The Signal State: Synth Waves To Bend Your Mind To

There are two ways how adults handle mathematic equations based on their experience in school: One is running away from them as fast as possible, the other embraces the mind-bending feeling behind a well-thought mathematic riddle. It might even tingle your gray matter a little bit. So, does yours tingle then?

THE GOODTHE BAD
Step-by-step approach to understanding components and signalsSometimes challenging puzzles as a gatekeeper to story progress
Help system implemented, but…… not helpful enough in the later game – Discord account/access needed
Mostly well-balanced puzzle difficulty and progress rate
Story choices and ethical questions asked

If it does, you should definitely give The Signal State a try. The game combines several geeky topics: Reckoner Industries from Singapore – with publisher The Iterative Collective – created a puzzle and simulation game inspired by modular synthesizers. If you’ve ever listened to artists of electronic synth music like Rival Consoles or watched a video of Red Means Recording, you might have stumbled upon these technical miracle boxes in music. Suppose you input some kind of sound signal – like a wave – by connecting cables and units to modular synths. It allows you to bend and break them in very unique patterns and create sounds you possibly never have listened to. Often you never completely know what you can get out of this kind of synths – like being said, a box of miracles.

There is, however, a massive problem with these exciting and cute little geek machines: The price point. A modular synth can cost you several hundred to thousands of dollars, depending on your aim. Even my two synths – an OP-1 and an OP-Z – were much too pricey for the little interest and time I could spend with them. To avoid that pain, The Signal State can also be seen as a sandbox for learning how modular synthesizers work without buying them for real. The music made by/with the signals can be heard as a bonus but is not the primary goal you’re aiming for when solving the puzzles. So, even if you don’t like maths but are ever interested in these instruments, I recommend trying the demo and encourage you to keep on reading.

In detail: This game has many similarities to puzzle games such as The Witness or The Talos Principle regarding the logical aspect and progress rate.  In both games, all puzzles are divided into levels and included in a bigger world, building progress and knowledge over time. The main difference is the puzzle mechanism with audio/electronic signals and the setting: You start in a post-apocalyptic world where all computers, networks, smart home devices, and agriculture machines stopped working many years ago. Cities are covered in dark smog. After that global blackout, our way of life had to be overthought. Food had to be grown locally instead of ordering and planting it in different countries. That’s where you come into place:  Your task is to repair a local farm’s agriculture machines, regrow and replenish the fields, and supply nutrition. Therefore, you are guided step by step through the basics of operating with electric signals and transferring the given tasks into chains of electronic components.

The first riddles are, as said, an introduction into the field of manipulating electric signals before slowly raising the difficulty level. Even if you – like I – hated maths in school, the instructions are easy to follow for minds who like logical puzzles. Reading the tasks carefully (at least twice), comparing them with the descriptions of the components and what they do, and checking the sent signals step-wise helped me solve the first bunch. But, when I mention the level “The Irrigation Problem,” every player will remember a deep, hourlong depression even after they – hopefully – solved the puzzle. It took me hours to understand and combine logical AND-, OR- and XOR-gates. This puzzle, and later the later ones, feel more like a hurdle than a continuous rising progression rate because of a recognizable lack of knowledge and information. The difficulty gap between this level and the one before is too large to avoid frustration. Maybe, the most comparable thing is a boss fight: I was about to let that game down and turn away, even after using the built-in help system. My only chance was to ask what I was missing in the Discord channel – and it worked. Luckily, this game has a fast and robust community enjoying the puzzles, sharing all the pain solving the hard ones, and helping each other with screenshots. Keeping that in mind, the upcoming update with the puzzle builder will come up with more challenges from and for fans of the game.

The whole puzzle complex is aligned with the story. The machines you repaired keep the fields growing, and you meet more and different characters over time. In the beginning, you’re just given tasks and the questions asked don’t leak much background info. Later on, when you rebuild the communication infrastructure, the story evolves and reveals its central trope: The digitization of daily life, which impacts when monopolized structures fall. As we see in our consumption of digital goods and platforms, it feels never enough. That’s why our daily lives depend on IT, smartphones, social networks, and smart home devices. Sometimes, computers do know what we like the most or when to seduce us with things we don’t want better than close friends will ever do. Is it reasonable to hand over physical work to machines and AI? And is this kind of mechanization sustainable in the long run? These ethical aspects are subsequently discussed and give you some moral thoughts besides the logical approach to the puzzles. Maybe, the mystery and the good feelings after solving one might prove that our mental reward system depends on machines. Let us ask: Can we have a good life without all the devices around us? Still, especially in the beginning, the story arch can barely be seen and only kicks off after “The Irrigation Problem,” making this puzzle a gatekeeper. Possibly, difficulty jumps should be balanced out to engage the motivation for experiencing the story. Players can make choices during the story, but those seem somewhat disconnected from the narrative.

So, the solution to every problem is out there when you ask for it. Sadly, the tips given by the in-game characters are generic and are more helpful at the start of a puzzle than at the last nudge. Still, as a maths-hating geek, I enjoyed The Signal State and learned a lot about sound waves and manipulating them. It refreshed my knowledge actively on XOR gates and incriminating signs with electric components. This game can grow with puzzle extensions and fun riddles even in its early phase. If you have a resilient mind and no fear of asking for help, you can also solve those that feel like a bummer. You don’t have to be badass at maths to have fun with the game, but it will make puzzles a bit easier. Once you get into a flow and begin to master the game your endorphins will kick in. If your mind is still tingling after reading this review, I can totally recommend giving The Signal State a try.

The Signal State is available for PC and Mac on Steam. This review is based on a free review copy provided by the publisher.

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