Transference wants you to walk a mile in another person’s shoes, or, their memories in this case. And given the 20 minutes I spent inside the mind of a man named Walter, who I was informed suffered from PTSD, I’m both intrigued to experience more and a little cautious about how much I can handle.
I experienced two intercut periods in Walter’s life in his home during the demo — one in the early 1990’s and another in the early 2000’s. My goal in the newly announced Ubisoft VR game was to get into my son Scott’s locked room, and to do so I had to hop between time periods (conveniently via light switches on the wall) to solve environmental puzzles, like finding the key to open a certain door.
There’s little unsettling about the environment itself — walking around in first person, it looked like a standard suburban home — but the deserted rooms and ominously lit halls felt hauntingly dangerous. (And that’s despite the warnings from a pre-recorded live-action video that I was “completely safe.”) A fragmented memory of Scott — some combination of his younger and older selves — roamed the halls and prevented me from proceeding before solving environmental puzzles in gruesome fashion.
Scott represented the demo’s only real jump scares, which are effective the first time around and otherwise become little more than a nuisance if I stumbled across him repeatedly. But my time in Transference still filled me with dread — the ominous, empty home seemed as if it could hold untold horrors, and though I wanted to learn more, I walked with trepidation and fear as I went. The fact that this house was a memory digitally recreated lends the setting a sense of, though, as bits of the world glitch in and out of place. (This visual tick serves doubly as a smart cue about what I could and couldn’t interact with and as a way of making such a human location feel alien.)
That was in large part thanks to the affecting sound design that helped instill in me a sense of actually being in that house. In the later time period, a scrambled broadcast of George W. Bush blared out from the den, tying into the demo’s suggestions of the affects of war on this family. And a phone rang out as I slowly walked through the kitchen, instilling with me a sense of worry about who may be on the other line and just why they’re calling. (I blame that fear on both the game’s atmosphere and the general lack of phone calls I actually make these days.)
The creak of a basement step or the twittering of a bird trapped in its cage further helped to add worry to my exploration of a relatively small space. That unease carried me through to the end, both compelling me to finish the experience but also leaving me wary of what playing for any extended period of time may have on my stress levels.
As someone personally prone to anxiety attacks, I finished the demo genuinely unsettled and needing a few minutes to gather myself. I’m unsure about just how much I could actually handle beyond what I played, at least not without extended breaks in between play sessions. Yet my short time with Transference left me curious to learn more about this family and how the game is aiming to tackle themes like PTSD and family relationships, as well as, with a little time, wanting to walk a few more miles in their mysterious shoes.