Moss: Book II to Take Players on a Surprising Emotional Rollercoaster

Image courtesy of Polyarc

Polyarc's Environment Artist Coolie Calihan spoke with DBLTAP about some of the features he's most excited for players to experience in the upcoming Moss: Book II.

The highly anticipated sequel to Polyarc's VR game Moss, Moss: Book II was first announced during during Sony's State of Play presentation last year. It seeks to build upon the story and features that players quickly fell in love with the first time around. Reuniting once more with the tiny adventure-loving mouse Quill, players will embark together on another fantastical journey through the medium of VR.

Environment Artist Coolie Calihan discussed some of the great new features coming to Moss: Book II, as well as what the future holds for Polyarc. The conversation has been edited for the sake of length and clarity.

DBLTAP: So, first off - what made you want to put out VR games, specifically?

Coolie Calihan: Well, I didn't work on Moss one, but I was friends with the people who founded Polyarc - I knew them from a previous job. And I think my understanding was that at the time, they realised that they were going to be making their own game. They realised that, even if they made the best team they could, they're still gonna be small fish in a really big ocean. And VR was just then becoming feasible for game developers. So they kind of took the risk and said, let's take our skills over to a new media, or at least a new piece of hardware and see if we can make it over here.

After some brainstorming about ideas for what the game could be, the team really started to land on this fantasy environment that was larger than life. Playing with scale is a really fun thing to experiment with in VR to create interesting compositions. So that led them to have the main character be this mouse who was only a few inches tall. And as the reader, it's a nice scale where we can add a fair amount of detail and complexity to the world without having to move the player around too much. They found pretty early on that moving the player around was just causing a lot of comfort issues and wasn't as accessible.

DBLTAP: The discomfort is something I've definitely experienced with VR games in the past. Having a more distant view or perspective can certainly make for more comfortable gameplay.

When it comes to crafting a sequel, one of the goals is to improve and build on the solid foundation of the first. So what would you say has been improved or built upon in Moss: Book II?

Calihan: So we've certainly been investing in more things that you can reach into the world and physically interact with, and we've wanted to expand the types of things you can interact with. So we still have bricks that the player can move back and forth. But then there's the Nature Attunement (is what we're calling it) where the player gains this ability to interact with the natural environment. By doing so, they can draw bridges of vines that Quill can then run across, or paint a wall full of vines that she can then jump up and climb. And then just locomotion in general; Quill can now climb up walls. Before, with Moss, she was just shimmying left and right, and now she can climb on a wall in all four directions and even jump in between different wall climbing sections. That's enabled us to have levels that are more vertical, so we've played with scale vertically and that's been pretty fun.

And the environments; we've wanted to make them bigger and make them more impressive and really take the scale up. Like, we know that we can do small rooms really well - and that feels good. But then, how does it feel to go from a very small room into a much larger room? So we built some new features for the game where in some of the larger rooms, you're not actually fading to black to get a new camera position, like going to a whole different room, you're just quickly cutting to different perspectives in the same level.

We've made a lot of smaller upgrades. There are things that won't necessarily be a big new feature, but there are quality of life improvements, and features that we can use to expand on what was already there. Because we did want to make a longer experience for the fans, we wanted to add more depth and richness to each level. But that's just some of the ways that we were able to accomplish that.

DBLTAP: You've listed off so many things there - big and small. Of these features, what are you most excited for people to experience?

Calihan: I'm really excited for people to experience the story and the emotional connection that they're gonna build with Quill. I think VR is such a special medium, in that you're right there with the character, and you can just jump in there and give them a high five. When Quill points to something and calls out to you, you know, it feels like she's calling out to you.

There's going to be a lot of fun moments where you're solving puzzles together and having laughs, but then there's also going to be really tough moments where you're going to see things that'll be really challenging for Quill, and for you as well. So your emotional bonds will be tested there. I think [players] will be surprised at the emotional roller coaster that they're going to be taken on. That's the beauty of this game, and of this medium, that we can really make you feel like you're a part of it.

DBLTAP: One of the great aspects of the first game was how it incorporated American Sign Language into certain parts of the gameplay. So, thinking about accessibility, what features are present in the sequel that will perhaps enhance the experience for diverse audiences?

Calihan: Well, that's that's another feature that's returning. [Rick Lico] has worked with people who have helped him translate ASL to a four fingered mouse. And it works. But we're shipping the game on more languages this time around - I believe the total is 12. There are three voiced languages and then we have subtitles for the rest. That's really exciting for us to be able to broaden the audience and enable the experience to be shared by even more people.

I can't speak on Moss: Book II, but I'm certainly excited For the new tech that's coming in VR with eye tracking. I think that's going to be a great tool for game developers to make games more accessible. Being able to select something with your eyes, maybe like a simple blink, or a simple press of a button. Those kinds of things are really exciting for accessibility.

DBLTAP: That actually leads quite nicely into my next question; from a developer's point of view, what would be the next technological leap that you'd hope to see in VR gaming?

Calihan: Yes, I definitely think it's the eye tracking and foveated rendering. VR games are just so expensive to render that some of the newer features, some of the fancier graphical features and dynamic lighting systems that we're seeing being developed, are still not within the ability of our modern processors. At least for a lot of the VR hardware that's out there. For the Quest, we're running it on an Android phone, essentially. And so the game just has to be highly optimised. The foveated rendering, what that does is it renders only the places that you're looking in high resolution, and everything else will be blurrier. It allows us to just concentrate the processing power on a very small area, we don't have to render the whole screen at a high resolution.

It's amazing, the game being able to understand that your eye has moved and then move the resolution to that area. That all happens so fast that you can't perceive it. That's a really cool innovation that's going to open up a whole new world of input and feedback that doesn't exist right now.

DBLTAP: Obviously there's still the launch of Moss: Book II to go, but looking ahead - what's next for Polyarc?

Calihan: It's an exciting question. I think we are going to be carefully watching the release of Moss: Book II, to catch any issues that players might be having, and just be there for support. We want to make sure that process goes as smoothly as possible. But I think probably, once everything is looking good, a couple of weeks of time off, relax and take it easy.

We are multi-project studio, so we've got a couple other things in the works. And so some of us will move on to a different project, some of us will start a new project. There's lots of exciting work to do to prepare Moss: Book II and even the first Moss for the next generation of hardware. There's a lot of work there to do as well, so we'll probably begin exploring all that stuff as soon as we can.

DBLTAP: Exciting times ahead, for sure.

Calihan: Yeah, I think so. The market has just has grown so much since Polyarc first started making VR games that we feel fortunate to be able to ship Moss: Book II. We hope and we really believe that we'll be able to keep doing this. And with the support of our communities, of course, we'll keep making these experiences that hopefully provide something unique that players haven't had before.

Moss: Book II will be launching on March 31, 2022 for the PSVR.