I’ve played thousands of hours of games over my lifetime, everything from Super Mario Bros. to Quake III Arena to Witcher 3. But none—none!—has ever evoked such a strong reaction from me as the Everest demo I tried on the HTC Vive Pre in Nvidia’s suite at CES 2016.
I have a deep-seated fear of heights, you see. Like, it’s a serious problem. Merely standing on a stepstool to reach something on the top shelf of a closet gives me the heebie-jeebies. And cleaning out gutters? Whoa boy.
But it’s never bothered me in games. I love wingsuiting around in Just Cause 3, for example—especially after jumping out of a helicopter. And it hasn’t even been a problem in other virtual reality titles. I have a first-gen Oculus Rift developer kit at home and adore soaring through space in Elite: Dangerous or plummeting out of the sky in SkyDIEving.
But that Everest demo brought me to my knees. Not quite literally, but close.
I can’t be sure why, but I chalk it up to the HTC Vive’s dual VR motion controllers, which are tracked separately and allow you to use your hands in games. The initial part of the demo tasks you with walking across a flimsy ladder splayed over a deep, black chasm in the Himalayas, with the wind kicking up drifts of snow around you, sending flakes swirling down into the darkness below. “Come across,” your virtual buddy on the other side beckons. “Grab the edges.”
No problem. I bent down—you have to physically do that in Vive games that use the motion controllers—caught a glimpse of my death in the chasm below, and froze.
Not intentionally. But between the vividness of the scene, the way the headset and headphones completely immersed me in this frozen world, and the physical act of reaching out and grabbing the ladder, my mind decided this was real and stopped me cold.
I stood there, contemplating how to proceed while murmuring uneasy words of… something to the Nvidia crew and camera guy around me, willing my body to move. Eventually—after an eternity—it listened, but only after I gritted my teeth and shouted in my head THIS ISN’T REAL, IT’S JUST A FLOOR, while my primitive ape mind screamed back YES IT IS, WTF ARE YOU DOING?
The first step, a lifetime later, almost made me lose it, as ice snapped off the ladder and tumbled down into the chasm beneath my feet. But slowly, and not so surely, I made it to the other side of the ladder—a 10 ft. trip that I would’ve leaped over without thinking about in any other game. And I’ve never felt so proud (or shaky) in my life.
This is what virtual reality is capable of under ideal circumstances, with headphones and motion controllers and a large, empty room to wander around. Of fooling your monkey brain. Of truly transporting you to places you’d otherwise never visit—at least if your PC is up to the task.
Until my body refused to move while trying to scale Mount Everest, I never understood how vital proper made-for-VR controls could be to the virtual reality experience. I mean, I’ve played tons of Oculus games and demos on an Xbox 360 controller and found myself immersed just fine. But motion controls and freedom of physical movement push the experience over the top. It’s a damn shame most people don’t have a 15-by-15-foot room to dedicate to a full VR setup like the Vive.
Oh, and before I left, the Nvidia guys manning the demo told me that four people refused to cross that ladder at all. So even though I was still shaky and sweaty while trying to shoot the video above, I didn’t feel that foolish.