Having seen the reveal of Ubisoft's next big VR effort at E3 we were confused. Utterly befuddled, to be honest. What kind of game is this? Is Elijah Wood in it? What's it about? Clearly the disinformation was part of the pitch, but it wasn't until we got to sit down and play the game for a bit at Gamescom that we fully grasped what the game is about and why the messaging at the announcement was as cryptic as it was.
Transference is a narrative-focused experience, available both with and without VR (though it's clearly designed with VR in mind), that lets you experience the memories of certain test subjects. There are some fairly light puzzle elements you need to negotiate in order to progress the story, but the primary experience is one built around the atmosphere and the narrative. Given the subject matter of experimental research and test subjects with psychological issues, there's a certain degree of tension and horror present, but it's not really a horror game, at least not judging by the slice of gameplay we experienced.
"Transference is a psychological thriller," says narrative director Sylvain Bernard. "First I would say it's a collaboration between Spectrevision and Ubisoft, we're trying to bridge movies and games. And doing so we invite you to play as yourself and get projected into the digitally recreated minds of test case subjects and navigate a dream-like house that's filled with secrets to uncover and you'll be facing puzzles as visuals, audio, and maze-like puzzles concealing a corrupted truth. And maybe you will be able to influence those test case subjects."
The game works on two levels, there's the overarching story that presumably revolves around these experiments, the research division and Raymond Hayes, the lead researcher. Presumably, the player will be faced with some ethical dilemmas. And then there are the stories of the individual test subjects, what their lives are like, and if we're to believe Sylvain Bernard, what choices we make in dealing with them.
And that takes us to the Walter demo, the test subject of our Gamescom hands-on session. Turns out Walter hasn't been doing well. In fact, he's suffering from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and his memories are fragmented and jumbled together. So you'll experience his trauma and the events leading up to it nonchronologically, and you'll piece together the sequence of events yourself.
As far as gameplay interactions go we're mainly performing rather simple tasks as we work our way through the various cycles of Walter's distressing memories. It may be that we find a key to open a door, or that we place a picture in its place on the living room wall. These seemingly trivial tasks carry meaning as we start to understand that Walter may not have been there as his son grew up. A troubled son as it turns out. We're forced to endure some rather disturbing and effective scenes and the stress is illustrated via the somewhat grainy, corrupted feeling you get from Walter's recreated mind. This is naturally magnified in VR, and we can't imagine it is nearly as impactful when played on a big screen.
For the purposes of the demo the Walter section had been shortened and presumably some of the more involved puzzles had been removed, still, the final puzzle that had you looking at a shape in the middle of a room at a particular angle to conjure up a door had us scratching our headset for a bit.
Does Transference then successfully bridge the gap between video games and feature films? We're not sure if that's an accurate description of what this is, but it certainly borrows from the cinematic side of things to create more immersion. Perhaps a bridge isn't what we need, but rather something that elevates storytelling in the interactive medium, and perhaps this is what Transference attempts. From the roughly 15-minute-long demo we played it's clear that Transference offers something intriguing and different, even if we're still not sure about the overarching story that ties things together. It's the kind of thing that could go either way (let's not forget Desmond from Assassin's Creed).