When I first heard of Moss VR, I was a little bit surprised. A platformer in VR? What would be the point of that? Now, I am big into VR - I love it for racing sims, flying sims, submarine sims, sailing sims…. You’re kinda getting the picture, right? I value VR for the immersive factor when it comes to simulating real life activities. I didn’t see how VR could bring all that much to the table when it comes to guiding a little avatar around, making it jump through hoops, both metaphorically and literally. Then again, everything I could see about Moss made look like a top-shelf effort, so it was certainly worth trying.
My initial impressions supported my early assumption that Moss was a kid’s game that very few kids would be able to play, what with the cost of a VR headset. While the prices are no longer as ghastly as they originally were, I still don’t feel like I would put one in the hands of a pre-teen. As it turned out, the game was so relaxing and easy that I even considered asking my wife to give it a try. We’re talking about a woman that has literally never played a video game of any sort. Moss was so preternaturally approachable, though, that I was curious as to what would happen with an absolute neophyte at the controls.
We will probably never know.
To provide some context, as mentioned before Moss is a platformer. The player acts in the role of an almost religious entity called “The Reader.” This makes perfect sense, because the game puts you in the role of reading a book. The book is an exquisitely drawn novel that tells a fairy tale story having to do with a kingdom that has been taken over by a huge, fire-breathing snake named Sarffog. You play as a little white mouse named Quill. She is on a mission to free her uncle from Sarffog. Through some form of mysterious magic, Quill is able to see and interact with you, The Reader. You, playing as The Reader, tell Quill where to go, and you also help her out now and then by doing things that she is far too small to do by herself. This is often things like opening large doors, or moving platforms around to help her jump up to places she wouldn’t normally be able to get to.
Using the Oculus Rift (the Vive is also supported, according to the details provided in the Steam store), you help Quill find her way around by using the control stick on the left Touch controller. That was very easy to adapt to. Your right hand is the one you use for doing your magical Reader tasks. Also on the right hand Touch controller, you use ‘A’ button to make Quill jump/climb, the ‘B’ button to make a weapon attack, and the ‘A’ and ‘B’ button simultaneously to make a defensive move. This simplicity was easily the most important factor for me - I cannot come to grips with fighting games that have dozens of possible attack moves. For those, I simply smash away randomly on buttons and just hope for the best. Moss, by comparison, didn’t have that problem. That isn’t to say that combat has been trivialized down to almost nothing; there were battles that took a fairly long time to get past.
That, by the way, is why I decided not to do the non-gamer spouse test. While the gradient of the initial difficulty curve was relatively flat, there came a point where it steepened considerably. Even the enemy thingies started out as minor inconveniences, but when they became more varied and traveled in larger groups, the combat became far more difficult. That was not necessarily to do with encountering stronger/better/smart enemies, though. Other than Sarffog, there were really only three types of combatants: one that looked like a cockroach with crab claws, one that threw flaming balls of fire at you, and one that would inflate itself like a hungry tick in a dog’s ear prior to exploding in a cloud of acid. In early battles, they come at you more or less one at a time, and they all tend to be of the same type. As Quill gains experience and makes progress through her trek, she starts battling larger hordes of mixed-type critters.
I let poor little Quill die early and often.
Dying a lot in platformers (and other types of games too) can be a royal pain if you have to go way back to your last save point, but Moss is far more forgiving. You just had to start over on whatever room you were in. That was still a little frustrating on some of the more complex levels, but it was never so burdensome that I just walked away in disgust. You, as The Reader, also have an advantage that I grossly underutilized, primarily because I must have napped through the tutorial and/or forgot all about it: you can actually reach out and heal Quill. It’s not exactly a panacea - it takes a couple of seconds to fully heal her and Quill is still vulnerable to attack whilst healing, but it’s sure better than my method which could accurately be described as “Let her die; another will pop up in a couple of seconds.”
I am not proud of that. Especially after discovering that I could scratch Quill’s back and she would respond with a look of abject pleasure. You get attached to the little gal.
As you guide Quill deeper into her trek, the world slowly devolves from being trees, plants, grass, and stone to far more foreboding swamps, mines, and abandoned castles. It’s not all that different from Lord of the Rings in that you start your journey in your pleasant little world, but the further you go, the more dire and gloomy it gets. The battles get much harder to win, and the climbing becomes more dependent on using all of the items at your disposal, including, at times, your enemies. There were at least half a dozen rooms that took a lot of time to figure out, one of which I had to re-do after taking a wrong turn after finally having figured out how to get out of it.
I just walked away in self-disgust.
Eventually you come face to face with Sarffog. I don’t want to share too much (one never knows what might be considered spoilers) about the fight with Sarffog, but I will say this: it was one of the most epic and gratifying boss fights ever. While the game starts out with you possibly feeling a little dissatisfied with the tiny modicum of assistance you are actually providing as The Reader, you will end the game with a perfect understanding of why you were needed. Who can ask for more than that?
After seeing brave little Quill standing tall against mighty Sarffog, I am inspired to show a little bravery myself: I am going to openly admit that I was 100% wrong to think that VR brings nothing to a platformer. The sense of immersion was still there, albeit in a different way. People tend to concentrate on the 3D aspects of VR when it comes to immersion, but that is only half of the equation; the other half is the sense of scale. Race cars, airplanes, whatever: they’re life sized, not two inch tall pictures on a flat screen. You, as The Reader, are human sized, whereas tiny little Quill is… tiny. And little. She looks just like she would if she were a white lab mouse sitting on your desk making little impatient movements while you try to figure out where you want her to go. I was also dubious as to whether or not the 3D and depth perception would make any meaningful difference when it came to jumping and climbing. They did.
In retrospect this is not surprising, but I found that the 3D helped understand how the different levels/platforms of each room worked in conjunction with each other. Quill can be played without ever getting up from your chair, but you will want to get up anyway. Sometimes it was very helpful to be able to stand up and get different points-of-view while searching for the right path to guide Quill down. It probably would have helped me avoid making that disastrous wrong turn. It also helps when trying to find the little hidden scroll in each level. I'm not sure if there was any benefit to finding the scroll, nor did I find any good reason to go around breaking pottery with my sword. Other than just for the fun of it, of course.
Also deserving of mention is the way things actually move when The Reader comes into play. Those big stone blocks don’t move easily, despite your god-like strength. They make grinding sounds as you drag them ever-so-slowly across the ground. Sometimes you have to pull on things that feel like they just aren’t going to move for you, until they suddenly break loose and do. It all combines into making you feel powerful, but limited in what you can do. Kind of like a demigod. Intuitively, I have often felt that designing the way the controls should work in VR must be one of the more difficult, yet critical, things to get right - if I am correct, a whole lot of work went into creating an interface in Moss that feels every bit as realistic when dragging a heavy rock around as it does when gently scratching your little mouse’s belly.
It takes a lot of disparate efforts to make a game feel well balanced and designed. Every bit as important as the “feel” of the Touch controllers is the overall artistic design. Again, Moss is so intricately and attractively drawn that players are at risk of not even noticing it. Consider the Shire from Lord of the Rings: it was different from anything you have ever seen, but so well detailed that it was eminently believable. Moss is the same way. I would not be the least bit surprised to walk down to the stream that runs through my neighborhood and find little mouse-sized buildings and houses.
It seems that there is always at least one downside, however, no matter how good a game is. With Moss, that weakness becomes apparent when you start getting into combat. I was entirely unprepared for how quickly the difficulty ramped up. Fighting one or two of the creatures at a time took a few tries before I figured out a decent set of tactics, but the hordes were murderous. The hostile creatures also become part of your toolbox for getting out of levels, but Moss makes no effort to make that known to you. I’m not going to tell you either (fear of spoilers runs deep in me), but when you get stuck (and you will!), keep them in mind. They can be….. handy.
Moss far surpassed my expectations of a VR platformer. The entire experience of design, music, dialog, narration, level design… it was all so perfectly meshed as to become a uniform thing, as opposed to feeling like a group of separate facets that met for the first time when they built into the release version. The controls feel so natural that you don’t have to think about them. Sure, it helps that they’re pretty simplistic, but even that points to a high degree of design effort. Any GUI developer can tell you that the most difficult user interface to design is one that is simple and easy for the user. A truly great interface is one that you can’t even tell is there.
Moss comes very close to achieving that, and more.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.