Review: Transfer

(I sometimes find myself searching for all the winners, or just the top 3 games from past competitions. There’s a lot of quality just below that arbitrary top 3 cut-off. This is an easily overlooked 5th place in the 2000 IFComp. This game deserves more attention. A science fiction mystery. Transfer - Details (ifdb.org))

A dog called Kafka

This morning’s groundbreaking transfer-experiment has failed. Maybe the Machine was miscalibrated, despite all the checks and double-checks. It worked on mice and reptiles, why did it fail with the first human subject?

Transfer is a mystery/detective game that plays in the aftermath of this failed experiment. Instead of providing a clear objective, the game relies on a few more subtle clues to grasp the player’s curiosity. Two NPCs act a bit strange. It’s left to the player to unravel the thread and find out what’s behind all this.

A secret experiment needs a secret location. In this instance, a mostly underground scientific research base on a far-off island. This makes for a small and compact utilitarian map. Labs, sleeping quarters, common eating hall.

However, it’s remarkable how much adventurous exploration can be crammed in such a restricted space.

Partly this is due to a few blocked-off passages that draw the player toward opening up these undiscovered spaces. When they do open up, they don’t disappoint…

Another big part of the richness of the game comes from the behaviour of the NPCs. They all have their own agendas, and their walking to-and-fro helps bring the research base to life. You need to learn about their work and their routines to figure out how they might be involved in the greater mystery.
Giving the NPCs a measure of personal agency may enhance the lifelike feeling of the facility, but it also creates expectations the game cannot fulfill. It feels grating to break into off-limits areas while someone is standing right there, or showing someone their stolen stuff without it provoking any reaction. Playing Transfer with a straight face sometimes requires wearing quite stretchy suspenders of disbelief.

During the game, there is a lot of plain old exploring and searching and puzzling going on, but all the main plot advances rely on using the Machine. This main puzzle/solution mechanic is implemented in surprising ways. In the first parts of the game, this makes for original and well-thought-through puzzles. By the end however, there is a series of Machine-manipulations that inadvertently lean towards the comical rather than the suspenseful. It’s still a good puzzle sequence, but its tone would perhaps fit better with a fantasy-comedy than a science-mystery.

Solving puzzles and finding secrets advances the plot point by point. At the beginning of the new “chapter”, as well as in the introductory sequence, the writing shines. The room descriptions are clear and effective at conveying everythin the player needs while still adding to the atmosphere. It’s in the intermezzos however, in the overheard whispers and in the sudden actions of the NPCs in between acts that the narrative tension and tempo are best brought forward. The quality of the writing was certainly good enough to let me glance over some of the more improbable bits of the story.

The ending may feel disappointingly unrealistic to some. I for one really enjoyed the Poirotesque dénouement where the mystery’s solution is summarized and elaborated upon by the villain with all the characters in the room. A fitting moment of closure for a puzzling game.

Heartily recommended whodunwhat and whoiswho against a scientific backdrop.

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