Narrative storytelling in video games can be an effective way to help guide a player through the entirety of a game’s main story mode. Done right, this can help present characters that players can identify and empathize with alongside situations that offer some kind of meaningful arc that can have a beginning, middle and end.
Adventure games have experienced a resurgence lately with notable entries like Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Firewatch and What Remains of Edith Finch. They even helped coin a new term – walking simulators – where players are given freedom to navigate spaces on their own terms. Threats of death or failure are largely removed, replaced with puzzle elements that often boil down to simple “Find Key, Enter Door” mentalities. Contextual items can be added to flesh out areas so they feel less synthetic and more interactive.
Transference, a game by Ubisoft Montreal and SpectreVision, tries its hand at the subgenre and succeeds in storytelling, if only to stumble in other areas. It asks players to enter an escape room-type scenario, a psychological thriller rooted in a hard science fiction aesthetic that mixes in different themes to explore throughout the experience. While this could be seen as slightly ambitious, the end result is a charcuterie board of plot threads that leaves more questions than answers.
As a player, you find yourself tapping into the memories of a scientist, his wife and their son. Moving along you’ll come across pieces of their lives that illustrate a sense of depression, the loss of love, the stifling of dreams, and many more. You’ll dive deep into dark corners of this family’s life with little directly spelled out. Many of the story beats can be found from the short bits of dialogue that play when relevant objects are picked up and examined.
But much of the story’s larger arc is more vague than anything else, which can lead to imposing your own interpretations to its overall premise. Those expecting a fuller, richer experience may be slightly put off by how vague the presentation (ultimately) is, but I never had a problem with it. Personally, I felt the ambiguous nature added to the resonance and the game spoke to me more than I thought – or wished – it would.
Of course, these poignant story beats would be nothing without the fine work of actors who perform the game’s live-action scenes. Transference is lead wonderfully by actor-director Macon Blair, also seen in amazing must-see films like Blue Ruin and Green Room. Blair does a tremendous job making his character feel nuanced yet still slightly unhinged. His character’s wife and son are played well enough by their respective actors (Lindsay Burdge and Tyler Crumley), making the family feel realistic enough.
Unfortunately, the story and acting can only hold the game up so much. Controls are adequate enough but can make your character feel like he’s wading through mud. This is a problem with games like these, to be honest, one that could easily be alleviated with a simple “run” button or function to help eliminate the slog. I’m not saying we need Quake-style speed, but considering how much backtracking is required this would certainly help.
My largest complaint with the game itself focuses around the gameplay, which is never a good sign. Specifically, its with the various “puzzles”, legibility and lack of overall direction. There were times where I didn’t really know what I was trying to do. At times I found myself almost at a loss in what to do next, only to discover certain puzzles didn’t need solving.
A large mechanic in the game centers on light switches found around the apartment. Switching these allows you to jump between different perspectives. Sometimes the game directs you to these, but I often found myself expecting to do something else before requiring myself to jump back and forth between perspectives.
Legibility on items can also be tough, as illustrated by one area that left me frustrated about how to proceed. A radio kept playing a signal of the Father trying to communicate to his son. I initially tried to interact with the radio, to no avail. All around the apartment were blue wires so I grabbed the wire cutters in the kitchen drawer and went up and down the house for about 10 minutes trying to interact with the wire to potentially cut it and thusly progress in the story. 10 minutes.
Eventually, I decided to look back at the radio and noticed there were very small interaction buttons hovering over it, the fonts blended with the object so much so they might as well have been painted directly on the radio itself. This was mighty frustrating, both at the game’s use of inappropriate fonts but also the lackluster resolution of the “puzzle” itself.
When I expected puzzles, I got nothing but a lightswitch. When I expected nothing, I got vague puzzles that sometimes have nonsensical solutions. Overall, this felt very inconsistent and a part of me wishes they had just removed all puzzles entirely.
Despite all that, the story of the game is just enough to hold it all up on its own if you can look past the ill-conceived mechanics. It’s mysterious and engaging enough without being too scary, though there were certain jump scares that got me. It’s worth mentioning the game is touted as a VR release for PC and PS4 PSVR users, though I didn’t take advantage of that option (again, a choice that’s also touted as possible). I suspect experiencing it in virtual reality may add to the overall ambience and suspense, especially since tension can be created by the whispering heard throughout the apartment.
Transference is a solid walking simulator wrapped around an intriguing psychological premise, one that appealed to my innate love of escape rooms. Nearly everything is handled well, even the FMV storytelling sequences and science fiction elements. If only the puzzles had been more clever – or cleverly implemented – then perhaps the immersive experience the developers had in mind would have been more evident. Still, if you’re looking for a mildly scary thriller with a movie-length 90-minute running time, there’s enough here to scratch that itch.