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Wow, but in the best way possible, March 26, 2023
I must confess, my brain constructed an impression on what Signal Hill was going to be like when I first saw the listing on IFDB and itchio. It seemed really cool. I had a guess for the appearance and gameplay structure. If turned out that way, it still would have been a great game.
But what I found was far more innovative and creative than said impression. One that you can't really put a single genre on. There is an extra magic to Signal Hill. It is not the most innovative or complex Twine I have seen, but the author expertly balances gameplay mechanics with story and setting so everything enhances each other, creating a game with a deep and dynamic world.
Granted, this is a demo, but an incredibly strong one. This review will probably be longer than usual.
You lay there on the ground, bleeding into the ash from a hole in your side, staring up at the blazing red of the sunless sky.
And you’re off to a great start.
In the intro you are trekking across the wasteland in a caravan to the city of Signal Hill, same as the game’s title. You and your traveling companions are delivering cargo to the city when everyone is ambushed. Everyone dies… except you, although the bullet hole on your torso is on the verge of changing that.
Fortunately, you are found in time and brought to the Signal Hill Free Clinic where you are revived and saved by emergency surgery thanks to a man named Dr. Zhao and his coworker, Dr. Ellis.
Unfortunately, you confirm the worst: the cargo was stolen. This bad for your client. It also throws a wrench into your plans since the paycheck for the delivery was what you were going to use to make a new life in the city. Looks like you need a new plan of survival if you want to find answers and claim Signal Hill as your new home.
And it's a city. One you wander around in. There are districts. You talk to people, even buy things. Take on quests, be a nuisance, make friends, or just explore. That enticing Twine gameplay flexibility.
So yeah. The medical clinic serves as your temporary home, one where you can come and go freely. There are plenty of places to visit. The aim is to find “leads,” or quests that allow you to investigate the city and the forces behind the stolen cargo. Leads take all sort of forms and are introduced like this:
The lady at the bookstore offered rewards in exchange for zines. If you come across some, you should bring them back for her to photocopy.
Speaking of which, has anyone found any zines, yet? I haven't.
These leads shape the gameplay. You can start many but finish few due to the constraints in this demo. No more progress can be made on a lead when the (dreaded) message that reads, “This lead will be implemented in a later version,” appears next to its listing.
Since Signal Hill is a demo, I kept waiting for the game to use the “Congratulations, you have reached the end of the demo!” message, but that never happened. The demo never “ends.” Instead, there is a point where you exhaust every lead and undiscovered morsel of gameplay. And it takes a while. When I ran through it all again to clarify some things for this review, I still stumbled across missed content.
I made the most progress in the Red Light District. Yeah, stop smiling. It’s not (quite) what it sounds.
Let me back this up. When Dr. Zhao stitches you back together, he asks about your specialties. This results in him recommending one of three ways of finding more info about the cargo and ambush. These are mere starting points to get the player started. They consist of investigating the Red Light District, contacting the Lamplighters outside of the city, or get started on deciphering the documents uncovered about the cargo.
Out of these three general paths, the adventure in the Red Light District was the only one that seemed to “end” without any additional strings that were restricted by the demo in the sense that it would not result in a new lead that could not be pursued. It is called (Spoiler - click to show) RIDE THE WAVEFORM. I do have one question about it. While it wraps up neatly, (Spoiler - click to show) Yvette explains that you be contacted soon for more work. Does that occur in the demo? Because I’ve tried sleeping several times but doing so has no effect on the timeframe in the game’s world.
As an RPG, stats are part of the experience. In the intro, you choose a specific reason for arriving at Signal Hill. This increases one of four possible stats in this game: Glam, Savvy, Signal, Brawn.
WHY ARE YOU HERE?
Not much work back home for mechanical types. Here, though? Plenty of machines out here, maybe too many.
That old place? Got bored of it. This city has the excitement you really crave. Until you get bored of this, too.
You shoot things for a living. You just go where the money goes. Or more accurately, where the bullets need to go.
You're in tune enough with the universe to know where you're needed. You hear its signal. It's calling you here.
You also must choose one weakness that gives you a -1 for a stat. You can upgrade this back to 0 with 10 XP points. However, I have been able to get no more than 5 XP in this demo.
For certain gameplay choices, the game will roll two dice to determine the outcome.
Just give the man your name.
Give him a fake name, just in case.
Get him to put it on Yvette's tab.
The last option has an icon of two dice and a heart, which means there is an advantage if you have a higher “Glam” stat. You are sort of at the mercy of the game.
Sometimes it is not always clear if you succeeded with the dice rolls. For the most part you get the long-term outcome anyway (for example, if you (Spoiler - click to show) fail in your attempt to break up the fight in the Rose and Thorn, management still gives you a job). It can be vague.
But it can also mean an undeniable victorious win.
Success. Flawless execution.
It does happen, you know.
You sit back and wait for the questioning to begin. This is kind of exciting.
Not bad. I hope further updates will let us experience the combat component of the game.
It was a blast exploring the city. I have no complaints in the regard. However, I have feedback based on the game’s own description on itchio. It read, “Each area is a snapshot of city life, from the luxury of The Heights to the poverty-stricken slums of Skid Row.” I did not experience this.
My reaction is that while the city certainly had locational differences, it never felt like there was much contrast prosperity and/or social demographics between areas as suggested. Any contrasting information are more centered in locations’ descriptions rather than in immediate gameplay. They are well-written but long, meaning that players are not likely to read them each time they visit. The atmosphere is thus overlooked.
I agree that The Heights stands out as the snazziest place, Skid Row, the least in prosperity and glamour. The Stacks would fall between the two. Did they feel like separate “snapshots” when you go out exploring? Not really. The Red Light District is an interesting case. It too felt like the other areas of the city. If anything, like an extension of The Heights due to the high quantities of glitz, glamour, and luxury.
But while the district’s name may draw assumptions of what it entails, the author crafts a world that just may turn challenge that assumption. Tangent time.
Besides Signal Hill, I’ve played only one other IF game that depicts a red-light district setting that goes beyond a single establishment, such as a brothel: Gotomomi. Despite some roughness with the implementation, I really liked Gotomomi for its open-world atmosphere, one that I have never quite been able to find anywhere else. (Games that stick to a single location include Sense of Harmony, a custom choice-based game, and Desert Heat which is made with TADS).
Gotomomi is a parser game set in a fictional Japanese city of the same name. It stars Ayako, a teenager on the run from her wealthy and influential father. She loses her wallet and must hustle for money to buy a train ticket out of the city. While the game does not apply the term “red-light district,” to a designated area, a huge chunk of the city clearly fits the bill.
The nightlife is infused with a sense of vibrant possibility as we navigate it from Ayako’s perspective. But above all else, the city is coated in a garish sleaziness that permeates everything. This kind of seediness is not present in Signal Hill even if its own Red Light District strives to be unapologetically tacky (in a luxurious way, of course). The Rose and Thorn in Signal Hill is nothing like its equivalent in Gotomomi.
With Signal Hill, it was cool to see how it opts for a slightly different portrayal than a stereotypical (but still just as valid) vision of a nightlife district dedicated to “adult entertainment.” There is no mix of impoverishment and wealth (an unfortunate reality in today’s world, sadly) like that in Gotomomi or other games I’ve seen that depict sex work and similar activities. Sense of Harmony is another good exception. As an interactive fiction work, it was a refreshing contribution to the subject matter!
Finally, I am not saying that the Red Light District has to be seedy to stand out from the rest of Signal Hill city, only that it currently shares more or less of the same ambience as The Heights, The Stacks, and Skid Row. Perhaps even the Lamplighter HQ.
Before we talk about the story, I must acknowledge the writing. The writing is bold, potent, humorous. Surprisingly daring and underscored by a brash, unashamed sexiness. Especially in the Red Light District. Everything about Signal Hill is over the top but narrowly dodges being overdone or contrived. It is not an easy balance, but that game navigates it with ease.
Between that and his usual silver screen-ready makeup, he was really rocking the 'rich widow who has no clue who shot her husband, officer' look.
Not sure I why I found it so funny. I just did. That happens a lot in the game.
Alright, story. I like to think of the story as having three layers. The immediate story about trying to recover the cargo, the overarching story surrounding the city, and the over-overarching story on the game’s universe. Presumably, they are all connected. Let’s dive into the last two.
Over-overarching story: Something has happened to modern civilization. An apocalypse that no one can remember or explain. All of this is underscored by background static, something that you can not only hear but reexperience past events. It depends on your affinity for sensing it. It has a sci-fi feel. Perhaps the universe runs on a computer. Probably not. There is also a spiritual, maybe even supernatural element interwoven in between. At this point, all I have are speculations.
Overarching story: I am still piecing everything together, but I’ll bounce some ideas around. (Spoiler - click to show) Signal Hill was transformed by a man named Nadir whose wealth came from the South and revitalized the city infrastructure, starting with an electric company. He was not the official owner of the city, but he also kind of was. Things were rocky. A month before the game begins, he was shot and killed. Things are still rocky.
I hope the game focuses more on the player’s ability to cross-examine story material from different parts of the gameplay. I love how the game overlaps information about (Spoiler - click to show) Nadir throughout the gameplay. We hear snippets of it on the radio and in conversation with other characters. This provides fantastic worldbuilding because it starts to feel like a separate fictional universe.
The most prominent example of story overlap is when (Spoiler - click to show) KC from the Lamplighter HQ shares her story about guarding a tent for Nadir and his daughter, Yvette, when they were camped out with some caravan. After that experience, Nadir had a chip on his shoulder about mercenaries. KC does not shy away when telling the story. At one point she says:
"You ever heard of this girl? She's pretty f****** important now that daddy got shot, so I guess you might know about her."
"I don't think so."
YES, WE DO. (I censored the quote by the way. The game itself does not hesitate.)
That’s the issue: I just waltzed out of the Waveform quest. The one where you curl up (as in, fall asleep) in the fancy back room in the Waveform club with Yasmine? The game acts like we are learning about this for the first time.
"Don't bother trying to meet her, I've heard she's gone off the deep end nowadays."
Yeah, already been done.
Yasmine mentions a little about this. Tidbits about her father’s will that left her the fortune but also required that she be hounded bodyguard/handlers (city militia, perhaps?) who “look after her,” to borrow her own words. Vague and intriguing. One thing is obvious: Beneath Yasmine’s superficial partygoer glamour, it is obvious that her father’s death deeply upsets her.
Not sure where your missing cargo comes in, though.
I would not expect the player to be able to interrupt (Spoiler - click to show) KC and say, “actually, I did… blah, blah, blah etc.” Blathering about everything you know seems like a bad idea in this environment. However, I was expecting the game to subtly acknowledge that the player has in fact heard about this before. Some way to connect these experiences together. And vice versa. You can visit (Spoiler - click to show) Lamplighter HQ before the Waveform club. That’s what I mean by cross-examining story material.
It would be interesting, though probably unwise, to show (Spoiler - click to show) Yvette the letter that he wrote on the hand drawn map that you receive from Dr. Zhao. Who’s Emil? Yeah, probably a bad idea. Still, it piques your curiosity.
I could ramble about the unique and interesting NPCs that fill the game, but Signal Hill is highly player centric (and this review already too long). Yes, it’s all about you. It features considerable character customization. Sculpting a persona is a main theme in this text adventure. It can be broken down into two fields: Personal identity and physical appearance. Especially the former.
Who am I?
Throughout the game you will have opportunities to accept certain identities as they arise. When you make certain choices or have a particular encounter, the game will present you with messages like this:
You venerate The Lady Death, whose loving embrace will bring us all into the end-times when our brains stop working and we succcumb to her will. While you're alive, offerings to her at your altar can perhaps grant you luck, love, and happiness- or skill bonuses.
Would you like to accept this identity?
--- YES / NO ---
The DEVOTEE identity is the first one offered in the game. You cannot miss it. Other identities, however, are tougher to find. So far, I found eight: (Spoiler - click to show) Augur, Devotee, Genderfuck, Hedonist, Machinist, Medic, Merc, Nomad.
I do not think that the demo is large enough to see these identities manifest due to length and limited opportunities in the gameplay. For example, part of the MERC identity reads:
You know how to get work, never have to roll to get a gig, and can negotiate better pay. However, you're also bound by your word- if you back out on a job, or fail, you lose this perk.
I never had a chance to see this perk in action. That is not a complaint, just that I am eager to explore them further.
The identity I could engage with the most was by far DEVOTEE. (Spoiler - click to show) You can turn a table in the medical clinic into an altar to give offerings. A few things changed in the city after I did this. For example, I went to the Trading Company there was an option to look for candles (there were none worthy for the altar) which is not shown otherwise. It’s as if the game’s landscape is adapting to your own character development. That was delightfully cool and immersive.
I gave my (Spoiler - click to show) altar three offerings: a packet of painkillers, a bottle of whiskey, and my severed pinky finger. I got an achievement for that one. It was worth it. Still, it was not enough to get any of the special perks promised in the DEVOTEE identity description.
(It would have been funny if Yasmin noticed your missing finger when you extend your hand to her during the Waveform club quest: “Eager, you step toward her and take her hand. Like accepting a gift.”)
If you like games that allow you to adjust your physical appearance, Signal Hill may be to your liking. In the intro, you have choices for gender, hair, body type, cosmetics, piercings, tattoos, and clothing. And your name. There are plenty of options and yet it avoids flooding the player with its selection.
In fact, you can complete ignore customization. Clothing? Optional. You can literally be wandering around in nothing but underwear and electrical tape, and everyone- the attackers who shoot you, pedestrians, the guy who stiches you back together- will just be like, “hi, welcome to Signal Hill.” Well, maybe not the attackers. My point is that there is no judgment about your appearance.
Although, the idea of trekking across the wasteland with a caravan while wearing strappy heels makes me anxious. It is a sprained ankle just eagerly waiting to happen. Speaking of impractical outfits, I once started the game in a sequin dress, silk gloves, pearls, and high heels. I felt so weird, but I did so for a reason.
My knowledge is that the only time someone acknowledges the PC’s customizable design choices is during the (Spoiler - click to show) RIDE THE WAVEFORM where Yvette responds to your appearance with different dialog depending on if you dressed to the nines or look shabby.
"What on earth are you wearing?! My god, you're lucky you're cute. This is an important mission, you know!"
This was enough to make me want to restart the entire game.
At that time, I had no idea how to make money in this game (I do now). I figured that I should start the game with clothing that Yvette would approve of to avoid having to scavenge clothes later and/or enduring Yvette’s criticism. Hence the poorly chosen wasteland explorer outfit.
But besides this, I did not notice any gameplay that made note of what you wear.
I’ve got something to complain about (mostly just to vent). There are two guys in the warehouse who talk about a religion of being connected to the “static.” If you try to listen to it and succeed, one character gives you instructions to (Spoiler - click to show) talk to the bookseller for more info. She has a price if you want to take it another step.
Pay the woman. (4)
“Woah. That's crazy!”
(The first choice is to pay; second choice is if you cannot afford it. I could afford it.)
This is a placeholder. You shouldn't be able to get this much money in the current version.
And a way out in case you cheat yourself into this passage somehow. Naughty.
You don’t understand. I DID make that much money. My wealth was 4. That was the price she wanted. Cheating? How would one do that? I suppose this is not a fair complaint since the author clearly states that the demo is just that: a demo. Still, I was so pleased to have accumulated the wealth to unlock the next phase of this story.
In another playthrough, I got it up to 5. I cannot believe that wealth 5 is not enough to buy something in L'Apothecaire, although I applaud how the player discovers the store by (Spoiler - click to show) listening to the radio in the Juice Bar. That part was clever.
The other notable thing about this place was the prices. They were all listed on the shelves, and lord were they ludicrous. There was no way you could afford any of this stuff. Maybe a pack of their cheapest cigarettes.
Ah, well. Maybe when you earn more cash.
There is no higher wealth level than 5! The description of this wealth level is “Rich get richer. Get into any club, hire anybody, buy whatever you want.” Hear that? Buy anything.
Also, I bought a radio from the electronics story, but it never showed up in my inventory. That annoyed me. Why did I bother increasing my wealth if it has little use? It is like someone gives you candy with the condition that you are not allowed to eat it.
There are some broken links that are highlighted in red. I was disappointed to see:
Error: <<include>>: passage “Personal Shoutout” does not exist
…after paying for a shoutout at the radio station.
As a demo, these technicalities can slide, but I hope that the author continues to develop the game.
Features a graphic of a computer screen that contains text from the gameplay. The screen’s appearance can be adjusted. I set it to “dark mode” to make it easier on my eyes. Behind it all is a backdrop designed to look like a concrete wall. Adds a nice grunginess.
The menu section on the left side of the screen is cleverly depicted as VHS tapes with handwritten titles like “Gear,” “ID,” or “Leads.” They are animated to slide out when you hover over them.
I am incredibly happy that the font is readable. Some games use ultra-pixelated font when going for a computer screen vibe which can be difficult to read, especially for long gameplays. With Signal Hill, the default is easy to read, and you can even change it in the settings. Options!
Signal Hill is an ambitious game that delivers. It never seems like the author bit off more than they can chew in the sense that they envisioned a bold idea for gameplay and had the implementation to pull it off. While there are natural limitations to Twine and other choice-based formats when simulating a navigable city, its components support one another so that it feels that much more complex.
I loved the focus on fluidity of individuality, and I feel like that will be a main draw for other players. Rather than boxing yourself in a single role, you can collect identities like trading cards. The story is the same way. You start at a lead of your choosing and simply see where it takes you. There is no singular path. Nor do you have to pick a single path and stick to it.
Or at least right now. I have a feeling that the stakes will raise as the game continues to be developed.
Where will we go from here? This is a ridiculously generous and detailed demo. It is off to a fantastic start… However, there are many cool demos out there that I have yet to see finished. I know it’s asking for a lot, but you know, make it come full circle. I won’t pretend to understand the sheer work that goes into making a large, ambitious game. Still, if you have a gem, keep at it. FiNiSh tHeSe GaMeS!
I hope to see Signal Hill completed. (Please)