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Transference’s dark themes make this VR game difficult to endure

The most troubling experience I’ve had in virtual reality

Ubisoft and SpectreVision
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Transference, the new psychological thriller from Ubisoft and SpectreVision, a studio by Elijah Wood, is out now for PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One. The game, which also features full support for virtual reality platforms like HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR, is one of the most disturbing experiences that I’ve ever had in virtual reality. Though it includes many jump scares, its impact on me went much deeper than physical reflexes.

Make no mistake that Transference is a horror game through and through. But it is a very specific kind of horror. While it is successful in its goals of narrative immersion and physical terror, survivors of domestic abuse or children of drug or alcohol abusers would do well to steer clear of the title, especially in VR.

Warning: What follows contains major spoilers for Transference. It will also include a discussion of domestic abuse and addiction.

At the center of the narrative in Transference is a scientist named Raymond Hayes. The game opens with a video, recorded by Hayes, in which he explains his attempts to “breathe” the human consciousness into a computer. It’s made clear that all of this happened in the past, however. His first test subjects were, unfortunately, his wife Katherine and his young son, Benjamin.

The conceit of the game, therefore, is that the player must journey into the computer simulation where those three human consciousnesses now reside and in some way set them free.

To accomplish its narrative goals, Transference makes use of live-action video. Television screens in the game world will come to life as secrets are unlocked, accompanied by secondary videos that appear to float in mid-air. Overall, they’re remarkably well produced, feeling neither jarring nor out of place. They do, however, tend to be pretty heavy handed.

For instance, it’s in the very first video that Raymond heavily implies he killed his wife and son and intends to take his own life next. From that point forward, it’s the job of the player to uncover the details. While most of the action takes place off screen, you can nonetheless expect a grisly tale that involves chloroform, horrible violence and a modified deep freezer.

The murders and the suicide in the game aren’t its most troubling aspect, however. At least, they weren’t for me. Instead, it was the game’s vivid portrayal of domestic abuse.

Raymond is more than just a tortured genius. He’s an addict, hooked on sleeping pills, and that addiction manifests itself in mistreatment of his family. In one video, a collectible that can be viewed outside the game itself, we see Raymond at his most violent. Clearly under the influence, he grabs at his son’s arm during an intimate family birthday party and demands that he share his birthday wish with him. At other times, Raymond seems to be in the throws of a kind of mania which can only be barely contained by his self-medication.

The most emotional scenes for me came while looking through the eyes of young Benjamin while his mother tried to calm him and sing him to sleep. Artifacts scattered throughout the house show that Katherine was at one time a talented musician destined for a career in San Francisco. But Raymond’s work pulled them all the way across the country, where both she and her child began to feel trapped. There’s even evidence that they tried to escape their abuser before they were both ultimately killed.

As far as the gameplay goes, the most apt comparison is to an old-school adventure game. Most of the action takes place in the Hayes’ small walk-up apartment. By using objects in the environment, including light switches, players can move between the perspectives of all three family members to unravel the mystery.

Ultimately, the game’s most interesting puzzles come early on. In one scene, players must pluck bits of a paper snowflake out of the air and piece them back together in order to decode a four-digit password on Raymond’s computer. It seems fairly innocuous at first, but in VR, there’s a wonderful physicality to the puzzle, which can only be solved by viewing both sides of the document that it was written on. Of course, you could also just brute force your way through by inputting different sequences of numbers. The game is notable for its lack of fail states.

Toward the end of the game, however, the complexity of the puzzles starts to peter out. At one point, I was hampered by the slow movement speed of my avatar from moving through a timed sequence to an otherwise unreachable portion of the apartment. It caused me to retrace my steps nearly half a dozen times, searching for some clue or some object that I must have overlooked. Thankfully, by that time in the game, Benjamin’s continual wailing and plaintive screams for help had largely gone silent.

Transference has a few outdoor environments as well, but players are locked out of them after the mid-game.
Ubisoft and SpectreVision

Later, I was disappointed to find that all I had to do was move to the right spot on the floor to unlock the next puzzle. Once there, I just manipulated the face of a clock to match the others nearby in order to progress the story. That puzzle in particular seemed devoid of any real narrative weight.

The traditional and VR experiences are identical, save the use of motion controls like Oculus Touch. Of course, when developers are making virtual reality games, one of the biggest issues is user comfort. As far as eliminating motion sickness, Transference succeeds with flying colors. The environments are scaled well and comfortable to move through using the standard quarter-turn method or by spinning in place in an office chair. In that regard, the technology behind Transference is a triumph.

But, for me personally, the level of discomfort I experienced went much deeper than motion sickness. As a survivor of domestic abuse, the game felt at times like torture. It made me reconsider my relationship with horror games and how they impact me personally. The amorphous shapes of the Hayes family seem at times to lurk around every corner. In the game’s conclusion, players are forced to run a gauntlet as they leap from the shadows to confront you. The experience left me to question my desire to have horror experiences in VR ever again.

Narratively, the ending is sadly a dissapointment. Once all the puzzles are completed, the three members of the Hayes family have been effectively untangled. And yet, Katherine and Benjamin’s consciousnesses are still trapped on a hard drive with their abuser. For them, there is no closure, and no sign of a happy ending.

Transference was reviewed using a final “retail” Windows PC UPlay download code provided by Ubisoft. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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