible Promise: How Signalis Uses Multiple Endings to Convey Its Themes

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Fractured Identity and An Impossible Promise: How Signalis Uses Multiple Endings to Convey Its Themes

This article contains heavy spoilers for the endings of Signalis. If you’re interested in the game, you should play it before reading.

In his book on screenwriting, The Anatomy of a Story, John Truby talks about the importance of a story’s conclusion. “Done well, the final scene gives you the ultimate funnel effect: that key word or line at the end sets off a huge explosion in the hearts and minds of the audience and resonates long after the story is over,” he wrote. “The author highlights the thematic patterns one more time, and the audience realizes this representation of characters is also the way of the larger world. In short, the audience has a thematic revelation.” While plenty of videogames have conveyed this sort of thematic revelation, the climax of some games is complicated by something relatively unique to the medium: the inclusion of multiple endings.

On its face, having numerous endings can dilute a story’s message by making it unclear which is “definitive,” a lack of clarity muddying any sense of thematic revelation. Even if one is meant to be interpreted as the “true” and “canonical” conclusion, this can lead to the other paths feeling like failure states or novelties more than a satisfying denouement. While there are titles that use different endings to drive at the same ideas from different perspectives, at its worst, this approach can make a work’s messaging feel tepid, unsatisfying, and contradictory.

Signalis, a recently released survival horror game from the two-person development outfit rose-engine, offers a compelling approach to the multiple-finale conundrum, with each one building on the rest in terms of plot and messaging. Its four conclusions come together to achieve the kind of “thematic revelation” Truby spoke of, amplifying the story’s themes of fractured identity and the difficulty of accepting loss. It’s the type of narrative that admittedly takes a bit of leg work to piece together, so I’ll offer my understanding of events before explaining what I believe its endings mean.

Its story is told in a fragmentary style, with shifting settings, constant cutaways to mysterious imagery, and the heavy implication that only snippets of what you see are literal events. You play as Elster, an LSTR Replika unit created to serve the dystopian Eusan Nation. Replikas are cybernetically enhanced beings made with the “neural pathways” of a base host, meaning every unit of the same type shares memories of the person they’re derived from. While your character is referred to as Elster, this nickname technically refers to virtually all LSTR units who are used to carry out deep-space exploration missions. The Eusan Nation is also made up of “Gestalts,” who are more or less synonymous with humans.

At some point in the past, Elster was sent on a deep-space mission on the Penrose 512 exploration vessel with a white-haired Gestalt pilot named Ariane Yeong. The goal of their mission was to find planets or other celestial bodies which could be used by the Eusan Nation. Over the course of this assignment, the two women fell in love, and between their duties of upkeeping the ship, Arianne would paint, and they would dance and watch movies together. However, like all exploration missions conducted by the Nation, the expectation was that this would likely be a one-way trip, a fear confirmed by an absence of nearby habitable planets that would warrant a rescue. According to the long-distance messages they received from mission command, at this point, the Replika unit was supposed to euthanize the Gestalt pilot to avoid a prolonged death, as Replikas were designed to last longer than the pilots. However, Elster and Ariane defied this and lived together far past their prescribed time. It is heavily implied from notes you find later that Ariane eventually suffered greatly because of this, as radiation from the decaying ship and a lack of rations slowly killed her. While the rest of the story’s events are hazy and potentially non-literal, this much seems to be “real.”

To avoid going into exhaustive detail about the more ambiguous events that happen outside of this, the bulk of the game follows Elster as she searches for a woman named Alina Seo in various fluctuating locations. The first is a Eusan Nation “re-education camp” called S-23 Sierpinski, where an infection has seemingly turned the Replikas stationed there into fleshy monsters. Later she travels to an apartment complex where Ariane stayed as she went to a military academy. These places are uncanny and follow a sort of dream logic, with constant flashes of other scenes and improbable sights implying something is wrong. She frequently sees images of a white-haired woman, presumably Ariane, accompanied by the phrase “Remember Our Promise.” Others also seem to be suffering from delirium, complaining about seeing flashes of this woman or how reality is looping, days stretching interminably in a cyclical pattern. Eventually, Elster makes her way to a barren red wasteland where she encounters other versions of herself and finds her ship, the Penrose 512, suspended in time. After initially failing to open its hatch, she eventually returns to finish things. This is where the story branches for its four endings.

Much like Silent Hill 2, these final scenes are not determined by explicit decisions you make, but by how you behave, such as how much damage you take or the length of time spent in areas. For those who have witnessed credits but haven’t seen all the endings, I recommend watching them here before proceeding. The four endings are Leave, Memory, Promise, and Lily. In the “Leave” ending, Elster arrives at the Penrose but decides not to enter and then collapses. In the “Memory” conclusion, she finds Ariane in the ship’s cryo pod, but Ariane doesn’t remember who she is, and Elster lays down next to her to die. In “Promise,” Elster finally fulfills the oath alluded to throughout the game, killing Ariane in her cryo pod. In the secret ending, “Lily,” which requires solving an elaborate sequence of hidden puzzles, Elster puts white lilies on what appears to be a grave, collapses beside five other dead Elsters, a gem is formed, and we see the Penrose floating beneath a massive red eye as Elster and a spectral Ariane dance and then kiss. While these “different” endings may sound entirely disconnected, it could be argued they all happen in a single frayed continuity, reiterating the story’s exploration of self and ruminations on grief.

These four conclusions and the distinct Elsters that carry them out tie in with the narrative’s exploration of anxieties over identity, as each reflects different aspects and desires of its heroine. At various points in the story, characters are unsure of who they are as they become trapped in a shifting reality that further obfuscates notions of objective truth. The Elster we play embodies this, as she is thrown into disparate places she couldn’t be, her objectives changing with each new locale. This plays on classic psychological horror tropes about fears of deteriorating mental health and worries over losing grasp on who you are as a person. Characters in the story feel their sense of self bleeding into others, evoking similar degrees of unease as Ingmar Bergman’s famously illusive film Persona, which follows two women who feel themselves adopting the personality of the other. Perhaps an even better point of comparison is Tarkovsky’s Solaris, another sci-fi story that deals with unexplainable happenings spawned from the minds of its characters. Much of this vein of psychological horror taps into the dismay of a postmodern world untethered from the safety of “truth,” where characters are lost in the tumultuous conjurings of their own minds. This sense of shifting perspective is even reflected in the aesthetics, as there are abrupt transitions between isometric and first-person camera angles, as well as switches between anime-styled pixel art and a low poly PSX look. The frequent use of cutaways to blocks of text calls to mind Shaft’s avante-garde adaptation of the Monogatari series, which also focuses on characters who hide and misrepresent who they are.

Loss of self also ties into the oppressive realities of being a Replika in this world, a manufactured person whose brain is cloned from someone else, their experiences entangling into a confusing mesh of warped memories. The Eusan Nation uses Replikas as cudgels of state-sanctioned violence, put to work as prison wardens, security guards, cops, and soldiers. In addition to their sense of self becoming confused with their past lives, any semblance of personal identity is further stripped down and sanitized so they can serve this dystopian government. Throughout, you come across “instruction manuals” for each unit of Replika detailing the ideal means to control their behavior and create homogeneity based on the tendencies of their original. It’s unclear if the character we play is the “original” LSTR Replika unit that fell in love with Ariane or if we play as several different units who inherited her memories from shared neural paths cloned from this specific Elster.

The Eusan Nation’s control over identity even extends to Gestalts like Ariane. We learn that she used to live happily with her mother on a remote radio base until her aunt outed her to the government, resulting in enrollment at a military academy. While Ariane wanted to be a painter, she was put on the path toward becoming an unwilling participant in the state’s ongoing wars. She decided to board the Penrose so that in the vacuum of space, she would finally be free of the roles placed on her. Overall, the seemingly inconsistent events between the four endings ties into the exploration of fractured identity and reality by depicting myriad versions of its protagonist, initially scrambling any sense of which is “real” or “true.”

But perhaps the most resonant element of the game’s conclusions is how they reveal, or at least imply, the meaning of the constantly referenced promise between Elster and Ariane. In the “Leave” and “Memories” endings, Elster is unable to keep her oath, but in “Promise,” she either literally or metaphorically does what Ariane wishes and “kills” her. When they were still lucid, Ariane seemingly made Elster vow that when the ongoing radiation poisoning and starvation from being trapped on the Penrose became too severe, Elster would end her life. It becomes clear that Ariane is currently suffering greatly, either because she still has a tortured physical body locked in a cryo-pod or because her consciousness has somehow become trapped in limbo. While stuck in this state, Ariane unconsciously calls out to Elster using her formerly latent psychic powers, which accidentally warps the Replikas at S-23 Sierpinski into nightmarish creatures and produces reality-destroying temporal loops. Elster’s inability to carry out the promise in several of the finales, despite these stakes, illustrates the horrible gravity of this task. In a non-literal sense, ending Ariane’s life can also be seen as Elster coming to terms with the loss of the woman she loves, confronting her grief, and ultimately accepting Ariane’s passing by laying her soul to rest.

Tying into this, frequent symbolism alludes to grieving, death, and psychopomps. One hint is the inclusion of the German painting “Isle of the Dead,” which has been interpreted as an elegiac depiction of souls being shepherded to the afterlife. At another point, Elster explores a beach reminiscent of the painting “Shore of Oblivion,” which also been described as being about death, and she must board a ferry similar to what Charon might use to cross the River Styx. There are references to the world being trapped in limbo and allusions to hell, implying that Elster and Ariane are stuck, either literally or due to Elster’s grief. Elster must accept this loss by becoming a psychopomp for Ariane, freeing her soul from its current suffering. However, the story also reckons with the difficulty and unfairness of being forced to keep this kind of oath.

While at first glance, the endings appear to be separate paths, the constant allusions to repeating cycles, as well as the fact that Elster runs into several dead copies of herself when she finds the Penrose, implies that the first three conclusions are decisions she previously made while repeating these dismal events over and over. The countless paths where she refuses to keep her promise reiterate that even though Elster knows Ariane is suffering and actively asks to be set free, her duty is borderline impossible. This is made worse by the implication that the original Gestalt that all Elsters are based on may have had a friend or lover, Alina Seo, who looked just like Ariane and potentially died for the sake of the Eusan Nation army. In being forced to kill Ariane due to the machinations of an uncaring government, Elster is forced to reenact this loss from a past life, and only after some incalculable number of attempts is she finally able to accept that Ariane is gone. The “bad” endings where she leaves or refuses to kill Ariane help convey the hardship of what she must do, making this decision all the more resonant.

However, the final ending, the secret one that requires decrypting messages and finding hidden objects, is the most open for interpretation. After Elster offers white lilies, a common funeral flower, to what appears to be a grave, she is seemingly reunited with a spectral Ariane. This could indicate that Elster feels at peace with the memories of her lover, that Ariane is freed from limbo, or that a different promise has been fulfilled, that they can be together forever in the afterlife. In one read, Elster has accepted the past, forgiven herself, and come to terms with Ariane’s death, which is why she can visit a grave and offer funeral flowers. In another interpretation, this could be viewed as a dark ritual that realizes cosmic horror, representing Elster trying to bring back Ariane against her wishes. Given the frequent allusions to unknowable alien terrors, including an ominous red eye that appears in this scene, and its opening quote from an HP Lovecraft short story, there may be some basis here as well.

Two Bible passages that appear in German during this scene provide additional context but deny outright explanation. The first is Revelation 9:6, which alludes to Ariane’s previous suffering by referencing a story of those who long for death while trapped in the unending torment of an apocalypse. The other is Amos 3:7, which is about a prophet’s promises of salvation. Again, it’s unclear whether these quotes reference Ariane’s former pain to suggest she has found peace in the form of an afterlife or to condemn Elster for making a selfish choice that prolongs her agony, but they echo the story’s focus on dealing with grief and loss. Personally, I chose to believe the two have genuinely been reunited in some way, as this would reaffirm that despite living in a world with a penchant for cruelty, people can still find solace in each other.

Although admittedly cryptic, Signalis’s multiple endings build towards the type of revelation that Truby wrote about, each enhancing its portrayals of fractured identity and conveying the weight of its heroine’s decision. Similarly, its narrative is ambiguous enough to allow for multiple thematic interpretations but also has enough substance to enable grounded explanations. I can’t help but compare it against something like the influential psychological horror film Jacob’s Ladder, which is excellent until its dunderheaded final minute provides an overly straightforward answer that undermines the complicated web of ideas that came before. By contrast, Signalis manages the difficult task of using multiple conclusions to amplify its main ideas while leaving ample room for interpretation, its unanswered questions and evocative answers buzzing in my mind long after the credits rolled.

Elijah Gonzalez is the games intern for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing the latest indies and AAAs, he also loves film, anime, lit, and creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

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