It was while standing just below a digitized version of Mount Everest's tallest peak that we realized this virtual reality title can't be called a game: Everest VR is an experience, one just as fitting for a classroom, science museum or art gallery as your living room.
It's unlikely that most will set foot upon the summit of Mount Everest. At a peak of 29,029 feet above sea level, it stands as Earth's highest mountain, and though many have successfully made the climb, hundreds have died for their efforts. Iceland-based developer Sólfar Studios' virtual reality simulation of an Everest expedition, however, makes scaling the mountain feasible and captivating.
There are a few things to fear when faced with the prospect of undertaking an Everest climb, considering its height; this is not completely diminished by virtue of the digital recreation. But Sólfar Studios aims to create something even the most acrophobic player can enjoy, and even marvel at.
The notion that the title, which we recently demoed, is an "experience" is key when considering how well Everest VR succeeds at its goal. In our time with the demo, which will launch in full later this year, we found ourselves at what we can only presume to be a realistic recreation of a camp at the mountain's base. Seconds later, we were beckoned across a rickety bridge; thus were born the first pangs of fear.
Yet because Everest VR is not especially "gamified," as director Petur Thorarinsson told us, there was no real danger here. Of course, there would be no real danger regardless; we were not actually slowly walking across a real mountain. But the focus of Everest VR is to allow the player to safely and comfortably enjoy an experience they might not otherwise get to have.
This is great news for the heights-averse. It is impossible to die in Everest VR: You won't fall off the bridge, and the next sequence, in which you steadily climb a ladder to another peak, is similarly danger-free. If, for some reason, you fail to properly grab the next rung on your way to the landing, you won't drop back to the ground. Ultimately, you will make it to your destination. How you get there and how long it takes you are entirely up to your own comfort level.
That's not to suggest that Everest VR is free of anxiety-inducing moments, though. It's meant to elicit an emotion from the player, whether it's wonder or astonishment at the striking 360-degree views. (These attractive vistas were crafted with photographic help from RVX, the visual effects studio behind the 2015 film Everest.) But there is still some fear there, even if it's not one of death. Playing on the HTC Vive, which requires more room than other VR hardware to offer a greater degree of actual movement in gameplay, we physically moved around the snowy space.
The demo was immersive enough that we felt inclined to lift our foot up when climbing the ladder, reaching for the invisible step. That was impressive on its own. Yet it was looking down at the tiny campers at the base from hundreds of feet up that was in turn amazing and cringe-inducing.
"It's pretty satisfying to be afraid when you know that nothing can actually happen," Thorarinsson said. "It's different when you physically go into the woods and walk up to the ledge and it's a thousand-foot drop.
"Here, there's a real fear without the danger, and it's kind of satisfying without that."
This is great news for the heights-averse
That satisfaction is meant to be the crux of Everest VR, and it's one that we found unique to this virtual reality experience. Even without the more tactile components of the climb — feeling the rocky exterior, bracing against the cold — the demo provided us with a strong feeling of accomplishment at traversing such great heights. Being able to look around and get a sense of your own size relative to that of the mountain contributed generously to that.
Functioning as a series of vignettes, Everest VR has you travel up to some of the mountain's most notable areas, experiencing it from increasing heights. While there's neither a way to win nor a fail state, traveling the mountain in this way is meant to generate that sense of achievement in short bursts.
We emphasize "short" here — the length they'll take to complete depends on the player's pace, but Thorarinsson estimated the whole experience would take no more than 90 minutes to finish.
"I expect people to be able to go from base camp to the summit in one sort of go," he said.
That speaks to Sólfar Studios' insistence on imbuing Everest VR with a dose of realism. But it's hard to imagine returning to climb the mountain a second time, even if the short length of a playthrough should bode well for replayability.
There's more to Everest VR than just climbing the mountain, though. Before we landed at Mount Everest's base and took our first steps — actual, real-life steps, thanks to the precision and head tracking afforded by the Vive hardware — we were treated to a sort of informational slideshow about Everest. This is both an emotional and educational experience, the demo's director told us, one that makes just as much sense in the living room as the classroom.
Everest VR is filled with facts about its titular mountain, like its height and most dangerous spots. This is taken further, in a way, in the "diorama mode," which allows you to get a closer look at different peaks and valleys. The player becomes a sort of omniscient giant, and the wand controllers change from gloves to magnifying glasses. Zooming in and out around different parts of the mountain reveals just how far up you actually are, as campers and base camps adjust for scale.
That part might be the most nausea-inducing for the player who refuses to fathom ever being up so high. However, it also granted us agency over our surroundings, giving us control over the world's tallest summit in a way we'd never had before and will never have again. It was a powerful moment, even if it was at times clunky and the exploration afforded to us was a bit more limited than we might have liked, having grown fond of our impossible control over Everest.
Both an emotional and educational experience
Situations like these are the core of Everest VR, ones that are both emotional and revelatory. They might be fleeting, but the detailed, lifelike imagery — coupled with the HTC Vive's — ensures there's a lasting impression in your muscle memory.
Everest VR will launch on other virtual reality hardware, too, although Sólfar plans for the title to arrive around the time the Vive does. Something will likely be lost with the experience on other platforms, though, as they won't afford the same physicality as the Vive does.
Regardless, Everest VR is a technical marvel more than a game, and one that can be appreciated for its imagery as easily as its ability to grant the player a real sense of presence. There's no release date set yet, as Sólfar is waiting for HTC to confirm the Vive's launch. But expect this one to be a Vive mainstay, even if for just a few brief, memorable hours.