Since its release in October 2016, Sony's PlayStation VR has been in search of a game to live up to its promise. Though the PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset is more consumer-friendly than the PC competition like Oculus and Vive it lacks the expansive library both of those options offer. It also doesn't work with every single PlayStation 4 game, meaning that console's exclusives, as strong as they may be, don't help to bolster a diverse library of virtual reality experiences.
There have been a few shining moments over the past 18 months in PlayStation VR's history, with titles like Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, Farpoint, and SuperHyperCube among those leaving an impression. However, even those titles are far from the system-selling hits that could turn virtual reality into more than a niche aspect of the PlayStation brand. That's where a game like Polyarc's Moss comes into play.
Whereas a large portion of PSVR's offerings to this point have been first-person experiences developed around the idea that immersion is best when it's directly from the player's perspective, Moss pulls things way back. A third-person action platformer, Moss puts players in the role of an omniscient being known as the Reader, who then guides a small mouse named Quill on an adventure through a fantasy realm. Quill interacts with players through sign language, but players have full control not just over her movements and attacks, but also certain elements of the game world.
Each area you and Quill visit is designed to stand alone, a puzzle of its own for you to solve for the little adventurer. Rather than leaving you on the outside looking in, Moss incorporates you into its world from the start. If you want to get a closer look at the world design, which bears some commonalities with indie comic Mouse Guard, just stand up and do it. If you are looking for any number of the world's secrets, you simply peek into the corners and halls throughout the game. The standard camera is always fixed, but by giving you the ability to move around the game's levels at will with the power of the PSVR headset, Moss becomes so much more than just another third-person escapade.
The balance of difficulty makes Moss easily accessible to just about anyone who wants to play, but it's truly the immersion of the player into the world that makes it such a tremendous example of where virtual reality can take gaming next. We've all fallen in love with gaming's expansive worlds of fantasy and science fiction before, but we've never actually been to any of those places in person. With Moss, there's more vibrancy to the environment when we can look through a castle's walls rather than look at them like we have in so many other non-VR games. That feeling of actually being there in the moment and the world is palpable, and, for the first time, feels as authentic as truly being in a forest in the middle of the day.
What's more, the way Quill interacts with players takes our connection to her one step further. Anyone familiar with Sonic the Hedgehog knows the character has a penchant for growing annoyed with players if they aren't actively playing his game. For the most part, character interaction in games has always boiled down to little asides like that. Breaking the fourth wall was about all characters could do to allude to knowing there was someone else steering the ship.
As the Reader in Moss, players are more than just ethereal beings pushing the action, they're partners with Quill. She'll point people in the right direction if a puzzle seems particularly stumping or coo and cheer if you rub her tummy or pet her head. You can even "sneak up" on Quill when her back is turned to startle her. The relationship forged with Quill isn't just something artificially built on dialogue choices or because the narrative calls for it; Quill's friendship seems as natural an encounter as any you'd have in the real world. Even though Quill is still programmed by Polyarc to act the way she does when prompted, her companionship feels anything but artificial.
The ability to so closely interact with a character and the world in which they live isn't something traditional games can offer. No matter how hard they try, titles that promise growing close to virtual characters, like those from Mass Effect or Persona, still keep you from genuine interactions. Most virtual reality titles are the same way, save for some of the more illicit "dating" sims. With its focus on immersing players in the world, Moss presents a fresh take on the genre as well as how we can engage with games and characters.
The only disappointing thing about Moss is how brief this first installment in the adventure is, particularly given how much fun it is to play. Knowing that there is allegedly more to come offers some comfort, but we're already missing Quill.
Moss sets a shining example of where virtual reality gaming can, and should, be going. The barriers that once kept players at a distance completely disappear, drawing them into game worlds in ways that just aren't possible without VR. More games like this can only help virtual reality step off the sidelines and into a more significant role in how we game in the future. We just hope that Quill will continue the ride with us.