Ascenders Ascenders

Four castaways find themselves marooned on a small island inhabited by crumbling stone colossi. They are forced to scale the island’s sole peak to avoid a slowly approaching tsunami.

Or rather, you are forced, for Ascenders is a virtual reality experience in which you and up to three others inhabit the characters. Developed by France’s Backlight, it was the sole vr project to be presented as a work in progress at the recently concluded Annecy Festival.

Backlight has been working in vr since 2014, which makes it a veteran by the standards of this field. It has a marked interest in interactive multiplayer experiences which resemble games more than films. In Ascenders, the players split into two teams which collaborate to reach the summit. The Backlight crew compared it an escape game in their presentation, but stressed that it has a contemplative aspect and a special mood created by the open landscapes.

Of course, players can’t literally climb things in real space, so the developers have to find workarounds to stage an experience in which the characters gradually move upward. Director Jonathan Astruc made much of what he called “plane shifting,” an approach to design whereby moving elements, such as elevators or the hands of the colossi, enable players to travel vertically. The continuity of the world — i.e. the absence of “teleporting” — is crucial to Astruc’s ambition to create an immersive experience.


That world was very atmospheric, judging by the ample concept art and early footage we were shown. The misty, desaturated landscapes echo Ico, the classic Playstation 2 game. The designs of the colossi channel Mayan art. The concept of a looming wave is a striking, dramatic one. By the end of the presentation, I was keen to explore the island.

The nature of Ascenders means it will be playable only in dedicated venues. Backlight’s communication manager Elodie Maizeray justified this choice by pointing out that home vr setups are still too expensive for many. True. Then again, Backlight’s approach is just as prohibitive: the company operates one such venue (under the OZ Experience brand) in Las Vegas, and plans to open more in Paris and Geneva. If you don’t live near one of those cities, it isn’t clear where or when you’ll be able to play Ascenders.

Image at top: concept art

Alex Dudok de Wit

Alex Dudok de Wit

Alex Dudok de Wit is Deputy Editor of Cartoon Brew.

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