Road to the IGF: Polyarc's Moss
This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.
In Moss, a little mouse sets off on a grand VR adventure, and the player will join in alongside her, using their shared abilities to solve puzzles and overcome monsters that they couldn't tackle alone.
Gamasutra sat down with Stephen Hodde (Audio Director), Rick Lico (Animator & Rigger), and Chris Alderson (Art Director) for the Excellence in Audio-nominated Moss to learn about the thoughts that went into making the player wish to help Moss' tiny protagonist, how sound deepens that connection, and how VR can make the player truly feel like a part of the journey.
The people behind the mouse
Hodde – Hi, I’m Stephen Hodde and I’m the Audio Director. I started making flash games before transitioning to console. I worked at Volition on Red Faction and the Saints Row games, Bungie on Destiny and its year 1 expansions, and Amazon Game Studios before landing at Polyarc.
Lico – Rick Lico, Animator and Rigger for Moss. I’ve been animating professionally since 2000, and in the gaming industry since 2001. I’ve been credited on 14 shipped games and a few expansions. I was the original animator for the Destiny franchise, helping to establish the animation style of its characters, gameplay feel, and technical animation systems. Before that, I was helping to redefine animation for the Halo franchise by introducing a mocap pipeline for Reach, and pitching the initial concept for Bungie’s runtime rigging system.
Alderson – I’m Chris Alderson, Artist and Art Director. Funny enough, Rick (Lico) and I have been working together in the industry for 14 years. We were both hired at Monolith in 2004 where I worked as a character artist on the Condemned series. Four years later, I was hired at Bungie to build characters for Halo 3: ODST, Halo:Reach, and Destiny, respectively, before leading the Character Art team on The Taken King. In 2015, with the new exciting prospect of VR, I left Bungie to help start Polyarc where we began work on early prototypes of Moss…And the rest is history.
Created from comfortable VR play space
Alderson – Moss was ultimately a product of early VR explorations by the earliest developers at Polyarc, and our love for classic adventure-style games that we grew up with. A new entertainment medium usually means new and exciting ways to interact with it. Basically, starting from scratch. We were excited to make something that everyone could and would want to jump in and play.
We set out to make a world that was inviting with a control scheme that wasn’t daunting. We wanted to make a game that could be played from the comfort of your couch, or if you wanted to get up and walk around, you could do that too.
One of the first big impacts we noticed with VR was the ability to reach in to the world around you and physically interact with it. Furthermore, VR also allows us to bond with characters and have meaningful, emotional interactions with them. In a comfortable play space where you can reach in and interact with objects while being seated, we needed a protagonist that can fit in that space comfortably. Quill was born from those principals. We tried to make a character that you would want to invest your time in to bonding with them emotionally, while also making a game that was fun and easy to play. The world and story around her developed once these basic ideas were in place.
Fetal heart-rate monitors as development tools
Hodde – One of the stranger tools I used was fetal heartrate monitor to record some unique heartbeat sounds. Since all non-synthesized sound originates out in the world, I spend a fair amount of time during development recording in the field. I have a small collection of microphones, but I tend to rely mainly on my Neumanns. I use a Sound Devices recorder and external microphone pre-amplifer on location. I also keep a small, handheld recorder on me most of the time to capture serendipitous sounds.
In the studio, I keep Eurorack & Moog synthesizers. I alternate between many headphones, but have settled mainly on Sennheiser HD650, Oppo PM-3, and Sony MDR-7506 for recording. I have a collection of rare recordings from Andy Martin that he captured during his Northwest Soundscapes Project that appear a lot during the first third of the game. I use Nuendo as my main digital audio workstation which interfaces nicely with Wwise, our audio engine. Unreal and Blueprint cover the other 50% of audio development.
Lico – Moss was made in Unreal. The animation content was authored in Maya.
Alderson – As mentioned above, Unreal Engine was our primary development tool across all platforms, and we love it. The artists used a wide range of different tools during the production of Moss, and our mantra is each artist should use the tools that will help them do the best at their job. Some of us use Maya extensively, while another artist prefers 3D Studio Max.
We used Zbrush and Mudbox for sculpting. Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Photoshop for our textural needs. Marvelous Designer is a great tool for creating garments. We purchased a few scanned data assets from Quixel, and the Unreal Marketplace got us started with our terrain and foliage that we later edited to fit our needs, so our artists could spend more time on hero props and characters.
Creating a personal connection in VR
Lico - I believe it’s a collection of many decisions that factor into this. The first being Alderson’s design of Quill herself. Having an anthropomorphic mouse at a realistic scale with no discernable pupils makes it very easy to side-step common issues such as the uncanny valley. Or that uncomfortable feeling you may get when someone stares at you too long or ignores you.
Beyond pop cultural icons, people have no preconceptions of how a mouse should move or act. Quill’s also quite tiny, so supporting a complex facial animation system wasn’t necessary, making her body language more of the focus. She’s also appealing on her own, without any animation what-so-ever. All of these made my job much easier.
Beyond that, I felt it was important avoid cliché animation decisions. In film and cartoons, there are certain expectations for how anthropomorphic creatures act and move. It’s common to see animated characters gesticulate well beyond what a human would ever do and is often expected as a given. I believe these exaggerated acting decisions can feel off-putting to VR players, and lack emotional depth. I wanted to give Quill a more genuine personality based on honest acting decisions. But this doesn’t mean I don’t respect traditional animation principals. On the contrary, I wanted Quill to feel like a Disney or Pixar style character in motion, but wanted her acting choices to be more subdued in the hopes that she’d feel more relatable.
Finally, we wanted to take advantage of the VR medium. What separates VR from traditional game/film media is a sense of presence. You’re there with the character, not just viewing the character. This means the traditional ‘4th wall’ doesn’t exist in VR.
We felt it was important to interact with Quill like you would with one of your friends. We’re no longer limited to button inputs. We could have Quill react to gestures, line of sight, and context. Things like waving at her, petting her, or spooking her by sneaking up behind her were important for us to represent. But just as important is Quill’s autonomy. We gave her an opinion and a way to express it using sign language. We gave her sovereignty over her actions as she asks for a high-five, implying that she has free will, thought and emotions. It’s easier to have empathy for a living creature than it is for a thing. And empathy is the root of bonding.
A shared emotional journey
Lico - The contrast in scale between Quill and the player helps to define roles. Given Quill’s diminutive size, it’s obvious how limited her effect on her world really is. Players pick up on this and may try to protect her. This will often add subtle tension to a battle or give the players a sense of accomplishment when they solve a puzzle with her. These roles provide an opportunity for the player to feel helpful and cooperative.
But we didn’t want Quill to feel helpless, so we made her actions display an overt sense of effort to compensate. She doesn’t just magically pop-up on top of a ledge or swing her sword. She skitters and scratches her way up a ledge and swings her entire body, not just her sword. This puts an emphasis on realistic physical locomotion, making her more grounded in her world.
We also attempted to be mindful of the player’s emotional arc throughout the game and represent the way we hope the player feels via Quill’s actions. For example, after defeating Sarfog, Quill will kick the defeated foe to vent some adrenaline, which is exactly what we hoped our players would feel in that moment. The idea here is that, if Quill acted on the players emotions, it’ll strengthen the bond they have with her.
Emphasizing vulnerability through environment
Alderson – In the world we created, most of the dangers for a small mouse like Quill have long passed - including the giants who used to roam the land of Moss. Rodents and small animals alike now rule, and except for the occasional war between different rodent kingdoms or other fairy tale creatures the world more-or-less was made for Quill. She had the unfortunate luck of being born right when an ancient evil decided to rear its ugly head. But it wasn’t all coincidence.
What her tale lets us do as developers is take advantage of the scale of the world to emphasize her vulnerability, adding to an emotional weight of your relationship with her. We tried to play up that fact quite often. Whenever Quill leads you into a tiny rodent structure, we like to reward you with a vast environment at the end of it, but this also tends to make you feel for Quill and how open she is to danger. It was also important that the scale of every tree, plant, and rock felt in place to help the player believe they could exist in this world. Once the scale of the world feels out of place, it can really take you out of the experience which would also take away from the emotional weight of Quill’s journey.
A shared adventure only possible with VR
Alderson – To me, Moss and VR are synonymous. The reason for the game’s existence, and why Quill looks and acts the way she does was to compliment the tech from the get-go. We knew that, to make the best VR game possible, we would have to have to design it with VR in mind first, rather than port over an experience to VR later.
The most notable way that Moss utilized VR is through your relationship with Quill. VR let’ you become your very own character, and if done right, you should have your own personal story and motivations to keep you engaged. And that’s where Quill comes in. Hopefully, when you play Moss you are taken by her charm, where you both discover everything about her world and story at the same time, so that your motivation is to go on this journey with her and help her succeed.
That is just something that isn’t possible on flat screen entertainment where you end up watching some other hero’s journey. You and Quill are the heroes in Moss. In VR, you are present within these worlds with their own rules and stories, and from there it can go so much further. I can’t wait for the future of this type of VR entertainment
On Moss' audio design
Hodde - Quill’s relationship with the player became so central to the player’s experience, so I tried to pursue an understated, detailed, and gentle style that could hold that experience. If the sound is working right, the game’s sound arrives in the player’s mind as a unified world. They’re not hearing effects or systems or processing, or consciously registering discrete components of the soundscape. It should all feel glued together. Strangely enough, this line of thinking caused me to spend more time on making cool reverb than I have on any other project.
Using sound to bond with the player
Hodde - Both Jason Graves (our composer) and I are giving GDC talks around this very topic, so I don’t want to spoil too much!
I’ll be breaking down the role audio plays in VR comfort (and discomfort), how to approach sonic scale and perspective, how Quill’s vocalizations allowed players to form their own impression of her identity, the role of voice direction and narration in supporting the player bond, and choosing sounds that have inherent emotional value. It’s all wrapped in a discussion about how to approach sound as a designer, and in Moss’s case, how each one of these aspects contributes directly to the player’s emotional bond with Quill.
Jason will talk a bit about how soloists create intimacy. He’ll also cover how why we chose to create suites of music that were broken down later into small parts, instead of working directly from a cue sheet.