Remember how epic pop-up books were as a kid? They were like the Holy Grail of story books; you’d open them up to discover a dragon leaping off the page, or pull a tab to reveal a hidden item, or spin a wheel to bring the characters to life…the other books couldn’t do any of that. If you had told five-year-old me that the future of storytelling would get even better than that I would have said, “Yeah whatever fart face!” Flash-forward to 2018 and Moss has popped way off the page to break boundaries for both narrative and virtual reality. Who’s the fart face now, huh?
Created and developed by Polyarc, Moss is nominated for both Best Indie Game Debut and Best VR/AR Game at this year’s The Game Awards. This action-adventure puzzle game casts players in the role of The Reader, a sort of spiritual entity that aids Quill, the heroine of the tale, on her quest. The game begins in a library with a cathedral ceiling lined with chandeliers, and tables adorned with candlesticks and various texts stacked on one another (basically it’s the dining hall of Hogwarts during O.W.L. exams). In front of you rests an old book entitled Moss. Once opened its blank pages suddenly fill with colorful illustrations and the story begins.
Out in the woods Quill, a small mouse equipped with the tiniest little bag and sword you’ve ever seen, stumbles across a tree and uncovers a glowing piece of glass. Looking up she discovers the player, known as The Reader, but is more curious than frightened of your presence. A bell from her village chimes and you must aid your new friend to get home on time, or her Uncle Argus will worry where she’s gone. Bursting through the door of her uncle’s cottage she shows him her discovery of the glowing glass. Little does she realize the glass relic she found contains a power that is greater than she could have ever imagined. It appears Argus knows more than he’s letting on and overwhelmed with concern he leaves in the dead of night in an effort to protect Quill and their village from those who may seek such a power. But Argus fails to return and that’s when Quill’s journey begins. With the help of The Reader she must travel the woods to find her uncle and defeat the wicked fire-breathing snaked called Sarffog that keeps Argus captive.
I’m not exactly the biggest fan of mice but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Quill. I couldn’t get over how the game perfectly captured her proportions to make her feel authentic against the rest of the bigger world. She appeared so fragile and dainty but most of all I couldn’t get over the cuteness of her tiny little paws. She really looked and felt like a real mouse should but with the personality of a gladiator. If her persistence and tenacity throughout the game don’t prove that, then certainly her performance during the final battle of the game should. I was truly taken aback at how this little mouse acted like a warrior straight out of an action movie and completely lost sight of the fact that I was the one controlling the whole showdown.
To communicate with the player Quill uses sign language to express gratitude and offers high fives when we accomplish something together. She also gives suggestions if you’re ever stuck and not sure what to do next. It’s easy for me to grow attached to characters in games but this time the bond was different. It felt like a co-op except the mouse was never real. Both my character and Quill were controlled by me, but somehow the developers were able to make it feel like separate entities.
Could the story of Moss work without VR? Sure, but not as well, and it certainly wouldn’t have that physical connection between The Reader and Quill that VR allows. The gameplay requires more from the user than just toggling the L3/R3 joysticks to control Quill’s movements. Players must move the actual controller around to interact with both Quill and the environment. Move the controller side to side to move blocks and help close gaps for Quill or rotate the controller to spin pillars and move the controller up and down to adjust their levels to help her with precarious jumps. Pull the controller close to you to lift heavy chains to unlock doors or bring the controller close to Quill to help revive her when she’s injured. A significant part of this story is the bond formed between The Reader and Quill. You’re not just on the sidelines cheering your character on. You are an active part of this character’s success or demise and together you will solve puzzles and defeat enemies as you explore the world around you.
In some ways the pint-sized world of Moss reminded me of the popular franchise Uncharted. Both games feature a protagonist who yearns for adventure, both require the characters to climb and feature environments with worn mountain ledges to signify that they can be accessed, both require the protagonist to solve puzzles within ancient ruins in order to proceed... Honestly Nathan Drake might want to consider giving Quill a call; think of the killing he’d make with a sidekick that can fit in tiny places and go undetected!
But while aspects of Moss felt like elements from games I’ve seen before, it’s the VR experience that really took my breath away. Captured gameplay video and screenshots honestly don’t do it justice. Once you put the VR headset on you truly feel transported to another world. In place of my couch were picturesque trees and spectacular wildlife. Instead of my kitchen island I saw a sandy beachfront with a trail of tiny little paw prints across the shoreline. The ancient structures Quill would venture through felt like I was looking at a scale model of a building. I could even peer over walls to see what was on the other side or crank my head one way or another to get a full scale view of the environment. If this is what VR is capable of I can’t imagine what the future holds for games using this technology.
Not only did the game manage to look lifelike but the sound design also brought the imagery to life. The sound of the pages turning in Moss, or the little patter of Quill’s paws on the rocks, or the swoosh of her sword through a blade of grass helped to create an authentic environment.
But what’s an epic adventure sound like without a score to compliment it? The soundtrack by Jason Graves perfectly captures the emotions of this quest. Between the Celtic sounding vocal tracks and souring melodies I couldn’t help but feel swept away on this journey. The music makes this miniature quest feel larger than life and fills you with hope that this unlikely hero will actually pull off the adventure of a lifetime. It’s these details that work to transform this virtual world into one that felt real. In fact, there were a number of times when I took the VR headset off and didn’t realize what time of day it was around me anymore. I had just been looking up at the stars a moment ago, what do you mean it’s only 11 in the morning?
Admittedly I’ve been skeptical of the PSVR since its debut. I had no doubt VR games would be fun but I questioned how it would, or if it even could, advance the ways in which we tell stories. That is, until I played Moss. This dynamic game features an immersive environment that transports players to a magical world where even the unlikeliest hero prevails. Chris Alderson, co-founder and art director of Polyarc said, “Our goal is to let the player’s senses teleport them to a world where the characters and environments truly feel alive.” Mission accomplished Alderson.
After completing the game my biggest issue was that it was too short. Luckily this was only Book One in the Moss series. While it’s unclear how many books will be featured in this series one thing is for certain, the story isn’t over…yet.
Moss is available now on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Microsoft Mixed Reality, and PlayStation VR.
Check out the trailer below: