The Signal State is a post-apocalyptic puzzler that uses modular synthesis to solve complex electrical problems. Sandbox mode lets you play with the modular just for fun.
The Signal State
The Signal State from Reckoner Industries was released last year and is thoroughly engrossing and terribly hard. It’s set in some not-too-distant future where all the agricultural machines have broken, and it’s our task to get them rewired and up and running again. The genius part of the equation is that all the wiring in the machines is based on Eurorack-style modular synthesis.
For the most part, this has a lot to do with logic gates, maths and combining modulations. You’re working to achieve the right signal at the output via a whole range of synthesis modules. It’s fascinatingly brilliant but requires some deep thinking and a lot of trial and error.
During the game, the problems get increasingly hard, the number of modules at your disposal increases and the narrative gets darker and more foreboding. But ultimately, you will save the planet by getting this old broken farm working through bleeps and bloops.
The game is great. However, it would be awesome to be able to play with the modules to make your own tunes. With the news Sandbox Mode, you can!
Sandbox Mode gives you the power to access all of the modules within the game outside the game. Along with all the logic and modulation-based modules, you get drum machines, sequencers, percussive sounds and entire synth voices for you to wire yourself into.
There are a ton of interesting things in here, and The Signal State has such a fabulous style and vibe going. However, I wouldn’t be tossing out your VCV Rack or Voltage Modular software just yet. I’m afraid to say that the experience of working in Sandbox Mode is not particularly inspiring. Within the context of the game the modules make sense and you are focused on the problems. When given the modules to play with, you’re left feeling both overwhelmed by the possibilities and underwhelmed by the sound it’s making.
The music-making elements are small. You have a synth voice which contains an oscillator, envelope and filter but these only exist inside the one module. There are no modular synth parts that act on audio; in fact, there are no audio inputs or outputs on any module. The sound from the synth voice and drum modules just emerges from the software. All the other modules appear to be logical manipulators or modulators. It’s very interesting for creating systems but less versatile for doing synthesis.
There are other problems too. It doesn’t work in real-time. You have to build your modular and then hit “Play” to hear it work. You can move knobs, but you can’t repatch anything. When it plays all the cables flash, and you get voltage readouts on every port – this is useful in the game but is really unpleasant in Sandbox Mode. Thankfully you can turn off the animations. What you can’t turn off is the in-game music which plays on a constant loop while you are building your machine. You can turn it down but then that turns down the output of your synth when it plays. At least it’s not playing while your synth is playing.
Just a game?
I did talk to the developers about these issues, and unfortunately, the music can’t be turned off at the moment. Similarly, with the granularity of the modules, they see breaking up the synth voice or dealing with audio signals as something that’s out of the scope of what they’re trying to do.
I dearly wanted to like the Sandbox Mode because I love the game and thought it really hit some interesting notes. It taught you loads about systems, logic and modular circuits and the potential of the interface got me quite excited by the idea of being let loose in it. But sadly, my experience of using Sandbox Mode was frustrating and what you can accomplish with it is sorely limited.
So, while the Sandbox Mode might be interesting and curious to many people, from my perspective as a modular musician, I believe there are much better choices for free. However, the game is great, so go and play the game! It’s available on Steam now for only £15.49 and is absolutely worth it.
Here’s me doing a playthrough of the original release last year.
- The Signal State Sandbox in play: The Signal State