The Climb turns virtual reality acrophobia into an extreme sport
Impossible bodies, incredible worlds9
The very worst thing I can say about The Climb, a virtual reality rock-climbing game from studio Crytek, is that it does not include dinosaurs.
Granted, many games lack dinosaurs. I’m picking on Crytek partly because its excellent first prototype was called Back to Dinosaur Island 2 and involved being inexplicably swarmed by pterodactyls, which have sadly been excised from the final product. But I’m also doing it because there are so few outright bad things to say about The Climb — and so many good ones.
The Climb, released only on the Oculus Rift, is still a rare creation: a virtual reality title that looks like a big-budget first-person game. (At $49, it’s also the rare title that’s priced like one.) Crytek is best known for combining lavish visuals with relentless bloodshed, in games like Crysis and Ryse: Son of Rome. Given the opportunity to work with only one of those things, the studio has poured all its resources into incredible vistas and carefully molded cliffs, their surfaces pocked with climbing handholds marked by a subtly weathered texture. It’s not photorealistic, but mostly because everything looks too vivid to be real: an idyllic tropical bay, a rugged red-cliff canyon, a lush alpine slope.
A VR rock climbing simulator is the sort of thing that seems to demand motion controllers, and when Oculus releases its Touch devices later this year, The Climb will support them. For now, though, players control two disembodied hands with a blend of Xbox gamepad and Rift head tracking. Instead of reaching out a physical arm, you’ll look at a ledge or crevice to center one virtual hand over it, then hit the corresponding trigger to pull yourself up. The key mechanic is a fatigue system that kicks in whenever you’re hanging from one hand, giving you a few seconds to anchor the other one and recover. You can buy more time by stopping periodically to rub your hands with chalk — using another controller button — or by carefully half-releasing a trigger, gaining stamina but risking a fall. To grab particularly distant ledges, you’ll need to press a button to jump, throwing yourself off one side of a cliff and hoping to get a good grip on the other.
But the truly bizarre thing is that you actually are combining all these actions with motion tracking — just not the kind that involves realistically mirroring movement. Centering your hand on grips is much harder than it sounds, often requiring leaning, crouching, and occasionally real physical jumping. It’s probably possible to play The Climb sitting down, but it’s an active enough game that I found it much easier to stand.
Is this, like so many other Oculus features, just an awkward stopgap until true motion controls arrive? I’m not sure. Motion controllers drive home the limitations of players’ strength and endurance, particularly when you’re doing something as active as swinging and stretching your arms above your head. The charm of The Climb, meanwhile, is that it’s less about literally putting players in the game than allowing them to steer the inhuman form of some genetically engineered super-climber. The invisible body that connects your hands is an impossible creature of preternatural flexibility and upper body strength, a Wacky WallWalker with a love of extreme sports. He (at least based on the masculine voice and hands) can climb for miles without rest, casually apply chalk with one hand barely resting on a tiny ledge, and stretch his arms across gaps I probably couldn’t jump. And he doesn’t even need feet to do it.
Instead of trying to outright imitate real climbing, The Climb creates a stylized, smaller-scale version of its adrenalin rush, learning process, and eventual hard-earned victory. Your arm muscles may not tire, but your fingers slowly cramp from constant gamepad clutching. It becomes harder and harder to handle complex tasks like chalking your fingers. After a few hours, elegantly efficient leaps devolve into brute-force swings from rock to rock. I’m long past any true fear of VR heights, but the constant view of sheer cliffs and yawning chasms eventually coated my body in a light dew of stress sweat.
Acrophobia is one of the easiest feelings to trigger in VR, and The Climb takes it to extremes. You don’t just have to look down a hundred-foot alpine cliff, you have to hurl yourself off it to grasp a tiny ledge on the other side, while sweat drips into your avatar’s eyes and he gasps in a combination of terror and relief. If you fail, you’ll have a few moments of scrabbling helplessly at thin air before the world fades to white. By your third or fourth seemingly suicidal jump, though, you’ll realize the game is tuned to draw you almost magnetically toward grips. Understanding the sheer unreality of this is like discovering a superpower. I forced myself to drop dozens of feet down a canyon bluff at one point, because I was totally confident that The Climb would let me save myself with a one-finger hold on a crumbling rock. I fell screaming to my death a half-dozen times in the process, but I was absolutely right.
This would be totally unsurprising in almost any other over-the-top video game climbing sequence. But there’s really nothing like The Climb out there, except maybe QWOP creator Bennett Foddy's equally awkward GIRP. The whole thing often looks more like an animated film than a game, suspiciously convenient handholds notwithstanding. It’s sometimes jarring to have such an incredible sense of visual presence paired with obviously unnatural mechanics, especially when they break. Even after you’ve trained your body into movements the game accepts, you’ll occasionally fail to grasp ledges for no clear reason, or accidentally step inside a wall and die when your vision blacks out. To play The Climb well, you have accept yourself not as a human body but as a controller, every bit as artificial as the Xbox gamepad. But when the system works, it works fantastically.
By PC or console game standards, The Climb’s main campaign isn’t long. I finished its nine courses in around four hours, including a couple of extra tutorial levels and some replays. Playing these unlock a smaller series of punishing "bouldering" areas, which remove save points and most hints about the correct path. While they’re an excellent test of skill, if you haven’t absolutely mastered the game, the trial-and-error process of solving them becomes tediously repetitive.
The game’s real length is determined by its massive list of challenges — things like speedruns, climbing a certain distance, or finishing a course without chalk. It feels redundant to praise a video game for "gamification," but The Climb’s achievement system hits the reward center of my brain like a neatly thrown dart. Every success gives your hands a new custom glove, watch, or wristband, which you’ll find in a red-and-black gift box. The boxes form a series of grids, which turn into a series of colorful murals as you complete each set — yes, Crytek managed to put achievements inside the achievements. And each climbing course has its own scoring system, awarding points for things like speed and "flow," gained by keeping your hands moving steadily.
These little nudges toward replay are particularly valuable because the courses contain a variety of different — and not always obvious — paths. You’re always funneled into the same big checkpoints, but there are several ways to get between them, some of which you’ll only be confident enough to try when you’re more experienced. Achievements sometimes feel like pointless attempts to prolong a game, but The Climb puts so much emphasis on skill-building that they act more like a friendly coach. With only two days of playing the game, it’s hard to say how many hours this remains fun, and whether it’s enough to justify the price for many people. But the fact that I’m neither bored nor nauseated after playing hours at a time already puts it on the longer side of VR experiences.
The Climb is so determined by its interface that Oculus Touch might turn it into a different experience entirely. The experience could be a more satisfyingly physical one, and a more natural one. Strangely, I’m not convinced it will be a better one. Crytek has created a weird game for a weird piece of hardware, and it’s quite likely something that we’ll look back on with bemusement in ten years. For now, though, it’s a unique leap of faith into a new style of gaming.
But seriously, we need to talk about bringing back those dinosaurs.