What is it about isolated research complexes? Is it that their combination of solitude and high-tech niftiness is particularly well-suited to IF? Do their deeply buried labs and living quarters provide plenty of fodder for interesting room descriptions while furnishing a very logical justification for a paucity of objects? Does something about all that Big Science that inevitably goes catastrophically awry appeal to writers in a computer game genre that is generally thought to be long since technically outmoded? Whatever the reason behind their mystique, isolated research complexes have appeared in every IF competition since C.E. Forman blazed the trail with his 1996 comp game Delusions, a game so good that perhaps it can take credit on its own for inspiring the trend. From Babel to Unholy Grail to Four Seconds, it’s just not an IF competition without a game about an isolated research complex where Dangerous Experiments go Horribly Wrong. Despite its rather pedestrian title, Transfer is a captivating thriller in exactly this mode.
The game’s central conceit is a machine that allows “Entity Transfer” — an exchange of minds between animals and humans. Naturally, the genius Professor who built this machine has been mysteriously put out of commission, and you as the PC can’t be sure who to trust among the various colleagues and security agents who roam the complex in the wake of this disaster. The game never makes your quest explicit, but it’s clear enough that you are charged with clearing up the mystery and flushing out the culprit behind this obvious Foul Play. The transfer machine allows the author to once again exercise the skills that he demonstrated in last year’s cat-perspective game A Day For Soft Food, this time thrusting the PC into a whole menagerie of animal points-of-view — this device is not only lots of fun, it serves as a vehicle for some very clever and original (if at times somewhat implausible) puzzles. These puzzles are also quite well integrated into the game’s plot, a plot which I found quite gripping.
In fact, the strength of the story serves ironically to highlight the game’s major flaw, which is the unrealistic behavior of its NPCs. These NPCs are well-characterized, but implemented much too shallowly. I know this because I was so into the story that I found it extremely frustrating when I wasn’t able to progress in the plot even after telling an NPC about some stunningly important clue, or showing them some highly significant objects I’d acquired. In fact, there are times in Transfer when something obviously alarming is going on, but the NPCs ignore it completely, going robotically about their daily rounds despite my best efforts to draw their attention. Because the rest of the work was so involving, the characters’ unresponsiveness became a real point of frustration for me. Other than this weakness, the game appears to be quite well-tested — I found only a couple of small, isolated bugs and spelling errors, and on the flip side noticed several spots where the game’s code revealed outstanding craftsmanship in its handling of subtle details. I wasn’t able to finish the game in the two hours allotted judging time, but assuming I survive the process of grading another 50 games, I eagerly anticipate returning to reach the ending of Transfer — if the rest of the game is any indication, the payoff should be worthwhile indeed.