Something went very wrong in the Hayes household. As much as Raymond Hayes appears to be a brilliant scientist – more in the vein of Lost’s kitschy Dharma Initiative and pseudo-science than Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking – his obsessive work drives his family and ends up with the broken simulation and family memories that you explore in Transference.
Transference has always been pitched with playing in VR front and centre, and with traditional TV or monitor play second. It makes sense when VR as a technology lends itself disturbingly well to horror games. Having slower movement is conducive to a comfortable VR experience – and there’s tons of options to fiddle with if you wish – and your real world senses are cut off to immerse you fully in your surroundings.
Instead you’re dropped on the street outside a music shop and apartment, trying to find your way in. At almost every stage, you’re confronted by corruption, breaks in the programme and simulation that you have to try to resolve. It could be needing to find a door knocker to reattach to a door so that it resolves back into reality and lets you inside, or fiddling with radio knobs to find the right frequency. As you retread the path between rooms and try to open previously locked doors with relevant objects and clues you’ve found, Spectrevision’s comparison to an escape room makes a lot of sense.
However, this is an escape room where you can fundamentally shift reality, flicking glowing light switches on the walls to do so. The simulation contains the memories of Raymond, his wife Katherine and their son Benjamin, but their perceptions of the same place are dramatically different. You see Raymond’s obsession with how servers and equipment practically overflow from cupboards and block doorways, while Benjamin’s childhood innocence revolves around his dog Laika, and Katherine’s view of the world locks it down behind imposing steel doors and grim red lighting. Some puzzles need you to cross the divide as you’re piecing clues together.
Between the changing environments, the ominous background tones that are broken by distressed voices, the items you pick up and the FMV videos you can collect and watch, it’s clear that this was a fundamentally broken home and that Raymond came to believe that his work was the only way of recapturing happier times, instead of realising that it would only continue to drive them apart.
Transference works well in VR, though a few bugbears emerged as I played. For one, a spiral staircase is not a particularly good fit for VR with snap turning as the default, and picking up objects to inspect them was poorly considered without full motion controllers. Any item you’re holding in your hand hovers in front, but then pulling the trigger to inspect it more closely and turn it around before you moves it, not closer to your head and where you’re specifically looking, but rather to a set point to the front of your character. It makes sense when switching to play without VR, where you have much less freedom with the camera view. Given the amount of stuff that you’re picking up and turning around in front of you, I ended up playing a good chunk of the game outside of VR. Sure, it might not be quite as creepy, but it just felt a bit easier.
And in general, while the game is atmospheric, the horror here sticks firmly within the realms of psychological. A shimmering, pixelated monster pops up every now and then, shifting down corridors to get you, but these are scripted events designed to signal the end of a section and move you on to the next. As soon as I realised that I wasn’t actually in danger, the effect diminished, and I welcomed the cut to black with open arms.
Coming to the end after around 90 minutes – you can spend more time or go back to hunt for collectable videos – it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but there’s not a particularly satisfying payoff. You’ll have pieced together the chain of events that led to this broken home, but Transference doesn’t really look to address the topics of domestic abuse and broken families that it alludes to and much of the atmosphere it provides. You fix the simulation, get treated to a smugly righteous Raymond in a concluding video, and can draw your own conclusions as to whether you’ve actually achieved anything.
Transference’s inventively spins its story of obsession and broken families into a game that’s all about perception and twisted realities. It’s not entirely successful, failing to confront the topics it raises and failing to live up to its Hollywood billing and origins, but it’s still deeply atmospheric as you flick between realities, solve puzzles and figure out the lengths to which Raymond Hayes would truly go.
Version tested: PSVR & PS4
Also available on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PC & Xbox One.