Signal Simulator and the Subtle Art of Atmosfear

note: This game relies heavily on player discovery and I strongly recommend that you not look up anything further about it if you’re interested in playing. This “review” covers only the barest essentials of the core gameplay loop and everything else is simply a recollection of my experience playing. I’ve intentionally avoiding discussing anything that could be considered a spoiler.

Signal Simulator can be summed up very simply by the quotation that’s show as you load the game.

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” ― Arthur C. Clarke

At it’s core, Signal Simulator is a game about being alone while not being entirely sure that you are, truly, alone. You’re left to your own devices to run a SETI (Search for extraterrestrial intelligence) outpost in a nondescript American desert with nobody around for miles except the occasional nondescript helicopter delivering another round of supplies. Your primary task is to search the skies for anomalies in the form of rouge radio waves and attempt to make contact with whatever is (or isn’t) out there. Additionally, you’ll need to perform upkeep on the station, making sure the array of radars remain aligned and keeping the solar panel farm powering your whole operation clean so they can generate power at an optimal rate among other things.

All of this sounds fairly straightforward but Signal Simulator’s greatest strength is in its simplicity. You repeat these basic tasks day in and day out and pretty soon you get into a groove. You become comfortable and eventually this complacency breeds paranoia. (Why do the doors all have locks on them?) This is all helped by the fact that things take time to get done in the game. Even just running outside to clean off the solar panels can take two or three minutes. It’s mundane at times but the game itself is so engrossing that even simple tasks like this can feel rewarding. You’re the sole person in charge of this station and it quickly becomes your home. I definitely felt a sense of attachment to it as time went on and I wanted things to run at peak efficiency, even if that meant prolonged trips outside to recalibrate the radars. In all of this, you get caught up in your tasks the paranoia can start to set in as something as simple as a door or a light can set you off. Didn’t I close that door when I left? I thought I turned those lights off. Didn’t I park the car over there?

It’s at this point where you may start to wonder where this is all leading. What exactly is there to this game? How far can it go? Is this all building up to something? This is the true beauty of the game. It’s an unknown quantity. For all you know it could go on forever as a simple radio simulator game, occasionally giving you upgrades to make your life easier and stopping there. On the other hand, what if you do make contact? What if there really are aliens? What if you’re out on your regular rounds and run into one? Not knowing what the game may or may not have in store for you is simultaneously exciting and terrifying. I’m reminded of another quasi-horror game I love called Verde Station that plays with solitude in a similarly powerful way and I highly recommend checking it out.

Because of this uncertainty, you’re forced to rely on your eyes and ears and, as such, the game’s sound design plays a huge role in how you experience the game. It both creates and shatters the player’s sense of security in equal measure and it’s easily one of the most effective application of sound in a horror game I’ve ever see. Instead of a soundtrack you’re treated to the ambient sounds of the desert and the beeping and whirring of your old-school equipment. From top to bottom the sound design in the game is excellent.

From the small click of a light switch being turned on to the satisfying clunk of a knob on your equipment being rotated and even the distant sounds of a choir of radar dishes rotating in unison, each sound is clear and definitive. Early on, the sounds of your daily chores create a satisfying background noise but in time you become so used to it and anything out of the ordinary, no matter how simple, can set you off. The first time a thunderstorm blew through the outpost I nearly jumped out of my seat. The sound of thunder was so far removed from my expectations at that point that it took me utterly by surprise.

You’re eased into a sense of unease as your radars being to pick up transmissions from beyond the stars. The eerie, otherworldly signals pierce the low hum the machines and being to infect your mind. Like trying to see shapes in clouds, your mind begins to race as you read meaning and purpose into these seemingly random signals. Here again, the sense of complete and total mystery beings to shroud your mind and you can’t help but wonder what it all means. Is there really anyone out there?

This simple fear of the unknown, sprung forth entirely from the players own subconscious, sets the stage for Signal Simulator and does so effortlessly. Never once if my first few hours of the game did anything feel forced. There were no jump scares or spooky musical stings or outright attempts by the game to unsettle me in any way. I was simply left alone with my thoughts and the horror came from within in the most natural and beautiful way. Psychological fear bred from isolation and , never once suggested directly by the game itself.

For now, at least, the fear I’m experiencing is solely my own fault. Paranoia has gotten the better of me and I honestly love it. But who’s to say what will be responsible for my fear after a few more hours of playing? I cannot wait to find out.

Signal Simulator is available on Steam for $19.99 USD and I highly recommend you check it out.

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