How The Climb helped Crytek get a firm handhold on VR

When you're creating a VR game about hanging by your fingertips from the side of a mountain, the protagonist's hands are essentially the star of the show. Nailing hand design was vitally important.

Crytek’s The Climb, which was released on Oculus Rift recently, aims to take full advantage of VR's ability to trigger vertigo. The rock climbing sim gives players a chance to scale mountains, hanging by their virtual fingertips as they take in views, scramble for the next handhold, and look at the dizzying depths below them...if they dare.

The game also gave the developers the chance to learn how virtual reality game production can work and play in Cryengine. The development team working on The Climb at Crytek needed to work hand-and-hand with the Cryengine development team, and several tweaks and upgrades were made to their engine to solve some of the new challenges of VR gameplay. “All the stuff we did create got rolled back into Cryengine, so anyone that uses that engine will get that benefit as well,” says Crytek executive director Elijah Freeman.

Speaking to Gamasutra about The Climb’s development, Freeman explained how the team prototyped the game, some of the major hurdles in The Climb’s development. “There are all kinds of plusses and minuses to developing on a freshly baked hardware,” he says.

When you're creating a VR game about hanging by your fingertips from a cliff face, the protagonist's hands are essentially the star of the show. Nailing the feel and look of them was vitally important to the success of the game.

Senior level designer Mattias Otto, a climber, and describes the eureka moment in a dev diary: "What happens when i climb? I look at the wall, and i look where my next grip is. I thought, yeah, that's something I could easily prototype."

Not-so-hands-free design

Freeman says that much of The Climb’s development and challenges spawned from figuring out how to have players move about in a virtual reality space, especially once they picked the challenge of having them climb a realistic mountaintop.

During prototyping sessions, a Crytek level designer who was a mountain climber in his spare time built a whitebox with some verticality and scale. Once the team realized that interacting with some ledges was a fun mechanic, they began experimenting with what the player could be climbing on, before pushing on to a full mountain climbing game. 

Freeman and his colleagues have previously talked about a need to eliminate creating full IK rigs for the player. "Nature is an awesome thing and we wanted people to experience that and have that sense of being teleported to some place special,” he told Rock Paper Shotgun. “It was difficult to do full body IK and not have your arms blocking you. When we went to just gloves, we realized we could see everything and look around.

Prototype version of The Climb. "You look at where you want to go and then you pull the trigger," says art director Pascal Eggert. "The two triggers symbolize closing the hands."

Freeman adds that this was also a timing issue. He doesn’t think a full IK climbing game would be impossible, but for Crytek, there wasn’t enough time in the production budget to figure out a full-body solution. Hence, the creation of their disembodied hands.

Many developers have also hit upon disembodied hands as a solution--it's become a VR staple in games that use all of the different hand controllers available.

One tricky element of the design is that players need to clutch with precision at handholds that are not on a flat 2D plane.

“We wanted the hands to position themselves in a way whenever you turn, based on the context of the gameplay,” says Freeman. “However, we found out this kind of stuff would creep into other aspects of development, so we had hands popping up in odd ways, and we'd have weird interactions because of the geometry that we had to address.”

Wrist-deep in the Uncanny Valley

The hands were an elegant solution because they didn't crowd the screen, and helped keep the budget down. But the hands themselves were not elegant at first. Player feedback clued Crytek into one uncomfortable fact: players felt a bit weirded out looking at the hands, At that point in development, the hands called attention the themselves. They ended abruptly, in a way that just served to call attention to their odd disembodied nature.

"It was a bit distracting," says Freeman. "Not necessarily disturbing, but distracting.”

As you can see in the final shots of the game, art adjustments were made to the hands, adding wrists and gauntlets. That seemed to help correct this issue.

Freeman says that the two-handed mechanic was so easily grasped by players that they were able to push a bit beyond natural movements that an actual human would be capable of--even a human with phenomenal upper body strength. 

“We could do things a little hyper-realistically in terms of a proper one-to-one hand animation," he says. "We were able to extend the reach a little bit further, allow hands to cross over in ways you probably wouldn't in real life, and so on.”

Images and GIFs from Crytek's "The Climb Dev Diary 1: Base Camp"

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