Transference opens with a video recording of a middle-aged man addressing the viewer. Dressed in a brown suit that he looks uncomfortable to wear, he appears anxious and fidgets as he begins his dialog. As he reveals his successful scientific discover, he grows more energetic and excited, his demeanor shifting from calm to manic as he details the concept of his experiment of breathing human consciousness into a virtual space. The video serves as a chance for this man, Raymond Hayes, to prepare the viewer for what they are about to experience before making an offhand comment about joining his family. The video ends, the screen filling with snowy static, and the player is transported to a digital reproduction of the Hayes’ family home where it becomes immediately and abundantly clear that something isn’t right.
Developed by Ubisoft and SpectreVision, Hollywood actor Elijah Wood’s production company, Transference is a PlayStation VR-enabled (but not required) psychological thriller. It uses intentionally disjointed and abstract environmental storytelling to mask the truth behind the troubled lives of the Hayes family, specifically the supposed abuses committed by its patriarch, the tortured genius Raymond Hayes. This is one of those games that is hard to discuss in great detail over fears of spoiling the plot. However, clarity over the circumstances surrounding the concerns of Raymond’s wife Katherine and his son Benjamin rely on heavily inferring meaning behind a figurative trash heap of vague notes, specters, video diaries, phone messages, and the ramblings of Raymond himself. What can be said is that the player experiences all this within Hayes household, walking from one room to another and from one perspective to another. Carefully placed light switches trigger the simulated home from each family member’s point of view. These simulated reproductions are built upon the suggestion of how the characters viewed the world around them. Like any experimental computer program, the simulation is sometimes distorted or incomplete, with error messages and codes making it feel like the stability of the program is hanging by a thread.
What little gameplay there is in Transference has roots in the adventure genre, combining the environmental storytelling of a walking simulator with puzzle logic and item hunting of point and click adventures. However, the “game” part feels rather superficial in the long run because all you’re really doing is moving about the apartment looking for objects or manipulating dials and knobs to advance the story SpectreVision so desperately wants to tell. The game’s official website humbly suggests that Transference is the perfect marriage between video gaming and Hollywood but my distinct impression is that it would have been off either as a pure walking simulator or a moderately interactive movie. Having to hunt from room to room looking for some sort of trigger can get boring and the frequency with which the background dialog gets repeated turns a legitimately spooky house to feel tedious.
Transference has all the features of a psychological thriller - obscure clues hinting at some sort of revelation - but without a satisfying payoff that would tie the whole thing together by the end. Take, for example, the movie Shutter Island: for the majority of the film, we learn through clues and other ideas and suggestions that something isn’t quite right about the hospital. Leonardo DiCaprio’s visit there serves a greater purpose which is revealed at the end of the film that lays everything bare and rewards the audience by validating their suspicions. In the case of Transference, the story has all the mystery and painfully vague clues and assertions expected of the genre but without the satisfying conclusion. It is content staying as vague as it is allowed to be. There’s no straight answers or a special monologue where Raymond lays out the entire drama on the table. Some people may like that as an excuse to replay the short story and wuss out additional details. Considering that Transference isn’t a particularly fun game, I wasn’t inclined to do it all over again.
One of the better elements of the game are the full motion video recordings that show the growing decline and dysfunction among the Hayes family. Raymond plays a prominent role, as his video diaries show more often than those of Benjamin’s and Katherine’s — by design I expected that as he is the architect of the simulation. Depending on the point of view, though, Raymond comes off as a man struggling between being on the cusp of a major discovery and maintaining a healthy relationship with his significant others. Over time, he grows more and more obsessive, leading the player to insinuate that he does terrible things to Katherine and Benjamin, whose own video diaries imply a growing frustration and resentment towards Raymond. The video entries, triggered during key moments of the game and can be found as hidden collectibles, never explicitly tell the player what these people are doing and how they suffer under their husband and father, so it’s up to you to infer meanings behind what’s being said or alluded to. Raymond, however, becomes a malevolent force through his diaries that eventually offer the suggestion that he might be insane or, worse, an abuser. For being such a menacing figure, some of Raymond’s speeches tend to get preachy and heavy-handed. Some of his “poetry” readings are downright comical because they sound terrible and are delivered with the excitement of waiting in line at the DMV. Raymond’s fluid emotional and intellectual state does make him an effective and discomforting presence in the story that buckles under the weight of its own obtuse mystery.
What is the cost of a scientific breakthrough? What sacrifices must be made in the name of human progress? How many eggs must you break to create that omelette? These are the questions that hound Raymond Hayes as you explore his life through the eyes of his family. Transference is equipped with a fascinating premise that suffers from a substantial disconnect because there’s no apparent connection between the Hayes and you, the player. Who are you supposed to be? How did you stumble onto this simulation? Is this supposed to be some new twist on the “found footage” genre? Tying the player into the narrative to some degree would have gone a long way to make me feel more attached, involved, and invested in these people’s lives and why they matter outside of the empathy you develop in seeing them suffer from Raymond’s apparent physical and mental abuse. Transference is a game that can be completed in a day, longer if you try to collect every video diary and achievements, yet once it ends there’s nothing left except for a sad, lonely man in a cheap suit.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.