SAN FRANCISCO — I've played a lot of scary games in my life, from Resident Evil to Outlast to Until Dawn, but I have never experienced anything as terrifying as The Walk.
This virtual-reality experience isn't even a game, per se, but rather a digital recreation of the climax of the 2015 film of the same name. In this interactive film, you step into Philippe Petit's shoes as he teeters 1,362 feet above New York City on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center.
Until I donned the HTC Vive headset, I had no idea what I was in for. With a name like The Walk, I expected something quiet and atmospheric. What I got instead was a view of a narrow steel beam right under my feet, leading off into a tightrope. Despite the fact that my feet were firmly on the floor, my heart started pounding and I could feel sweat trickling down my forehead.
As a rule, I'm not overly fond of heights, but I can usually conquer my fear long enough to take stock of my surroundings and appreciate a fine view. I looked to the left, and saw the Hudson River and New Jersey beyond that. I looked to the right, and saw the Financial District splayed out before me. But when one of the handlers suggested I look down, I could barely bring myself to do it.
The experience is almost indescribable. As the cry of seagulls and Philippe Petit's narration played in my ears, I looked below my feet to the quarter-mile expanse below.
The dizzying drop left me nearly paralyzed with genuine terror. I could feel my hands and legs trembling. Somewhere, my rational primate brain knew that I was seeing an optical illusion, but the deeper, reptilian part kept screaming at me to turn back and find solid purchase.
I was very tempted to toss off the headset and say, "Thanks, anyway," but I figured if Philippe Petit could successfully complete the grueling walk in real life, the least I could do was participate in a perfectly safe VR facsimile. I threw out my arms for balance and took one tentative step at a time, placing one foot in front of the other.
The representatives had taped a wire to the floor to give the impression of a tightrope, and I made sure every step landed on it as though my life depended on it. I teetered to the sides, but managed to stay upright, 15 feet walking forward, and 15 feet back to the start. I did my best to not look down again.
When I finally finished my recreation of Petit's iconic walk, I handed the headset back to the handlers, still sweating and shaking. I had never experienced anything like The Walk before, and I'm not entirely sure I want to again.
In even the scariest horror games — on a screen or on a VR headset — there is a pleasant veneer of fantasy: the sure knowledge that no matter how scary things seem, nothing can actually hurt you. But The Walk was a recreation of a real experience, which a real man undertook.
One thing is for sure: The Walk convinced me that VR has a multitude of uses well beyond gaming. As always, though, real life (or the recreation thereof) is much scarier than anything we can invent.