'The Climb' VR game has generated some lockdown hype among non-climbers online ahead of the launch of its sequel this week. What's all the fuss about, and does its appeal extend to climbers? Could it even be a physical and mental training aid during lockdown?
While climbers have longed for the bygone days of climbing at the crag or wall with friends during lockdown, some game-obsessed non-climbers have been getting to grips with the sport in Virtual Reality. On YouTube, Reddit and gaming forums, climbing newbies are sharing 'strats' and citing Alex Honnold as their latest idol, despite many admitting to a fear of heights. '2020 was a strange year for us all,' gaming journalist Henry Stockdale wrote on Eurogamer.net last month, 'but I didn't have "start to appreciate rock climbing" on my bingo card.'
Gaming fans echoed Henry's sentiment in the comments. 'After lockdown I want to face my fear of heights and get into rock climbing myself,' one reader enthused. 'I had a definite moment deep in lockdown blues when I became weirdly obsessed with mountain climbing videos, like Everest, K2, that sort of thing,' another added, explaining that he had fallen into a 'YouTube hole' of adventure videos. 'I think it was a reaction to being so unable to travel anywhere that my brain needed a hit of the most extreme kind of travel.'
'With no means (or will) to try rock climbing directly,' Henry continued, 'I took a different approach, I bought Crytek's The Climb.'
Released in 2016, The Climb is a wireless Virtual Reality game developed for Microsoft Windows by Crytek in partnership with VR developer Oculus, playable on the company's Rift and Quest VR headset devices. The game immerses players in three different environments - Bay, Canyon, and Alps - where the objective is simple: climb the features in the landscape by 'grabbing' the handholds while moving your arms (oddly depicted as floating, 'severed' gloved hands during gameplay) and pressing the controllers in each hand to grasp a hold. Quickdraws named 'Savepoints' dangle just out of reach, which are curiously clipped-into using a lanyard as a redpoint-like progress-marking system, despite the player apparently soloing. Footwork doesn't come into it, confusingly (or conveniently, perhaps). In each section, there are five levels: Easy, Medium, Hard and two Boulder challenges, plus a practice wall.
'The Climb brings alive the excitement and thrill of rock climbing in incredible virtual reality,' the game's marketing spiel reads. 'Players will scale new heights and explore stunning environments in a new gaming experience developed exclusively for VR.' In 2016, the game was showcased at the Adidas Rockstars competition. By July 2017, it was named as Oculus' best-selling title to date, grossing over $1 Million.
The team behind the game included some climbers, who recognised the potential to render the climbing experience into VR. Their research involved collaboration with 'proper' climbers. Matthias Otto, Senior Developer at Crytek and his fellow developers climb twice a week. 'I thought OK, what happens when I climb?' Matthias says in a behind-the-scenes video by Oculus. 'Usually I look at the wall and see where the next hold is. With that in mind I thought 'Yes, that's something I could easily prototype.'' Research and development ensued. 'We had controllers in our hands and two triggers which symbolised closing the hands,' he explains. 'The controls of where you go were based on head motion, so you look where you want to go and then you push the trigger.'
In addition to climbing geekery were some technical game development innovations. 'One of the main challenges for creating the game was first of all performance, because we have to render it at 90 frames per second (FPS), which is something we hadn't done before at Crytek, like most game studios,' Art Director Pascal Eggert adds. Frame rate is key in creating a smooth, non-nauseating experience in VR; frame rates rendering images below 40 FPS appear jarring and disorienting, unlike the smooth, seamless transition you'd expect from looking around in real life. More frames per second, though, meant more rendering and detail to include. In general, each frame in a stereoscopic VR game must be drawn twice, once for each eye's field of vision, to add three-dimensional depth as the brain converges the two images into one.
With new technology, more 3D space meant that images for each eye could be rendered full-screen. To create realistic landscape graphics, the team used a technique called photogeometry, in which photos of an asset are loaded onto the game development server. This technique allowed for close-range detail within a 7mm area, such as the stitching or scratches on a quickdraw near to the player's face. Equally innovative is the game's action, or 'mechanics'; the physics engine was calibrated to create a realistic acceleration curve in jumps and leaps, while optimising players' physical comfort by minimising disorientating 'collisions' with virtual objects.
Like many games, The Climb offers two modes of play: a Tourist mode, in which players can explore with simplified game mechanics to discover new routes in a relaxed manner, and an asynchronous multiplayer mode, which allows climbers to compete against other players and create challenges for friends to ascend. Each landscape is inspired in part by real-world geographical locations: Canyon is inspired by the Grand Canyon; Bay by Ha Long Bay and Alps by, well, The Alps. As if the thrill of footless soloing above dramatic scenery wasn't enough, there are jet flyovers, hot air balloons, large birds, bats, gnomes (!), zipwires, a music festival and night-time fireworks to make an ascent all the more dramatic — and just a tad less believable. Holds are depicted as homogenous ledges, so no crimps, pockets or cracks, while the lingo is predictably Cliffhanger-ese, with talk of 'scaling' and 'conquering'. Chalking-up is called 'rechalking' and improves grip. Watches, wristbands and gloves can be earned as prizes along the way to assist - somehow or other - in a player's ascents. There are even hidden wingsuit 'easter eggs' for interested daredevils.
For newcomers to the game with a fear of heights, The Climb's realism can be a sticking point. 'Not sure I could play a VR climbing game - think that fear of heights would kick in pretty readily,' one commenter wrote on Eurogamer. 'I'm scared of heights too, and I loved The Climb,' another respondent countered. 'Similar compulsion to a good horror film/game, I got a kick out of the fear, really enjoyed it.' It's not for everyone, though. Some give up in frustration, or find it too easy and uninteresting, bemoaning a lack of storyline, like a quest or chase. 'The gameplay either grabs you or it doesn't,' a Reddit user commented.
Duncan Darlison is a VR sports game fan who firmly got to grips with the game. Tweets in which he waxed lyrical about The Climb caught my eye. 'I'm new to VR since Christmas this year and can't put The Climb down now,' he tells me. 'I'm a complete non-climber but have watched my son try climbing and caught the odd competition on Eurosport, so I fancied giving it a go. My first impressions were 'Wow this is unreal!' I was hooked straight away playing with a smile on my face. It felt real and looking around at the surroundings was jaw-dropping.'
As a non-climber, I wondered how Duncan felt about falling and the supposedly realistic acceleration curve. 'The first couple of times I fell I had an uneasy feeling,' he admits. 'Now I try my hardest not to fall, but I understand it's part of the game.' The stomach-dropping falls only add to the realism, Duncan explains. 'It feels very intuitive, it's actually amazing how realistic it feels. I'm ducking, stretching, letting out oohs and ahhs and deep breaths as I plot my route. It feels like a workout. I hold the handsets for dear life, really gripping them and worrying about rechalking. I spider up or across then hang for a while, look around, plan my next short burst, rechalk and then go for it.' While cooped up at home, the game has given him some much-needed thrills and spills. 'I like the game for both the physical and mental aspects,' he says. 'It gets your heart pumping, brain working and lets you escape normality, which is precious in COVID times.'
Playing The Climb has piqued Duncan's interest in the sport. 'I would definitely give climbing a go now, but I fully understand it's not at easy as this,' he says. 'I would need to build up arm and hand strength first, but I do have a new respect for the sport. I highly recommend the game for climbers and non-climbers; VR is evolving and this is a huge step forwards.'
One commenter on Eurogamer nerded-out on the 'strats' (gamer-speak for strategies) to excel at the game, which appear to mimic actual climbing skill and technique — footwork aside. 'While you can try to brute force your way through by leveling up strength, this is inefficient and incredibly grindy,' they explain. 'It's better to really try to master the physics engine: the trick is to the find the exact positions and limb angles that directs the gravitational pull of your player onto the surface with the most friction. As you move from grip to grip, precision is important: if you position yourself wrong, your player character will overbalance and fall off.
'All in all, great game. My play-time is probably in the hundreds of hours at this point. Some of the cosmetics are pretty cool too. Would recommend, 10/10,' the player concluded. The question remains: what do 'proper' climbers make of it?
Mike Cussell is a VR and tech fan who started his YouTube channel, Virtual Reality Oasis, in 2016. He has since acquired 432K subscribers and shares his passion for virtual reality in all its forms - gaming, cinematic, and educational - through his channel. 'The Climb is a very popular game in the VR community due to the stunning landscapes, unique gameplay and sense of scale,' he tells me. Mike had never climbed before and found The Climb exhilarating. 'The scale and height were scary at first as I'm not that great with heights, but I quickly adapted to it,' he says. 'Falling for the first time was a really strange sensation!'
In one of Mike's videos, 'Rock Climbers Try The Climb in Virtual Reality on Oculus Quest', he does what it says on the tin: he takes an Oculus Quest headset and controllers to the Colchester Climbing Project to try out the game on 'real' climbers. After a few falls, centre owner Matthew seems to get the hang of it, so to speak. 'It's quite strange,' Matthew says, looking around the room in awe wearing the headset. 'Your surroundings are moving but you don't have the same traits as you would have in the real world. It's moving visually and passing you by. You feel a bit disconnected from what your senses in your body are telling you to what your eyes are telling you.' Nonetheless, he describes it as immersive, intuitive and good fun.
Next, Vikki, a customer at the wall, gives it a go. 'It makes you feel so high. All of a sudden I feel scared. I know it's not real but it just looks so real. It freaks me out when I look down. Oh my God, it's terrifying! Going down makes me feel funny!' she says, clearly absorbed in the gameplay. 'I didn't think I'd be that keen on this, but it's actually really fun. I thought 'nothing's going to compare to real climbing!' It's easier in a sense as you don't have to worry about feet, as this is literally just your hands, but the height aspect and how everything feels when I look down is terrifying.' Vikki even describes her body reacting to a fall by trying to brace against the ground. 'I wanted to go like this,' she gestures, tucking up and bending her knees to absorb the anticipated 'impact'. 'But it's not real!'
Gabriel is up next and he falls a few times. The sensation seems so real that he swears each time. He also feels physically exerted after a short session. 'I feel like I'm sweating, my forearms are burning from squeezing, I'm getting a shoulder pump from doing this!' he laughs. 'If I don't want to climb here I can just do this instead - I don't even have to leave the house!' he says, (possibly) joking.
The game's challenge comes in managing your 'grip stamina' and requires a careful balance of how much pressure you put on the triggers, Mike explains. Overgripping, then - in VR as well as much as in real life - is a faux-pas. 'The more pressure you apply, the more grip stamina you use. If you loose all your grip stamina, you will fall! You can replenish grip stamina by shaking your hand to apply chalk,' he says.
One YouTube commenter noticed a neat overlap of the real and the virtual world: 'Love how the headset has chalk on it at the end, two worlds collide.' But did the game really grab the climbers, or were they just being polite? The climbers in his video appeared to enjoy it and feel levels of fear and fatigue, just like they would on a real climb. In Mike's eyes, their skills seemed to translate well to the game. 'I was surprised how easily the real climbers picked it up and adapted to playing in Virtual Reality, especially as they wouldn't consider themselves to be gamers,' he says. After the experiment, Mike tries 'real' climbing on the bouldering wall for the first time to see if his virtual skills translate to the wall. 'Sadly they did not!' he says. 'But I became a member of the centre and took it up as a hobby. I found bouldering was a great way to calm the mind and I met some great people there.'
VR can reach far beyond mere entertainment, though. As the pandemic took hold in March last year, a Forbes article explored the uptick in use of VR at home by top football clubs and professional athletes. Clearly The Climb has a physical element, in the gripping of the controllers and movement of the arms and body, and produces surges of adrenaline and increased heart rate due to the perceived exposure, but does the VR imagery also fire up our brains in a similar manner to how natural climbing movement gets us moving and thinking?
Jasmin Honegger PhD, a biomechanics researcher and founder of a movement and performance science initiative called Crimplabs, explains that there is a neurological difference between motor imagery (visualisation, such as Adam Ondra miming the moves on Silence) and action observation (intentionally watching an action, or a video of one). 'Perceiving an action elicits similar brain activity - but importantly, not identical - to that used to perform the action,' she says.
One study found increased muscle fatigue in people who underwent a mental imagery task (versus no imagery) but did not find higher muscle activations in these participants. 'Imagery likely led to activation of neurons in the Central Nervous System, instead of activation of muscle motor units,' Jasmin explains. As far as The Climb is concerned, it's likely that any benefit to climbing performance lies in the strengthening of the neural networks related to climbing, rather than improving physical strength. This is known to scientists and sports coaches as functional equivalence, since athletes can activate similar areas of the brain while being physically at rest, in order to improve performance in practice or in competition.
The VR experience in The Climb is slightly different, however, in that it incorporates both physical movement and an unusual hybrid of internal and external motor imagery, meaning that the player 'imagines' themselves climbing, but with their eyes open, while using the VR imagery to stimulate their imagination. One study looked at VR and its potential uses in surfing. 'VR technology is becoming more popular in competitive sports with evident influence on collecting various physiological aspects, identifying and improving sensorimotor capabilities, immersing athletes in competition situations where reaction time is critical, and developing skill acquisition,' the paper concludes. Is it possible that in the future, Adam Ondra will be wriggling around under a crag or competition wall wearing a VR headset? Anything goes...
The Climb isn't the first application of VR in a climbing and mountaineering context, by any means. Adventure photographer Jon Griffith's Everest VR series was shot for Oculus in 2018, and US adventurer Milosz Pierwola's World in 360 project takes people to new places, from Central Park to Everest Base Camp, via his library of VR videos for entertainment, educational or therapeutic purposes. Although The Climb is clearly a bit of escapist fun, Mike agrees that VR can be more than just a game or gimmick. 'Virtual Reality has endless possibilities for education, medicine and training in the future,' he says. 'It's still early days now, but imagine a classroom being taken to the deck of the Titanic in VR to learn about history. Learning through experience is very powerful.'
Although relatively inaccessible and expensive upon its inception, VR is becoming more widely available. 'It's a rapidly growing technology which is becoming more affordable with headsets like the Oculus Quest 2, which is available for just £299,' Mike explains. 'It's a completely standalone headset and doesn't require a PC unlike previous high-end VR headsets. All the games and experiences are downloaded to and played directly from the headset itself.'
If nothing else, the game is turning people on to climbing, likely catalysed by the stay-at-home onus of COVID, coupled with the heightened desire for escapism that this creates. Once again, Alex Honnold becomes a reference point for the uninitiated. 'I'll never truly understand Alex's mindset,' Henry Stockdale, the gaming journalist, sums up, 'but at the very least, The Climb gave me a viewpoint into this once-alien world. Though it's exaggerated at times, the experience was an eye opener. And when life calms down, I'm tempted to finally give climbing a try. Whilst I'm confined to home life though, I'll settle for The Climb 2 when it launches.'
The eagerly-awaited sequel launches 4 March 2021. 'We're delighted to bring The Climb 2 to Oculus Quest,' Fatih Özbayram, Senior Producer, commented in a press release. 'This sequel builds upon a lot of ideas we had during the production of the original game, and we're especially excited about players scaling huge skyscrapers in a new urban environment.' The game's maps include the three existing locations plus a new city environment and The North, set in the Arctic. 'I'm super pumped for this game,' one Reddit commenter wrote, likely not realising his climbing double-entendre.
The Climb may not be entirely convincing in terms of the physical climbing involved and the dressing-up of the climbing experience, but for some gamers, at least, it's a relatively accessible and socially-distanced thrill at a time when climbing the stairs is as close as it gets to dizzying exhilaration for many. It's perhaps not one of the 'games that climbers play', if you catch my drift, but it's evidently an opportunity for newbies to discover the sport, and the visuals are impressive. When walls reopen, prepare for a deluge of gamers, armed with gloves, wristbands, watches and VR headsets, seeking out the Savepoints while campusing and rechalking on each hold... with one shouting 'Sure, 7a is cool, but what's he done on Oculus Rift?'
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