Sometimes a video game is so engrossing, so absorbing that it sticks with you long after the credits have rolled. For some games it’s because of a particularly gripping narrative, or a keen sense of atmosphere, or even just thoughtful design. For Transference, an immersive psychological horror game developed as a collaboration between developer Ubisoft Montreal and Elijah Woods’ own film studio SpectreVision, it’s a case of all three. Oh, and the fact that it’s playable in VR helps, too.
Transference explores the lives of a family of three; Raymond Hayes, his wife Katherine and their son Benjamin. Raymond is a brilliant scientist who’s managed to break the barriers to the human mind and develop a technology that can create a full, virtual representation of an individual’s own consciousness. As is to be expected, things don’t quite go smoothly with this, and the player’s role in everything is to deep-dive into the minds of the Hayes family and try to piece together just what the hell is going on. Without saying too much, the story itself plays out in a fashion typical to this type of game, which is to say it’s fairly simple at face value, but players who take the time to explore every corner of the environment and soak up every detail will find a lot more beneath the surface. It also toys with some unique (to me, at least) concepts involving music, sonic frequencies and neuroscience that I really enjoyed.
You’d still get a couple mil for this place in Sydney
As a game, Transference is probably most appropriately placed in the category of ‘walking simulator’, albeit one with a psychological horror bent. Pretty much the entire game takes place in a virtual representation of the Hayes’ apartment, although over the course of the story the apartment takes on a few different looks based on the perspective of the three family members. Switching between these different planes is as simple as flicking one of the apartment’s light switches, and most of the few puzzles are based on the idea of finding an object or pathway in one version of the apartment and using it to progress in another. It’s a relatively passive experience overall though, so none of these instances are overly taxing on the grey matter. I did very much appreciate that at certain points though, I was compelled to break out a notebook to jot down cryptic information (including some good ol’ morse code) that led me to further story revelations.
While the story and gameplay in Transference are perfectly good on their own, the real winner here is the sheer unnerving and almost anxiety-inducing atmosphere that Ubisoft Montreal and SpectreVision have managed to create. Through the fantastic visual language and soundscape that has obviously been influenced by Elijah Wood and his team’s work in film, combined with the compelling writing and game design, Transference throws you into an experience that’s truly affecting. The environment of the Hayes’ apartment is so well-realised and yet so surreal that it’s very easy to become lost within its walls as the family’s tragic story seeps in under your skin. The constant, crushing weight of their cacophony of emotions, rendered palpable by Raymond’s virtual world is so much that it would almost feel necessary to take breaks at times, were it not so compelling to play through in one hit.
You get an ‘A’ for effort, scary kid
All of this is true enough of playing Transference on a regular screen, an entirely enjoyable option on its own, but VR is where the game truly shines. As is expected, being fully immersed in the game adds a lot to the experience, but especially so when the game’s VR implementation is as accomplished as this. Whether in VR or ‘flat’, the game has a strong and very polished look, and a unique visual language that takes quite a few cues from cinematic techniques. On a technical front, it’s sharp and fluid on the PlayStation VR, and plays great with the DualShock 4 and full locomotion with either smooth or snap turning. This is definitely one of the best-looking PSVR games I’ve played, and one of the best examples of the kind of immersion and atmosphere that can only be achieved with the technology. The only potential sour note, although one that VR owners are used to at this point, is the asking price of $37.95 AUD for what is a roughly two-hour game. It’s a perfectly reasonable price point, all things considered, but those who like to maximise their game-per-dollar will probably find issue.
Transference is proof that the games and film industry should get together more often. As a disturbing and enthralling study of humanity, mortality and family combined with a polished and engaging VR (or non-VR) exploration/puzzle game it’s a hell of a ride. It’s only a shame that it’s a feature-length, one-off experience at a premium price because I would gladly see this sort of thing go episodic.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro | Review code supplied by publisher