There's always gonna be another mountain
I'm always gonna wanna make it move
Always gonna be an uphill battle
Sometimes I'm gonna have to lose
Ain't about how fast I get there
Ain't about what's waiting on the other side
It's the climb – Miley Cyrus, 2009
You play as a disembodied pair of gloved hands and your goal is to clamber your way to the top of whatever vertical scenario presents itself. It was such a pleasingly simple (and more-ish) experience for me, but it also had the distinction of being the only GDC VR experience where my brain was sufficiently convinced I was somewhere other than the show floor that when I took a tumble after missing a grip I staggered, momentarily disoriented.
I played a level based loosely on Halong Bay in Vietnam. In order to move around the level I had a combination of Xbox controller and Rift headset controls. You hold on to the rock face with the left and right triggers, each controlling the corresponding hand and then you look towards the next handhold. Letting go of the trigger corresponding to the hand you want to use means the hand will then reach out, following your gaze. Sometimes you'll need to change position or crane your neck to orient yourself correctly and when the next handhold is within reach the floating hand will let you know by adopting a different pose. Pressing the trigger makes you grip and you shift your focus to the other hand or the next grip. As you repeat the basic process you inch your way further towards the summit.
Here's a gif so you can see what I mean a bit better:
Making life a bit more complicated, you'll also need to keep an eye on your stamina. Holding onto a ledge with both hands is fine, but when you're dangling one-handed your stamina will start to decrease. Dither for too long and your grip on the surface loosens, sending you plummeting downwards. You can give yourself a bit more leeway on that front by making sure your palms are well-chalked by pressing the left and right bumpers. It takes a few seconds each time you reapply and it will gradually wear off as you continue to climb but it means it's easier to grip the handholds.
After getting to, erm, grips, with the basic gripping motion I learned slightly more difficult actions like how to shuffle and crane in order to reach grips located in awkward places. Most daunting was the lesson in jumping. You look and grip in a similar way to normal although you aim a bit higher in order to angle the jump, but because you're trying to cross a distance wider than your designated arm span in the game you also have to let go with your other hand. Looking down into the virtual drop at that point I did feel a slight pang of… not exactly anxiety because I still knew I wasn't going to hurt myself, but there was still a reticence – a feeling that there was something at stake.
The first time I actually fell was related to making a jump. Not one of the ones along the routes the game can suggest for you if you get stuck for direction, but I'd been peering around and noticed a set of handholds on a wall behind me. The game wasn't offering that as a suggested route when I clicked the button to check but I figured I would give it a go and see if I'd discovered a shortcut or a secret route. I made that particular leap and clambered along for a while but when I was trying to navigate a tricky corner my stamina ran out and I flailed towards the ocean below.
What happens in-game is you respawn at the most recent checkpoint you passed (these are relatively frequent on the level and difficulty I played) but in that moment I felt really weird. I wasn't exactly falling, but it was kind of like that sensation where you think there's one more step on a staircase than there actually is and you end up with that mismatch between expectation and physical reality.
After that I took the suggested route to see if it was different and it certainly felt more straightforward. That's not to say it was without challenge, as I did find myself having to reposition my hands and sometimes go back to a previous handhold having worked out there was a better way to place my hands in order to make the next grip possible. There are little view platforms with bells you ring on the way up where you can pause if you like, and I found a little nook with an interesting-looking beetle at one point.
I wasn't treating it as a competitive climb during that session, but I did find out my time when I got to the summit and I can see myself wanting to go back and beat it. Overall, the experience put me in mind of something like a section of Wii Sports Resort where you get really absorbed in these challenges but not to the point where the challenge is everything about the experience.
To find out more, I took off my headset and sat down with The Climb's executive producer, Elijah Freeman.
"Last E3 we started prototyping things we thought would feel good in the medium [of VR], he tells me. "We have a couple of climbers on the team so they started experimenting with verticality and scale. Out of that, early on - whitebox stage - they said 'Come try it!' So we went and tried it and climbing felt really special. It was fun to just do and from that we extrapolated. How do we jump? We wanted to jump immediately and we wanted to do other things. As it started to unfold, as we started to get towards the centre of the onion, we were like wow, this is a special experience."
I'm not a great climber by any means, but I do like taking occasional trips to my local climbing centre and working my way up the indoor walls in real life, so the things which immediately struck me were a) that I have far more upper body strength in VR as a pair of disembodied hands and b) that a big part of climbing for me has always been how to manipulate my own body and take account of its weight or dimensions, but in The Climb you don't have a body at all.
Freeman tells me that the lack of a body was at least partly due to the team wanting to make the views and the peering-at-nature side of things an important part of the game.
"That's part of what the climbers on the team were explaining to us, that part of it is that you get to - nature is an awesome thing and we wanted people to experience that and have that sense of being teleported to some place special," he says. "It was difficult to do full body IK [Inverse Kinematics] and not have your arms blocking you so when we went to just gloves we realised we could see everything and look around. We spent a lot of time making sure the visuals were up to the quality bar for Crytek and that the player could enjoy all of that. Obviously a body is valuable but for the experience we didn't see it as important."
We move to talking about the game portion of the experience. There are at least two routes to every scenario, perhaps more, and so there's value to having those experimental runs where you try to work out what's faster or more efficient, or even just more interesting to you in terms of what you see along the way. You can compete as you play, either against yourself or, as Freeman tells me, against friends asynchronously by downloading their times and racing against them.
So time is one factor, but handholds also have point values with the basic ones being worth fewer points and the more complex ones being higher. You can try to compete against time or score, then. In my climb I only encountered two different sorts of grip – the basic and the technical - but Freeman tells me about others which are planned for the full game. One is a crumbling grip which you only get to use for a few seconds before it crumbles away. Another is a poisonous grip which drains your stamina very quickly. A third kind is a regular grip but you have to clean it off first before you use it. Freeman envisions this system of scoring and grips lending itself to general competition and strategising as players work out the most valuable routes in terms of point-scoring.
At the point when I encountered the game there are two locations, the bay area based on Halong Bay in Vietnam and also one inspired by the German Alps. They're not one-to-one mappings of actual climbing routes, it's more about the team taking visual and vertical inspiration from those settings and then applying it to what works in their own game. The idea is that each setting will have its own personality or flavour for virtual climbers.
"Each one of these levels has three different degrees of difficulty," adds Freeman. "We'll have a morning version of it which will be easy, an afternoon setting which will be medium and a nighttime setting which is hard. You climb with a headlamp. It's totally visible but it's just a different type of gameplay."
Apparently if I'd been playing the nighttime difficulty of the level I was on I would have reached the top and been able to enjoy a lantern festival.
I ask about the challenges of working in VR as a medium as opposed to traditional game design and Freeman tells me about the general challenge of designing in a 3D space where people can crawl under and around objects but he mentions a little in-game tweak which was possible and meaningful in the game because of that spatial shift.
"One of the things we found that you can do inside of VR is something the actual rock climber guys contributed which was just putting a grip a little bit out of your reach so you almost have to let go of this hand to commit to that hand. That's a big deal and it lends [itself] to really exciting, adrenaline-pumping gameplay because you feel like you're totally committing to it before you make that move."
I also ask about height. This ties in to the awareness of your own body in real life climbing which I was talking about earlier. I'm barely five feet tall and so when I climb I just flat out can't reach some of the handholds at all and for some I have to sort of swing out or jump, while my taller friends zip up and down those same routes. But, by the same token, my body is usually pretty flat against the climbing surface while they have to contend with the problems of bums and limbs jutting out. In this game I sometimes found that real-world knowledge of my arm length strangely unhelpful. I would assume I couldn't reach something because I wouldn't be able to in real life and look for a different route, only to be told by the person running the demo that actually my in-game self was perfectly able to reach that far.
"On the controller everybody's roughly the same size. When you get to the touch controllers it will be more one-to-one, so it will be different," explains Freeman. "We've equalised it on the controller - enjoy!"
The game is due for release this month as an Oculus Rift exclusive and, as of GDC, the team were in the process of tinkering, getting the game to feel exactly as they wanted it and he implies that that process now includes the player's exit from the game.
"I think we didn't anticipate how engaged the players would become - I've had people take off their headset and say I forgot that I was inside this," says Freeman. "I think we have to think about that more. I believe we truly succeeded in transporting people to a different location and their buy-in on that transportation to a different location is extreme. I don't think we've thought about that. We want to get you there - bringing you back is a different thing!"