By Quentin H. / January 27th, 2021
One of the most magical experiences you can have in playing video games today is to experience a made-up world in VR. Being able to turn around and immerse yourself in the sights and sounds of an all digital environment, no matter where you look, is a gaming feat that was unimaginable when the Atari 2600 was first released in 1977. Moss, which our reviewer called “a must-play for anyone interested in VR and a great showcase for the medium’s strengths“, is a game that really shows off the potential of this new gaming medium.
I caught up with Lincoln Davis, the Publishing Director at Polyarc Games, and talked with him about everything Moss. In Part One of a two-part interview, we talk about the inspiration and development of Moss, the story behind Quill using ASL to communicate with the player, and the real-life inspiration behind the in-game Library.
You can buy Moss now for PlayStation VR, Oculus Quest/Oculus Rift S, Vive, and on Steam.
This interview has been edited for clarity and content.
Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H. with Operation Rainfall, and you are?
Lincoln Davis: Lincoln Davis, the Publishing Director at Polyarc Games.
OR: What is Moss about?
LD: Moss is an action-adventure platforming game that was created strictly for VR. Within the game, players meet Quill, a young mouse, that dreams outside of the confines of her town that she lives in. While exploring the woods, she finds a mysterious relic that awakens this ancient magic. Her uncle knows of this, and he heads off to correct what is now wrong but he finds himself in danger. So Quill embarks on this adventure with you by her side in this really unique game format where, since it is VR, you’re helping guide Quill with the joysticks on the controllers but you also have a physical presence within the world. She can see you, she can feel you, she can sense you. But you can also reach in and move objects. You can manipulate the environment.
Because you’re now connected to this magical force, you have to go on this journey with [Quill] to help save her uncle. You travel through these forgotten realms, you solve puzzles, you battle different enemies- but you can’t do it alone and you have to do it together in order to succeed. And throughout this process, you forge this relationship and this bond with each other that you really can’t do outside of a VR environment because you’re there in the game, she knows you’re there, and as you’re going through this adventure, you become friends and rely on each other throughout the game.
And that’s what Moss is about- this epic journey you go on with this companion and fight these evil forces.
OR: Was Moss always intended to be a VR game? Why did Polyarc choose to make it a VR game instead of a more traditional puzzle/platformer type game?
LD: When Tam [Armstrong], Chris [Alderson], and Danny [Bulla] first started the company- prior to that- they got a taste of VR by going over to Valve, which is across from Bungie. When they did that, they got a glimpse into something that was pretty magical- a medium that they knew that they could deliver something unique on. Something immersive and something fresh.
So when they started Polyarc, they realized that they wanted Polyarc to be a studio that focused on VR. That created these worlds, created these moments, created these experiences that you couldn’t get outside of the VR medium. When we started creating Moss, it was always in the mindset that it was going to be a VR game.
We took the traditional gameplay mechanics that you typically find in a good game: compelling characters, combat, world exploration, and combined them with what VR allowed- physical interaction, world immersion, and the presence of being in this world within this environment. When coming up with that, there’s a lot of layers that went into figuring out ‘Okay, so, we want to create a VR game. But we want to create it with these gameplay elements that are tried-and-true of what makes a good game.’ And that’s the studio mission that we had. But we also had to think about what makes a good VR experience[,] because we knew that Moss was most likely going to be the first experience a lot of people were going to have to VR. We launched nearly three years ago [and] we started developing it four-and-a-half years ago, [and] that was when VR was in its infancy of consumer adoption. So when people put on a headset and they played Moss, it was most likely going to be one of their first experiences [with VR].
We sat down and thought about ‘Okay, what is the experience going to be for somebody who puts on a headset for the first time?’ Because it’s such a foreign feeling to put something over your eyes, something on your head, that blocks all other visual context out of your senses, we knew that we needed to make it as comforting as possible. So we wanted a seated experience, because it was already weird putting something on your head. We wanted people to be sitting down. So that confined us, because when you’re sitting down, your movement is somewhat limited so you almost want a diorama feeling in front of you. So with that diorama feeling, we then looked at scale. If you are sitting down in this world, and you have life-sized objects like people or whatever, you would feel very small and insignificant. So having a diorama feel and looking into something small that you can manipulate in front of you is the direction that we took to Moss.
And that meant small characters [and] small objects that could be toyed with. And anthropomorphic animals that are there. And that’s where we landed on that Moss would be a small game with a scale that would be in VR that had that immersion and experience that was there for people to explore.
“So because this is such a storybook-natured ‘bedtime story’ adventure that we’re telling, we thought it was a natural fit to insert a book into the game.”
OR: We’ve talked a little bit about the environment so far, but let’s talk about the heroine Quill. How did her design come about, and why does she utilize sign language instead of speaking? Did you ever intend to have her voiced?
LD: This kind of goes back to the question you just asked- when we started developing Moss and deciding scale and what we wanted to do. When Chris, Tam, and Danny were sitting down talking about this with a couple other developers from our studio that weren’t official employees at the time, they were thinking about a scale and what it would look like. And that’s when they came up with the ideas of toys, car, animals- and we landed on animals. And Chris Alderson, as one of his first actions of what it could look like, came up with the character of Quill.
Quill was a male mouse, a little bit older, a little bit leaner, and with some drawings [Chris] figured out ‘Hey, this is a character we can do’ and he went from there. But during that process, through just some random idea-bouncing, realized that we really want a heroine out there. We wanted her to be a little bit younger, almost like a teen. And that we didn’t want her to be so lifelike. Mice are sometimes a bit skinnier and [have] longer legs. When you see them in the anthropomorphic characters, they are a little bit rounder, little bit more approachable than [when they] are realistic.
So Chris did some illustrations on that, and it landed on what Quill looks like. But now the character of her was a studio effort. Rick Lico, our animation director, got a lot of inspiration to bring her to life from that. Chris got some [inspiration]- with the big ears and the life-like nature of his drawings from his dog Fergie, who is a Corgi who kind of helped to bring Quill to life from the drawings. But Rick, with his animation, looked for inspiration from his young daughters and their innocence, their movement, their giggles, their well-being, their good-natured personalities. And he really brought them to life through Quill’s animations. And that was the inspiration- from the look and visual. The character definition of who Quill is like an actress. And then her movement is kind of like a cloud of team effort that brought her to life.
When you’re playing the game, because you’re partnered with her and you have this bond with her, communication is key. But she doesn’t speak English. She is a mouse- she makes different squeaks and squeals [that] a normal mouse would as she experiences different things: when she is getting attacked, and when she is swinging her sword. But she needed to communicate with the player in more of a unique way- when she sees something that you don’t, or that you can help with- because there are puzzles in the game that she figures out before you do.
So during a playtest at one time, Rick was sitting there watching a playtest and Tam was there- our CEO director and one of the co-founders- and Rick was kind of thinking ‘Wow, she already kind of gives you some ASL in a way by pointing or motioning with pantomime gestures, but wouldn’t it be interesting if she could actually talk to you via sign language?’ And after the playtest, Rick went to Tam and said ‘What did you think about this?’
And Tam said ‘Work on it, pull something together and see how it works.’ And from there, Rick went back to his desk and spent a day-and-a-half animating something and put it on Twitter [while] asking the community ‘What do you think of this?’ And the tweet blew up pretty rapidly, and a lot of people in the community were super excited. They were very pleased with how it turned out. Rick does amazing animations, and even a lot of the deaf community, who are underserved in the video game industry, had very strong reactions to it in a positive way.
So looking at it, we came back to the studios and said ‘Hey, is this something we can incorporate into the game?’ And we didn’t jump on it just from a marketing aspect- we were like ‘If we do this, we have to do it right and we need to deliver on what our expectations are.’ So over a long period of time, we chatted about it- Rick did a lot more exploratory work on it [and] he actually learned ASL on his own.
And so we incorporated it in the game so that at different moments. It was key for Quill to either sign to you or to use some pantomime gestures. You don’t need to know sign language, but if you do, it’s a nice treat. Or you can figure it out from her gestures that she incorporates into her movement. And those could be- if you’re stuck on a puzzle and she figures it out, she does some gestures to help you. She says ‘thank you’, ‘help’, ‘please.’ There are different moments in the game where she recognizes a place and tells you she recognizes the place. She [also] expresses her concern or wonder through sign language. It’s just a form of communication because, again, she can’t speak English. It breaks down that ‘fourth wall’ in that unique way that VR does.
OR: Keeping on the topic of telling the game’s narrative- aside from when the player, also known as the Reader, controls Quill, we see segments that bookend various parts of the game where the Reader is in a library and is reading the book of Moss and Quill’s story. The player has to turn the pages of the book to move the story forward with comic book-like panels as day and night cycles through the library’s windows. Why did you choose to tell portions of the game through this narrative method instead of through in-game cutscenes like in other parts of the game or more through Quill’s own language?
LD: A lot of it came down to cost. Cinematics cost a lot- time and resources. We had originally looked at the game and started creating cinematics. And it was taking a lot of time and rendering; a lot of time for Rick and the artist team to create those. And we really wanted to bring it to life. But again, it was just time, cost, and resources.
So because this is such a storybook-natured ‘bedtime story’ adventure that we’re telling, we thought it was a natural fit to insert a book into the game. When you open up your library and as you’re turning the pages, that [book] can keep us in the narrative of the story. We didn’t want to just have a bunch of narration that took place over the game. While it’s there, it’s almost like to help guide you [in understanding the story], but we didn’t want the story to be overtly in the game itself because it takes you away from that immersion. So when you get ported back to the library, that is a time when you can just take a break, rest, get caught up in a lot of the story and a lot of the nuances that are taking place outside of your specific adventure- things that are taking place in the world. And it’s easier to tell that story with the page that comes to life, almost like a Harry Potter painting, as you’re flipping through the pages. Our narrator talks through that with you and explains what’s going on in the story around you.
So there’s a lot of examples of books that are just natural fits. Like with movies, where the story opens up with a book and then closes with the book and there are chapters. And throughout the story, you reflect back on that book to bring you up to speed with what’s taking place in the movie.
OR: To build on that- how did Polyarc go about designing the library itself? And what were the real-life locations, if any, that you drew from to create it?
LD: The library- a lot of our team went to the University of Washington. And on the campus, there is a library, the Suzzallo and Allen Libraries, that a lot of inspiration came from [with] having spent a lot of time in that library. And knowing that we’re going to have a library within the game, a lot of inspiration was pulled from that into the game itself.
Go to Page Two to see how Polyarc Games made the difficult balancing act of game development, gameplay length, game story, and market saturation while developing Moss and why they wanted to release the game first on PSVR —->
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