I move hand over hand, from one yellow-painted handhold to the next. The void of space surrounds me, compelling me to pause and look around. I take a moment, then continue. Hand over hand, always hand over hand I inch my way around the outside of the International Space Station.
There's an external ammonia leak somewhere on the station, and as an astronaut I have been deployed to perform a visual inspection. This is Opaque Media's SteamVR demo of Earthlight, one of the most immersive and realistic VR experiences I've played to date.
Melbourne developer Opaque Media Group has been involved in the games industry for many years now — albeit not always in the active role it's taking now. Before beginning work on Earthlight it specialised in creating tools for developers and crafting intense VR experiences with partners like Alzheimers Australia.
With all its experience, Earthlight is Opaque's first true game, which will be released on multiple VR platforms as of next year. The team hasn't forgotten their roots, however, continuing to collaborate with well-respected research organisations. This time, NASA itself reached out to them after seeing evidence of Earthlight's progress online.
The result is one of the most realistic space games that you're ever likely to play. Below, you can experience some of Earthlight's beautiful visuals for yourself, with its full 360° 4K trailer.
In the demo you start inside the station, climb up a ladder and edge out onto the handholds that line the outside of the station. While the bright yellow handholds make a great game device, they're conveniently also what the real astronauts on the ISS use to move themselves around in zero gravity on a spacewalk.
Interaction is exceedingly simple — you hold two controllers that track your hand movements, each with a single trigger button that can be pressed to grab a handhold and released to let go. Despite the simplicity — or maybe because of it — it works.
"Imagine a point-and-click game where everything is a physics puzzle," says project lead, Norman Wang. With so many VR experiences on show at PAX this year, each experimenting with different control schemes to get around the technology's unique constraints, Earthlight was one of the few that appeared to have nailed it. "Space is the ideal setting for the constraints of VR gaming, with astronauts mainly using their hands to get around," says Wang — exactly what I had just experienced myself.
The demo took a bit longer than five minutes, and mainly consisted of edging slowly across the outside of the space station. Of course I stopped occasionally to admire the view, or to stop my legs from shaking at the thought of floating off endlessly into space — which seemed like a very real possibility if I happened to let go of the trigger buttons I clutched way too hard.
Wang later told me that that wouldn't have been possible within the demo — but the game's success was evident in the fact that I was too scared to test it. I was clinging onto those triggers for dear life. Despite the repetitiveness of the single action I could perform, the demo never became boring. Floating on the ISS, 400km above the Earth, there was always something to hold my attention.
Clever mechanics and gorgeous graphics aside, one of the least appreciated aspects of the game was the character whose spacesuit you inhabit. Compared to the strident realism of the environments and the mission, the character is a little touch of fantasy. First off, she's an Australian astronaut — a bit of a pipe dream considering Australia's lack of a space program, but a sensible design decision for a Melbourne-based studio.
Secondly, she's a she. When her voice first sounded inside the helmet it was a bit of a shock. With a voice provided by a local voice actor, it was something I could very much identify with — young, female, Australian. Earthlight doesn't just want to put you in the shoes of an ISS astronaut, it wants to put you in the shoes of this astronaut.
"Experience the immersive journey of becoming an astronaut, as well as the wonders and perils of space exploration," says Opaque's description of the game, yet from my discussion with developers at Earthlight's booth, this is going to include far more about their astronaut Anna's character development than any of Earthlight's released material has shown to date.
The game won't only be restricted to space, either. One earlier sequence that Wang was excited to describe to me was set back on Earth, in Belgium's super deep Nemo33 swimming pool. Once the deepest in the world — now only second — Nemo33 is used by astronauts and cosmonauts in order to teach them problem solving in an extra dimension, ie thinking in the vertical plane of microgravity as well as the horizontal plane that we're used to.
Earthlight's short demo was an odd mix of inspiring and challenging, relaxing and terrifying, and I'm looking forward to being able to follow Anna's full journey into space. Of course it's not all science fact in Earthlight: the demo ended dramatically, with the faulty valves that I was inspecting rupturing suddenly and sending me floating away from the station. Obviously this didn't happen in the true event the demo was based on — but what's a game without a little drama?
Our friends over at Kotaku also had a chat with Earthlight's project lead, check out their interview for more info on VR technology, queuing at PAX and potential movie tie ins.