What's Everest VR Actually Like?
Climbing the mountain
I made good on my promise last week and booted up Everest VR [official site] to see what the mountain-summitting experience really had to offer. I was especially curious after seeing so many negative reviews calling it out for being a very expensive tech demo with not much to do. I'm sorry to say that I actually concur with that assessment.
I played a bit of the experience at GDC and my own lack of immersion in the experience was a bit disappointing. The mountain fell away beneath me as I crossed a narrow ledge but I never lost the awareness of being in a booth in San Francisco, never felt the same jolt of fear as I did when I slipped and fell in a demo playthrough of The Climb - Crytek's VR climbing game.
I was hoping that within the context of the larger experience I might be able to shake off that awareness of the room I was actually in and experience something of the location.
I figured it wouldn't actually come close to the experience of climbing a mountain that could care less if you survived the attempt. It also wouldn't be able to approximate a fraction of the hardship climbers endure, nor the unpredictable weather and the endurance/bull-headedness/desire to do something difficult because it's there-ness of a summit attempt. But I did think perhaps it would provoke something interesting in and of itself. Perhaps a sense of awe, or an inkling of the excitement or the panic or... something.
What actually happened was I learned how to interact with the game (point and teleport for moving, and then a bit of reaching and trigger-grabbing for ladders and carabiners and other clambering bits) and then went through a few scenes, each showing a different part of the route to the top.
Calling them "scenes" feels so generous, though. They're so short and with a kind of minimal interactivity to them. They feel more like vignettes than anything more substantial. You can stay within them for as long as you like, checking out the view and whatnot, then you wave at the guide character in order to move on.
The first vignette has you making an offering at the start of your climb. I picked up an apple and placed it carefully on a stony surface. Apparently it would be a good omen if a bird came along. The bird came along while I was testing the limits of object interactivity by trying to juggle crackers. I threw a cracker at the bird and hit it. I'm not sure what kind of omen it is when you hit your good omen with a cracker but the bird didn't react so it's probably fine.
Next was the Khumbu Icefalls where I was traversing a ladder which let me bridge a gap. I feel like perhaps if you have a problem with heights that might be a more gut-churning experience, but I don't, and I also never sank deep enough into the environment mentally for any other excitements or thrills to manifest. Same when I climbed a ladder as a chunk of ice and snow sheared off the mountain to my left.
I'm wondering whether part of this inability to sink into the experience was because of the balance of vignettes and transitions between them. As you switch from one point on the climb to the next you get information about the mountain while positioned far away from it, like you're watching a 360 projection of a nature documentary about Everest. I think those bits are so the developers can try to put the climb in context, giving some more information about the dangers of the climb and talking about the geography and so on. But I think switching between the two let you become distant from the experience each time - so aware that you are an observer, not a participant.
The most beautiful part of the experience is overnighting at Camp 4 because you see these tents illuminated from the inside like they're these little coloured lanterns spread across the snow. There was also a cool part in terms of interactivity where you need to physically climb inside your tent. That's the part of the experience which really worked for me. You had to do something unexpectedly physical and change your posture. (I appreciate that I'm saying this from the vantage point of having easy mobility).
From there you go to the Hillary Step which is the part I experienced at GDC. You shuffle along an icy ledge and then clamber up another part of scenery. The voiceover tells you about how dangerous it is and I kind of get that as a basic fact but I've been far more affected by that knowledge when it's been presented in other ways or formats. Podcasts and books about survival or about the various ill-fated climbs have brought home to me snippets about the realities of climbing Everest that this experience just can't seem to.
Finally you get to teleport-hop your way to the summit and plant a flag. I thought I could plant my flag where I fancied and jammed it into the snow but it was stuck to my hand. I tried again and then saw the marker for where the flag pole was supposed to go. I guess for me that helps sum up the experience - the marketing pushes this idea that you will somehow experience climbing Everest in some form and it will be this emotional, stunning experience but I go to jam my flag into a pile of snow and have a personal experience and find that I need to put it in the exact spot the developers chose and which everyone else will do too.
The vignettes are so small and the areas you can teleport-hop around within them are so small that it's hard to feel like exploration is possible in any way so it feels like there should be flexibility in smaller gestures. I reached down to try and make a snowball to throw at my guide but came up empty-handed. I wanted to see if I could drop anything off the side and try to provoke a sense of great height from that but there didn't seem to be stuff to drop other than the scripted crumbling of a section of mountain.
After you've done a climb you get access to a god mode which lets you move around a shrunken version of Everest and its surroundings and attempts to give you a sense of the area and its beauty. It's interesting, but I really felt the limitations of where I could actually teleport-hop to and soon wanted to leave.
I wasn't expecting a game in the traditional sense, and I do think the technical effort that's gone into producing Everest VR is impressive. When I read about it, or about the processes involved I get excited, but that excitement falls away as soon as I go inside the experience. I find myself cursing the limits of the Vive's display resolution and yearning for a high-definition flatscreen version which might do it better justice. I go to the different areas and I can't seem to connect with any of them in any meaningful way. There's no friction to the experience. You know you're on flat, stable ground. You know you can move and breathe just fine. You can teleport-hop up and down the final stretch to the summit like you're nipping to the shops.
Everest VR talks a good game and being able to share even a small element of experiences which were previously beyond the reach of most people is one of the things VR would seem to lend itself to, but ultimately this particular title is writing cheques the experience itself can't cash. I'd say it does make for a curious tech demo and has made me think more about how VR experiences work when they're aping a real life challenge. But if Everest VR was a contestant on America's Next Top Model it would get called out for "resting on pretty".
It's the best part of £20 / $25 for under an hour of your time. I'd say check it out when you're at a friend's house, or at a games expo if possible. It's a curio, and undeniably took a lot of work, but it doesn't come together into a strong VR experience.
Everest VR is for HTC Vive over on Steam costing £18.99 / $24.99 (although there's a 10% launch discount at the time of writing).