Through virtual reality, ‘The Climb’ lets gamers scale cliffs from home
For months, German video game company Crytek had been experimenting with virtual reality. They had made demos before, but this was the big show: They were finally showing Oculus VR executives what they had been working on.
“We kind of came to this with the exploration in mind, looking at what mechanics work on VR,” Crytek technical director Rok Erjavec said. “We prototyped so many mechanics.”
One of the best parts about virtual reality is that it’s a brand new space. No rules are written; you make them up as you go along. But at the same time, that freedom can get developers in trouble. There are a lot of ways you can do VR wrong and the Crytek team was looking for one concept that shows VR done right. That concept: mountain climbing.
Bouldering and gaming go hand-in-hand: Of all their experiments, one captured the eye of Oculus executive Jason Rubin. “Climbing was one of the prototypes we were doing,” Erjavec said. “When we showed the prototype, Jason Rubin said look at this, it’s really fun. Let’s do this as a solo game. It’s such a natural mechanic.”
Afterward, around E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), “The Climb” went into full production. The VR title is visceral experience that puts players in the shoes of a mountain climber. It allows players to scale heights normally reserved for daredevils, extreme athletes and those with an unexplainable death wish. For director of production David Bowman, who has climbing experience, the concept of bouldering and gaming go hand-in-hand.
“It’s the common person’s approach to an extreme sport,” Bowman said. “The thrill of the height. The fear of falling. Reading the cliff face. Finding the right line.”
How climbing can be a video game: There’s a lot of gaming elements in climbing that translate to VR. In “The Climb,” players use an Xbox One controller’s left and right triggers (each representing a hand) to grab onto the grips in the rock face. Players look at the next handhold and the VR head tracking moves their hand so it hovers around the ledge before grabbing it with a button press. There’s a puzzle element to it as players look for a way to traverse the cliff side.
Occasionally, players will have to chalk their hands by pressing the left and right bumper. The powder is essential because it gives players grip. If they happen to grab a ledge without it, they will slip and fall. Along with those simple concepts, players have to learn some climbing techniques and hand placement. If they get to the edge of a handhold with the wrong hand, they can perform a transfer by placing one hand above and letting go with the other. If timed right, they’ll catch the grip before falling.
Another technique is more dangerous. When a gap is too wide, they’ll have to leap across and grab a ledge. That can be done with the A button but adventurous players can jump and the headset will register that as a leap. Normally, that’s a reckless maneuver but in a virtual reality video game, it works and you feel the same sort of thrill cheating death. That nerve-racking jump also produces a lot of sweat and that will also make players lose chalk more quickly, and they’ll have to take that and the vertigo into account.
Where ‘the Climb’ is headed: I only played one mountain in Southeast Asia, but Bowman said there will be three mountains initially. There will also be plenty of paths up to the summit and the goal eventually will be for players to summit the fastest. To do that, there’ll be plenty of experimentation and exploration in routes and gameplay.
“We want to turn this into a franchise and go into cross-platform,” Bowman said.
At first, “The Climb” will be a no-frills game. The focus will be on climbing, not story or anything else. There will be some customization like the choice of climbing gloves and wrist wear, but the star of the show is the environments and gameplay. Eventually, it will expand though. Bowman hinted at a competitive leaderboard or a way to name and rate a route.
“The Climb” is easily one of the more beautiful and intricate VR games I’ve seen, and the concept works well for the medium. It takes advantage of the way the Oculus Rift can give players a sense of vertigo. It’s especially noticeable when they fall, but they can feel the same emotion elsewhere. Hundreds of feet up, players will get that same pit-in-their-stomach drop when they gaze down the first time. The other reason that “The Climb” works is that VR still has trouble with moving a player’s avatar body around. Gamers do get motion sickness in first-person experiences where they move about, but the way “The Climb” is made that doesn’t happen. That’s partly because of the way Crytek designed the movement so that it feels seamless and action-oriented at the same time.
Reworking the Crytek engine for VR: More importantly, the Crytek team went back and reworked their rendering pipelines and came up with new anti-aliasing techniques to improve the visuals while also keeping a high frame rate to each eye, Erjavec said. The company is also working with the Oculus touch controllers so that “The Climb” will be one of the first games to support the device when it’s released.
From what I played, “The Climb” is one of the most compelling VR experiences out there. It shows how a simple mechanic can be turned into a deep and immersive game with the potential to be a lot more in the future. Look for the game in the Oculus Rift’s launch window in the first quarter of 2016.