A few days ago, I huddled next to my PlayStation 4, and stared at the expensive piece of glass and plastic that’s sat next to the console, completely untouched, for more than a year. Upon closer inspection, I realized there were spiderwebs inside my PlayStation VR headset, and at some point, I’d borrowed the USB cable needed to power it on, and never returned it. There are three VR headsets in my house, but I can’t remember the last time I used any of them. Every time I’m tempted, the work needed to set everything up—the cables, the moving of furniture—is enough to push me towards a game that’ll boot up when I hit a single button.
There were few people more hyped for the arrival of affordable VR than yours truly. I didn’t back Oculus Rift on Kickstarter, thinking it wasn’t sensible to jump in so early, but eventually buckled, and soon strapped a headset on every family member or friend who waltzed near my PC. I had a carefully curated set of games and VR experiences to show VR off, and soon enough, I was being asked to give that same VR tour to complete strangers. I became convinced VR was going to be a huge part of gaming’s future, and despite being a notorious cheapskate, I spent $800 on a Vive, so I could actually walk around in VR. I was a convert.
The love affair was punctuated by the release of Resident Evil 7, a striking reimagining of a stagnant horror franchise whose use of VR was transcendent. Resident Evil 7 in VR is a wholly different—and far less intense—experience outside VR. I wanted more, and figured Resident Evil 7 was the start of something new. Instead, the headset was placed beside the couch, where it remained untouched. None of the games released in VR—PlayStation or otherwise—caught my attention. Nobody asked for VR tours anymore.
It doesn’t help that writing about VR is the fastest way to guarantee almost nobody will click on a story you’ve worked on. VR attracts precious few eyeballs, unless you’re talking about the politics driving one of its pioneers. This was true before VR headsets were released, when you could rationalize the response by how difficult it was convey what it was like inside VR, but it’s stayed true. I can’t speak to how VR-centric websites perform, but from my time at Giant Bomb, Kotaku, and Waypoint, writing about VR has been a time tested way to guarantee you’re writing to an audience of one. Media outlets are a business, and the balance of focusing on what you find interesting and what an audiences cares about is tricky.
Nevertheless, at E3 last year, I did briefly put on a headset after being captivated by a trailer at Sony’s press conference, announcing some new game called Moss.
“ Moss is utterly charming, and joyous to play,” I wrote last year, after tracking the game down and playing a sample. “One of my E3 favorites. Keep an eye on this. It’ll make you smile.”
I went wide-eyed playing Moss because it reminded me of VR’s potential (how many times have you heard that phrase?), but the developers went silent about the game after E3, so I forgot about it. It wasn’t until a code showed up in my inbox, promising a chance to play the final version of Moss, that I was confronted with an uncomfortable reality: I should probably start cleaning up that spiderweb-infested headset.
The highest compliment I can pay Moss is a simple declaration: It was worth the effort.
Moss begins with players opening a book, revealing a world thrown into chaos by a massive, deadly snake named Sarffog, who’s size (and magic) have wrestled control of the nearby kingdom and sent everyone else into hiding. This includes a Secret of Nimh-esque society of mice the game’s main character, Quill, is part of. Quill’s people are protected by an ancient power, one that’s been waiting for the right hero—or in this case, heroine—to come along. Quill was chosen because you were the one who opened the book. The game refers to you, the player, as a “reader,” one whose strange powers can advance the story of Quill’s journey.
In this case, it means literally turning pages in a book and helping guide Quill through some puzzles and fights. Quill can’t actually see you, but she can feel your presence, and while peering into a pool of water, the hazy reflection shows a creature not unlike the unsettling No-Face character from the Studio Ghibli classic Spirited Away. You’re much kinder, though, and instead of actively feasting on the emotions of others, you can twist, turn, and pull objects in the environment, pieces that, for whatever reason, resonate with the reader.
What this practically means is looking for bridges, levers, and other structures that hum with blue power, as they’re likely to prove critical in advancing Quill from point A to point B.
Simultaneously, however, you’re controlling Quill, and the way Moss pulls this off is clever. Most PlayStation VR games use the camera solely to track the direction you’re looking in, but Moss also keeps tabs on the controller. The Dual Shock is represented in-game as a hovering ball, one you wield by lifting the controller and moving around. Quill, on the other hand, is guided by more traditional means—the controller’s analog sticks and buttons. Often, the game will ask players to mix and match these forms of interaction, asking the player to be futzing with part of the environment as the reader while, say, attacking an enemy as Quill.
This is one of many small but breathlessly inventive ways Moss uses technology—in this case, VR—to generate inventive new ways of interactivity and play. It’s what defines Moss, and helps establish its own internal justification for requiring players to buy a headset. Part of VR’s problem has been how few many games fail at this basic task. Not only does Moss have an answer, it’s extends beyond the game’s controls; it’s part of the visual identity, too.
Did you ever make a diorama for school? You know, where you dug through your parents’ closet to find an old shoe box and trying to create a tiny, detailed scene in a confined space? I used to love walking up and down the aisles of my classroom after everyone’s diorama was turned in, trying to squeeze my head inside to take in every detail, twisting at weird angles to see if anything was hidden. Moss takes this and runs with it; every stage is its own diorama.
Each area opens with the camera resting at a fixed perspective set by the designers, often positioned for maximum emphasis of the scene’s emotional crux. If the focus is on a puzzle, the camera may be relatively straightforward, giving you a full picture of everything in front of you. If you’re wandering through a village, however, the camera may open tightly bound to Quill’s face, so that when the player tilts their head down Quill’s path, the full breadth of the village comes into view, highlighting the comings and goings of the society she’s a part of.
Moss is delightfully aware of what it is (and isn’t) showing in order to reward the curious. In order to fully grasp the world in front of you, Moss asks players to bend, twist, and move their head, as if examining a fifth grader’s diorama. Where Quill needs to run towards next might not be immediately obvious, but what if you lean forward and look to the right, as if peering around a corner? What’s revealed might be a dead end—or the solution needed all along.
One puzzle, in particular, had me cackling. Quill is tasked with scaling several floors to reach the exit, but the camera only lets you see what’s happening on the first two floors. Though Moss conveniently gives Quill a transparent glow when disappearing from view, I couldn’t figure out what direction was the right one. Then, while adjusting in my seat, I accidentally pushed a few inches off the ground, and discovered the game would continue tracking, as I got taller. I quickly shifted from kneeling to nearly standing, and found myself with a birds eye view of the whole level, which instantly revealed where Quill needed to go. It was incredible.
These moments are less frequent if you aren’t looking for the game’s collectibles, scraps of paper tucked away behind equally satisfying trickeries of perspective. Besides a trophy, Moss doesn’t tease any particular prize for tracking down every scroll, but it hardly mattered; finding them proved their own joy. Upon entering a new stage, before worrying about Quill, I was leaning forwards, backwards, up, and down in pursuit of what the game might be hiding.
You can imagine a version of this that didn’t require a headset, but it wouldn’t be the same. Moss is one of a handful of VR games that move past the immediate gimmickry of VR, beyond the “immersion” derived from having a slab of glass pressed against your eyeballs. Moss gives thoughtful consideration to the notion that technology can do more than shape design—but aid it. Lots of VR games make this claim, but in a way that feels desperate and flailing, as if the creators fell in love with what VR could do before realizing what it can do.
So much of what I love about Moss goes beyond its fancy headset, too. It’s the way you can high-five Quill by moving the controller near her tiny hands—or scare her by sneaking up from behind. It’s how the story juggles its multiple characters by tasking the narrator with voicing all of them, the same way a parent might try to (often poorly) take on the same task. It’s the way Quill’s animations, her arms and legs squirming and clamoring, bring the character to life in a way that makes you feel vengeful when you fail to keep her from harm.
Moss is a short game—too short, probably. The whole thing is over in a few hours, right as it feels the story and mechanics are gaining momentum. Worse still, it ends on a cliffhanger, teasing what’s likely to come in the future. The combat, which mostly consists of mashing the same button and occasionally dodging, is painfully and boringly simple, a problem exasperated by the game’s tendency to overly rely on gauntlet encounters towards the end.
And yet…who cares? Moss overcame my desire to be lazy and not use a VR headset. Moss convinced me I needed to spend a whole whole day writing about why it’s great, knowing full well very few people may even end up reading these words. Moss is a terrific example of what happens when VR, as a medium, begins to find its own language of expression, both in art and design. It’s a game that, when asked for words to describe it, magic comes to mind.
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