Hands-on with Transference: A VR head-trip (LSD not required)

Nathan Lawrence 5 September 2017

transference

Ubisoft Montreal merges consciousness with a horror-film production company to create a VR puzzler unlike any other.

It’s hard to tell what to expect from a game that’s championed by Elijah Wood. When he’s not busy being a household name as Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings, he tends to pop up in art-house movies. There’s no denying he knows how to push the creep factor, either. Just look at his performances as a predatory stalker in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a touched murderer in Sin City or as the titular twisted mind in Maniac.

Wood was on hand at E3 (in video form) to announce Transference, a game being built in collaboration with Ubisoft Montreal by the Hollywood actor’s film production company SpectreVision. The production company specialises in horror films, which I wish I’d known going into my hands- and heads-on virtual reality preview of Transference.

In psychological terms, transference refers to the subconscious phenomenon of unintentionally redirected feelings between two people. Transference, the VR title, takes this idea to heart (or, perhaps more accurately, to head) and is hell bent on making a game out of it. Even though what I played will reportedly not be part of the final release, it was designed to paint a picture of what to expect from the playable version of Transference.

Before playing the game, I was made to watch a briefing video. It had all the hallmarks of a horror movie: terrible VHS quality, an overly optimistic scientist type and a sour note at the end that was meant to be unnerving. It worked on me.

The basic concept is you travel into the digitally recreated memories of a clearly deranged person. It’s less Inception and more Lawnmower Man in terms of how it visually depicts travelling into the mind: namely, less realism and more surreal visual flair. In saying that, Transference’s style also refers to the creep factor, which is evident from the outset.

As far as controls are concerned, it’s incredibly simple. I was playing on the HTC Vive (but Transference is also coming to PlayStation VR), which meant I was able to control major head movements with the right stick. A single button on each hand controller is dedicated to interacting with objects in the game world. The VR headset obviously let me perform refined head movements. It’s worth noting that having a headset over your eyes and headphones over your ears adds to the immersion as much as it does the unnerving feeling that permeates throughout Transference.

When I saw a creepy kid vanish around a corner, I had flashbacks to Hideo Kojima’s skin-crawling P.T. demo. Transference isn’t supposed to be a horror game, but good luck remembering that when you soft-fail a puzzle and end up with a screaming crazy person teleporting right up to your grill and firing a shotgun at your face. That happened twice during my demo, and the first time didn’t properly prepare me for the second.

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I quickly learned that, like the subconscious dream-invaders of Inception, I was a foreign entity whose job it was to observe and occasionally interact, but never the latter with the people I encountered. And that applies double to the mad hatter whose mind I was visiting.

Ultimately, the puzzles aren’t too taxing, especially if you apply a logical process of elimination to the few items you can interact with. Except, in this instance, that logic does require a certain degree of mental flexibility to match the rules of the game world. As I later learned, that kid didn’t so much disappear in a supernatural way as he was transported to an earlier memory.

Upon reflection, his disappearance was actually activated by a clue that I had missed. Thankfully, missing the clue didn’t set me too far back, as any interactable items in Transference that are of importance will float if dropped. There are other items you can grab that help to paint a better picture of the fractured state of the mind you’re inhabiting, but if you want to game the puzzles, you simply have to drop what you’ve grabbed to see if it floats.

As it turns out, there was a particular trigger that let me travel between the two time periods: both in the same cramped house, but with slightly changed elements. I was also able to carry certain items between periods to crack puzzles, which was a nice touch. In the present, there were screams coming from the open basement, where the gun-wielding patient was waiting to reset me.

In the past, the basement door was locked, but it was quiet on the other side. I’m deliberately talking around the solutions to specific puzzles because the devs mentioned there’s a chance this experience may be released to the public. If I had to bet, it will serve well as a mood-piece demo for those curious to know more about what Transference will offer, a lot like what P.T was supposed to be for Silent Hill. Except, hopefully, the full release of Transference will actually see the light of day.

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With such limited interactivity in this demo puzzle, it would be easy to dismiss Transference as part of the first-wave VR experiences that are more gimmick than game. But that’s not the case. The simplicity of Transference’s controls is no reflection on the atmosphere, the puzzling or the feeling of satisfaction when you sniff out the right solution.

EA sponsored Nathan Lawrence’s flights, accommodation and meals while he was at Gamescom 2017.

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