Walking simulators have been in a somewhat dire need of a resurgence since What Remains of Edith Finch. Although many have offered interesting narratives, many lack a hook in terms of mechanics and aesthetics. During Ubisoft’s press conference in June, Elijah Wood showed a promising title with Transference, a game that utilized full motion video with the genre, which felt like the shot in the arm that was needed. Although this idea from is a welcome one and the title has a great atmosphere and sense of intrigue, it’s missing a key factor: fun.
The game opens with a video of a man named Raymond talking about his work on the human brain. His goal is to record brain data and project memories to other subjects via his invention. The details are a bit vague, but it provides just enough mystery to keep the player interested. Your character witnesses his family’s memories using the device he created. As you explore the single apartment that acts as the setting, you slowly peel back the layers of exactly what happened.
A Virtual Escape Room
In true “walking simulator” fashion, you work your way through the various rooms interacting with objects. The ultimate goal is to return a set of crystals to a centralized device. The gameplay works more like a point-and-click adventure game in first-person. The apartment is littered with useless objects, although many do shed some light on the family’s history. Your job is find the ones that actually matter to use elsewhere for progression. To make things interesting, there are multiple versions of the apartment which change after flipping light switches. Find an item in one realm, and you might have to take it to the other in order to advance the story.
The puzzles themselves, which are somewhat akin to escape rooms, are never obtuse. Games like The Secret of Monkey Island force you to experiment with various items until something sticks. Conversely, Transference strays from that formula, since the combinations you create actually make sense. For this reason, the game is paced very well, and players shouldn’t find themselves beating their heads against a wall. The game respects your time and wants you to experience the story and environment more than poring over brain work.
The problem I have here is that it’s not particularly exciting to work through this mystery. There’s very little satisfaction in merely combining items together. There are some interesting tidbits you learn about the family’s dark past, but the payoff seemed a bit lost on me. Not all stories have to have a happy ending, but I take issue with ones that don’t have closure, especially when we’re asked to care about these characters.
On top of that, character movement moves at a snail’s pace here. I understand that this isn’t an action-oriented game by any stretch of the imagination, however this was a huge distraction for me. I found myself constantly crouching when I tried to sprint across a room. It feels like SpectreVision did this purposely to add to the atmosphere, but it had the opposite effect on me.
An Unsettling Family Affair
What does work in Transference is the atmosphere and dark themes. It straddles the line between psychological thriller and horror quite well. The different perspectives of the apartment remind me of the shifts in the Silent Hill series. The audio, in particular, is rather unsettling. Voices echo in your head, doors creak open, and creepy sounds emanate from other rooms in a way that don’t feel like cheap scares.
The added element of real video is also particularly effective. There are, of course, cut scenes of the family (mostly found as hidden collectibles). But the added touch of random videos popping on computer monitors or real photographs of the family on desks gives the story more personality. It’s an ambitious move that I’d like to see in more games of this style.
Transference falls under the category of “interesting experience” more than a game I’d highly recommend. I don’t normally compare dollars to hours spent in a game, but the price point for this game is hard to swallow. It’s worth checking out, but I would wait for a sale. At the same time, I’m excited to see what else this developer puts out in the future. I just hope that their next game is a more satisfying experience.