I knew I was in trouble when I found the second door-knocker. Here in “Transference’s” apartment building – a glitch-warren of locked doors, clipped code, and rotting paint – duplicates always mean something, and it’s up to you to figure out what. Taking the brass fixture marked “C” into the clumsy claw of one of my disembodied VR-hands, I scoured the stairs for Apartment C and pushed the knocker up to and into its duplicate, which produced no effect. It was only when I flipped a light-switch to burrow into another character’s perspective – a member of the family who finds themselves trapped in the simulation you’ve plunged yourself into – that I was able to affix the knocker to the wall and let myself in, hopefully without letting the monstrosities roving within make their way out.
“Transference” is a paranoid puzzle game developed by a small team within Ubisoft Montreal – in collaboration with film production company SpectreVision, best-known for its close ties to actor Elijah Wood – that explores themes of “consciousness, family, and obsession,” according to writer Kyle McCullough. Before the game begins, a real-life man in a suit – played by actor Macon Blair – informs you through a wide-eyed monologue that you are about to embark on a task of great magnitude before shunting you into a fractured virtual approximation of an apartment building that seems to be coming apart at the seams in every sense – tangles of mysterious wires snake their way through every space you encounter, and snippets of dangling code compete for your attention alongside tokens of everyday life like science magazines or birthday cards.
Over the short half-hour demo, it becomes apparent that the suited man is a neuroscientist of some sort who has – intentionally or not – imprisoned his family in this simulation, and now seeks to let them out, with your help. This assistance takes the form of traditional point-and-click puzzles that require the player to suss out crucial differences between “versions” of the central apartment and resolve the problems that they present. For example, the climactic riddle of the demo had me turning the radio in two different echoes of the kitchen so that the denizens of the two dimensions could talk to each other – the father and his son, who both want nothing more than to get the hell out of the simulation.
McCullough emphasizes that the player does not portray a role in the family – they are simply themselves, recruited by the father to uncertain ends. Through this design choice, the developers hope to lure even the most skeptical gamers into the game’s enigmatic web. “That’s certainly part of the mystery,” he says. “We want to keep the player guessing throughout, to make them as paranoid as the characters in the game.
“When people play the demo, they’re so stressed out that they sometimes don’t realize that they’re pulling the triggers on the two controllers, which makes it hard for them to pick up objects. We don’t necessarily want that specific outcome, but that speaks to the direction we’re going. This is a family of scientists, and we want the science to be front-and-center. We even found some scientists who study whatever weird stuff we want to put into the game, to make it as accurate as possible. We want you to believe this stuff.”
For those in the market for a genuinely unsettling VR experience, “Transference” certainly fits the bill, complete with a sense of overriding anxiety.. But watch where you step – you never know what dark revelations lurk behind this ongoing experiment. After all, you’re one of the subjects.