As anyone who’s tried VR will attest, the wonder that comes with putting on a headset for the first time is genuinely hard to beat. As you take your first look around a fully 3D virtual world, it’s difficult not to gleefully imagine all of the exciting possibilities still to come from VR gaming. Yet, despite the medium’s clearly massive potential, so far, PlayStation’s first attempt at virtual reality has been a bit of a disappointment. While there have certainly been a few standout titles like Rez: Infinite, Resident Evil: VII and Superhot VR, on the whole, many of the PSVR games have been brief and gimmicky, sending us quickly back to playing on the trusty TV.
If Moss’ Gamescom showing is anything to go by though, it looks like PSVR might have finally found its killer app. Created by a studio formed by Bungie alumni, this mysterious adventure game was quietly revealed during Sony’s extensive PSVR sizzle reel at E3. For those that missed Moss’ initial announcement, this is a virtual reality experience that cleverly combines action and puzzles, playing like a mix of Zelda and a Team Ico game. Yet, despite wearing its influences proudly on its sleeve, Moss manages to be the rarest of things, a game that feels like it could only work in virtual reality.
‘Moss’ Feels Like ‘Zelda’ Meets ‘Ico’
Sporting a wonderfully charming Ghibli-esque aesthetic, this odd little adventure sees players inhabiting the body of a giant spirit as they guide a sword-wielding mouse through increasingly treacherous environments. While that may all sound pretty bizarre, thanks to Polyarc’s careful consideration of the medium, Moss is a masterclass in how to create a sense of depth in VR. As players inhabit the body of a large god, Moss plunges you into a side-on view of the game’s world, allowing you to lean into and even loom over Polyarc’s intricately-crafted miniature fantasy environments.
Unlike most VR games, however, leaning over Moss’ tiny diorama-like world is an experience that lends itself surprisingly well to playing while seated. The reason for this is Polyarc’s unwavering commitment to creating a game that feels like it could only be played in virtual reality. Sitting down with Chris Alderson, the game’s art director, he reveals that making every part of the gameworld feel believable was critical to making Moss a moving experience. “You’ll notice that the scale of the world is true to scale. When we first started I was walking around outside with a ruler and making sure that all the leaves are the same size. It’s all to making sure that players feel like they’re in that world. If the scale is off — at all — you feel out of place and it just takes you out of the headset.”
For a studio made up of people who worked on Destiny, an animal-led VR adventure game may seem like an odd career shift. Yet, after being blown away by early virtual reality demos, Chris reveals that Polyarc’s founders knew that VR was the future. “It was definitely the idea of working with a new medium that enticed them,” reveals Chris. “[Studio founders] Tam and Danny said ‘OK, [VR] is our opportunity to create something new and flip the table on what people consider to be normal game design.'”
This is a Game That Only Works in VR
After leaving Bungie, the duo quickly joined the one company who they thought had VR figured out – Oculus. Yet, as it turned out, Oculus were still struggling to figure out the rules of VR game design too. “[Tam and Danny] quickly realised that VR was so new that everyone was still exploring and figuring out new ways to do things,” says Alderson, with a grin. “They actually only did a couple of months stint [at Oculus], then they decided that they’d learned enough and wanted to try their own thing .”
After losing ourselves in Moss for a magical half an hour, it looks like Polyarc definitely made the right decision. For the first time in a VR game, we found ourselves not only truly immersed in a third person adventure, but also genuinely caring for a protagonist while wearing a headset. Quill— the adorable little rodent in question — feels like gaming’s most believable creation since The Last Guardian’s Trico. Tiny and vulnerable, this resourceful white mouse immediately makes an impression.
A big reason for that is Moss’ controls. Shunning the Move controllers in favour of the DualShock 4, players can use Sony’s simplistic motion controls to reach in and grab parts of the environment. They can even extend their arms to stroke or heal Quill when things get a bit hairy.
The rest of the game’s controls are more traditional: the analogue stick controls Quill’s movements, a tap of the X button lets her leap into the air, and square swings Quill’s adorable little sword. Leading our unlikely hero through a forest, we pull a massive platform close to the perch she’s standing on, allowing Quill to climb up a previously unscalable wall, leading her into an ancient building.
You’ll Actually Want To Protect Quill
Once we’re in, poor Quill is immediately ambushed by a swarm of vicious-looking scarab beetles. In an unexpected moment, Quill looks directly at the camera, her desperate stare seemingly seeing straight into our soul. Now we really can’t let her die. Slowing down a Scarab with a quick thrust of our controller, we maneuver Quill away from her rapidly advancing enemies. Leaping backwards, we dispatch three of her enemies with some rapid swings of her sword.
For the final section of the demo, we’re tasked with solving some clever puzzles. Pulling and twisting the environment around us, we help Quill navigate through a rotating tower, holding an enemy beetle onto one switch while navigating Quill to another. It all sounds fairly simple, but thanks to its brilliant atmosphere and utterly lovable little protagonist, our time with Moss was one of our most compelling gaming experiences of recent memory.
Given the lukewarm reception to PlayStation VR, we ask Chris what he thinks about the platform’s future: “I’m a believer. I don’t think TV screens are going to be the end of entertainment, so I really hope this sparks the beginning of [VR’s future].” Based on what we played, Moss is turning us into believers too.