‘Operation Apex’ lets you explore the deep, no scuba gear required

The water surrounding me provided little resistance to the powerful handheld propeller in my hands. Effortlessly gliding over the seabed, I reached the edge of a precipice. Stopping, I gazed down into the blackness. It was filled with mystery, and I felt dizzy staring down. Looking up, schools of tuna and black sea bass swam, creating dark shadows against the bright sunlight beyond the rippling surface. A voice urged me to continue my mission of cataloging sea life, and exploring the effect our environmental carelessness was having on them.

This wasn’t real life, although I was in the coastal city of Brighton in the United Kingdom. I was wearing an HTC Vive headset and playing Operation Apex, a virtual reality game from startup Curiscope. It’s close to living The Blue Planet as I’m going to get.

While we use the word “game” to describe Operation Apex, it’s not quite correct. It’s not a game in the traditional sense, and it’s not a primarily educational experience like Curiscope’s other main product, the quirky-but-awesome Virtuali-Tee. It bridges the space between the two, merging the exploratory aspect of games like No Man’s Sky with the cinematic, engaging, and absorbing story-telling we adore in documentaries like The Blue Planet.

While we may be used to this format in TV, movies, or even some games, it’s unusual in virtual reality. Curiscope considers it the way forward for VR, and has spent the last year on this ambitious project, creating an undersea educational experience with a strong conservationist message that is as compelling to play as any game, yet as visually interesting as our favorite documentaries.

The name of Operation Apex is inspired by apex predators, Curiscope CEO Ed Barton explained — which means sharks, in this case. “We’re the shark startup,” he joked, referencing Curiscope’s breakout shark-based 360 video experience, now an AR title for iOS, which has received tens of millions of views on YouTube.

You play the role of a researcher tasked with discovering the effect plastic is having on ocean life. Your exploration leads to understanding the food chain, and how pollutants are affecting all creatures under the sea, and therefore our lives on land. Sounds depressing, right?

Your exploration leads to understanding how pollutants are affecting creatures under the sea.

It’s not, and all the better for it. The message is there, but it’s not heavy-handed, and the experience doesn’t come across as a lecture.

The Blue Planet’s subtle format was a major influence for Barton, co-founder Ben Kidd, and the Curiscope team — but it wasn’t the only one. He talked about Pixar movies, which weave their points into an entertaining storyline, and how the Discovery Channel presents stories about complex or challenging subjects.

For Curiscope, the tough part was taking the idea and bringing it into VR. Barton recalled Everest VR, which was visually awe-inspiring, but short on interaction. “We didn’t want Operation Apex to be an on-rails virtual reality experience,” he told Digital Trends.

It’s not. The HTC Vive’s controllers are multi-tools, with a map of your surroundings showing objectives, a scanner for cataloging life, and a clever lure system to bring shy creatures close to you. After a brief period of adjustment, it’s easy to use the control system, luring fish with one hand, and operating the scanner with the other. While the game has a clear mission structure, exploration is encouraged, often leading to hidden secrets that provide more information and background for the story.

The ocean is beautifully realized with waving kelp forests, open expanses of water, deep sea caves, and plenty of sea life. In the first stage I felt an overwhelming feeling of exposure, like I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. It’s very effective.

The best learning experiences are often those where you don’t know you’re learning, and Operation Apex’s conservational message is sufficiently subtle to not be the sole reason for the game’s existence, while at the same time provoking thought. It’s a complex juggling act that Curiscope has managed well.

The VR industry is still young, and creating new content that not only works, but pushes the format forward, is still a challenge. With Operation Apex, Curiscope’s meeting that challenge. It’s also only the beginning. In the future, it’s hoped this first version will be enhanced with new levels, each telling stories about life below the waves and our impact — good and bad —on it. This first edition of Operation Apex could be episode one of Curiscope’s own VR documentary.

Operation Apex is available now for the HTC Vive through the VivePort store, and will come to Oculus Rift and Playstation VR in 2018.

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