Animating Intent and Connecting With Players: Interview With Moss Animation Director Rick Lico

Moss may not have smashed onto the scene, loudly changing the video game industry, but it quietly advanced a number of common pieces that we often take for granted in games. The combination of these pieces became an incredible experience that led to a real emotional connection with a virtual life form. We previously talked to both composer Jason Graves on how his music helped accomplish that feeling, and Lead Audio Designer Stephen Hodde about crafting the soundscape for Moss’s immersive world. But Moss is a sum of its parts, and we wanted to talk with more of the team about their contributions to the whole.

Moss’s lead character, Quill, is of particular interest. She’s the centerpiece to players, and from the moment anyone first saw the tiny mouse on screen during the reveal trailer at E3 2017, they fell in love with her. She dusts herself off, shields her eyes from the sun, then looks towards the screen and notices the viewer with a couple of tiny and almost imperceptible head twitches. We wanted to talk to Moss Animation Director Rick Lico about bringing Quill to life in a way that most video game characters are not. Lico, like Hodde, originally came from Bungie. He did extensive animation work on Destiny before landing at Polyarc and bringing this lovable mouse to life.

I began by asking him about how he approaches depth, believability, and immersion. Video game animators have the responsibility of animating characters in a manner that doesn’t take the player out of the experience. “Look at the history of American animation, starting from Disney. They’ve had a very caricaturized approach to animation with characters with big googly eyes. And when the characters express themselves, they don’t express themselves in a way that the friend sitting across the table from you would.” Lico isn’t putting down Disney’s approach to animation, but he does say that it tends to be “entertaining to kids but difficult to relate to as an adult.”

Lico wants to find a way to bridge that gap between emotive performances that are full of life, but to also give it enough subtlety that it appeals to more than just the 12 and under crowd. At this point he brings up Pixar as a balancing point that has a really broad appeal. “What they’re doing is they’re trying to find the emotion and the intent behind the action and trying to find that honesty in their performances.”

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

It’s not just about the how or the what. It’s about the why. You can animate a character waving, but why is that character waving? What is their mood, history, and relationship with the person or object they are waving at? Lico’s approach is to consider these aspects that you can’t plot anywhere on a graph. “It’s trying to find what the characters thinking. It’s trying to figure out how to tell the history of that character and really think deeply about the actions that they take and how would they do things in their own unique way. And then represent that in a way that’s relatable to a broad range of people and not just be overt and an abstract.”

While the idea sounds good in theory, I wanted to know how Lico put that into practice when animating Quill to connect with the player. A graph doesn’t exactly have a axis to chart points for “emotion and intent,” so I asked Lico how he translated that idea into his animation. “Find a way to make silhouettes super clear. All the lessons I learned back then, that’s exactly who Quill is. When she waves, the hand breaks the silhouette of the body, so it’s clear to read at a distance. When she performs any action, at any angle, that silhouette tells a story. Any given pose within any of her animations, if you were to pause the game and just look at that pose, it should tell you what happened before to lead to that pose and what she’s about to do. So all those core poses that described her motions, they can be seen really easily. They tell a story without the support in motion. Then anything I add to it from there just helps bring her to life, helps fill out that image. Really just makes it clear in the player’s mind.”

These are great points for any animator to keep in mind, but Lico takes it one step further in virtual reality. “With VR, it’s not just a traditional game anymore. So now, not only is she waving at you, but she’s actually connecting with you as another creature, as something that’s real, someone that’s acknowledging you.” Quill doesn’t react to some virtual camera or inputs from a controller. She reacts to you directly as the player in that virtual space. “When you talk to your friends and you make eye contact with them, there’s a bond you’re creating by doing that action.”

An Honest Performance in VR

That special dimension that virtual reality adds means that the effect is lost, or at least significantly diminished, when viewed on a TV screen. Lico says that virtual reality helps Quill’s performance to feel more honest. By making her feel like a living, breathing creature, it allows that intent and history to shine through in each of her actions to more completely tell her story. “When you wave with your hand and she waves back, that’s the type of thing you do with your friends. That’s not the type of thing you do with a Destiny character, you know?”

Building a relationship is easier with a sense of presence, and VR by its very nature already does that, which made it the obvious choice for Polyarc to bring Quill to life in. In terms of connecting with players, Lico says it’s actually easier in VR because the presence is already built into the hardware. He doesn’t need to worry about solving problems and breaking out beyond the TV screen, and can instead focus on the other technical challenges VR might bring.

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

Lico’s spent a lot of time talking about animating Quill. Her charming subtleties are the highlight of the game, and I didn’t want to dive into specifics that he’s covered a million times before. In fact, if you want to read some great points about the specifics of certain animation moments and interactions, Lico had a great post on the PlayStation Blog about her gestures and sign language, along with gifs that sample many of them.

What I wanted to explore was the unique dynamic between Quill and the player. The player has a role within the world of Moss as “The Reader.” Unlike many other games where the player becomes the main character, you aren’t actually taking on the role of Quill, though you do still maintain direct control over her. It was important to balance the perception so that the player never felt like they were playing as Quill, but rather being a guiding hand through her journey.

“Even though you’re the one pressing the button[…], I try and make it look, as much as I can, like she’s the one performing the action and you’re guiding her.” Lico also explained that they didn’t want the guiding hand to be a detriment to gameplay, so they made controlling Quill a direct influence. They then balanced that influence through her animations to make everything she was doing feel intentional, like she was the one consciously performing each action. Intention is communicated through the nuance of her movements, like the way she rolls up onto ledges in a way that is uniquely Quill.

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

In this partnership, Quill is also guiding the player, which adds another layer to the connection. She will point to where she is supposed to go, or provides hints at solutions to puzzles through her gestures, and that was born out of a gameplay necessity. “When we first started [developing Moss], some of the puzzles were difficult to figure out. When we have players come through the office and do some playtesting for us, they’d get stuck and we’d be tempted to give hints and help them through. The reason we’re tempted is because there’s no in-game version of that. Other games offer those types of prompts and help through UI, which we don’t have. So while just watching playtests, it started dawning on me, ‘You know, she’s just standing there not doing anything. Why isn’t she helping the player?'”

While Quill’s assistance served a gameplay purpose, it also gave her more life. “If she has an opinion about what you’re doing, then that means she’s thinking. So once the player thinks that she’s thinking they believe she’s real, they start forming a bond with her,” Lico said, continuing to reiterate that it made her more of a friend and a partner with her own thoughts, opinions, and desires. She has an intelligence, and she’s going to use that intelligence to assist the player who is also assisting her.

The Difference Between a Mouse and a Human

Anthropomorphic animals are nothing new, but as Lico has already said, he wanted to avoid some of that caricature you can get when exaggerating features. In order to connect with players, Quill had to show a human intelligence and the emotional ability to connect back. She couldn’t simply be a mouse, yet her animal form is part of her charm. I asked Lico if that balance came from a lot of iteration or if they landed on exactly who Quill was early on. His response hinted a little bit at the wider lore of Moss beyond this first game.

“A lot of iteration. The backstory for the mice, without going into too much detail and not to spoil future games, but they’ve evolved over time. So they can stand up on hind legs and move around like humans do. But I didn’t want to over emphasize that because I didn’t want it to seem like a cartoon. We started out with Quill feeling way more mouse-like. Some of the early prototype animations I did with her had her feeling a little too mouse-like, to where you’d put on the headset and people who were afraid of mice would start squirming a little bit in their seats because it just felt off to them. We also didn’t want to go too human, because the moment you go to human it, I mean, she’s a mouse, right? So you’re starting to betray who she is and what she is. So trying to find that balance, really it just naturally happened. I mean, it was just a matter of ‘this animation worked, this one didn’t. Okay, make more of the one that worked,’ type of approach. But it was a good year to get it really refined and really hit that mark.”

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

We’ve all seen the cute Quill animations as she waves back to the player or gives high-fives when you accomplish tasks together, but Lico talked a little bit about animations that haven’t been widely discovered yet. By being over-friendly and petting Quill for too long, she gets annoyed at the player. If you continue waving at her a lot, she’ll eventually gesture that you need to calm it down. If you fail to give her a high-five, she gets frustrated and high-fives herself as if to say “I’m not going to let you stop me from celebrating this achievement!” By not responding exactly as the player might expect, it gives her a unique personality that sets her far apart from just another traditional avatar being controlled by the player.

In terms of cut features, there was a plan cut late in development as they ran out of time to have Quill respond to sound in addition to gestures. “We wanted her to be able to hear you so when you make a noise. The PlayStation VR headset actually has a microphone in it. We wanted it so that when you made noises–you say something to your friend in the kitchen, you chuckled, or you even said, ‘hey, Quill, come here!’–her ears would squiggle to hear you. And we actually had the prototype up and running where she would hear anything you did and her ears would respond to you. But we had some animation issues with it where if you cross certain boundaries, her ears would pop and it would completely remove you from the experience. And we literally just ran out of time to get that working properly. So we hope to maybe bringing that back in the future.”

Animation Beyond Quill

One of the scenes that resonated most for me early in Moss is arriving in the mouse village full of characters and life. In my talk with Stephen Hodde about audio design in the early moments of the game, we discussed it feeling very much like The Lord of the Rings’ The Shire. The living village, really only present in one single scene, helped to sell the idea of Quill’s transition from peaceful innocence to perilous adventure. Art Director Chris Alderson felt very strongly about having the other mouse characters in the town, but it was an element that almost didn’t make the final cut before Polyarc shipped the game.

Lico really wanted to add that element, referencing how alive Miyazaki films feel because the worlds are filled with life and background stories, but dedicating the time required to build out the town wasn’t a priority. “The town was one of the last things we did before shipping the game and it was a panic in the last couple of weeks to just get those characters in there. They essentially share Quill’s animation, so they don’t have, I mean other than the guy fishing, they don’t have anything that’s unique to them.”

When Quill pulls out her sword near a guard and the guard gives her the “tsk-tsk” finger, Lico revealed that’s actually the same animation as Quill’s when you sneak up behind her. He simply chopped off the ending of that animation and used it for the guard. While there was a desire to get bring this added life to the game, a fifteen person team attempting to get the game done made him explore creative solutions for problems like this, or risk cutting the feature altogether.

Finally getting into Sarfog, the snake that haunts Quill’s journey and ultimately becomes the antagonist of the story, Lico admits “He was one of the most difficult characters I have ever worked on.” Sarfog’s movements are all very intentional and are often part of the level design, and Lico says that animating what is essentially a giant rope to be intentional is not easy to do. They couldn’t use physics to make the process easier, so everything was done by hand. Because of his weaving throughout the set pieces, the level team couldn’t adjust any geometry when polishing up each scene, because it would interfere with Sarfog’s animations.

Sarfog could have been a lot more difficult, but the scope was actually rather small. Because Sarfog animations were more story driven and less random, it allowed them to focus on exactly where he would be in each scene and what he would be doing. They didn’t need to account for dynamic movement, AI systems, and potential positioning other than him being exactly where they wanted him. Again, with the small team trying to get out this first game, time was short. “I think we hit a nice sweet spot. Though if we had more time, I think we would have gone more dynamic.”

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

It’s not just characters that require animation though. The world needs to move too. One scene shortly after Quill begins her quest beyond her home shows a pair of deer in the background. It’s simply a set piece that has no bearing on gameplay, but it’s yet another one of those powerful Moss moments that helps to sell the scale of the world. “The original plan was the deer was going to walk over your right shoulder and into the background, through the stage. But we just couldn’t get it to work right. Players were sticking their heads through the deer, which was jarring.” Lico wants to do more with animations within the environment that set the tone of the world, and it’s something he is going to carry from Moss into future games. “There are a few other moments with bugs and stuff up close to the camera in the swamp. I really wish we had time to do more though, because I think, like you said, the deer was so powerful. I think for future games, that’s definitely a priority now.”

New Studio, New Platform, New Ideas

Not only was Polyarc a new studio, but they were working on a new platform. Saying it out loud, the idea almost seems crazy. This small team of industry veterans got together to do the insane, and it paid off in an experience that perceptibly moves the medium of video games forward. Moss is a point of pride for the studio, but they aren’t resting on their laurels with their accomplishments. Lico talked a little bit about boding with his favorite character that he’s ever worked on and how he would like to expand her ability to connect with players in unique ways. Moss is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I’m very proud Quill. I’ve grown emotionally bonded to her, too. She’s actually the favorite character I’ve ever worked on. From that perspective, I think she’s quite the success for me personally. There are some things that I wanted to do with her, but we ran out of time because [we’re a] small studio and we had to get the game out. I don’t want to spoil anything for the future. There are lots of ideas that I was actually just working on this morning for the future. And I think what it comes down to, without giving any details, if I were to say the one big thing we’ve learned from all this is I’m doubling down on virtual actors. So not just animations on characters where the characters move around and respond to your controller, but virtual actors that relate to you on a human level and that have opinions and express them. And I think there’s a lot further we can go down this rabbit hole that we just started touching on. I think her waving and her high-fiving and stuff were great, but man, there is so much more we can do with that.”

“Virtual actors.” That’s where Lico thinks the future of video game animation is headed. “I couldn’t imagine 20 years from now still setting ‘translate X on the foot.'” Lico’s vision of the near future is a natural next step where traditional animators as we know them are obsolete. They will no longer be crafting animations from scratch, but acting as a director for these virtual actors that have learned how to animate and move on their own. They might make subtle adjustments the same way that a director might tell an actor to do the next take a little differently, but animators will no longer be crafting walking animations from scratch by hand.

Moss animation Rick Lico Interview 5

“As animators, we’ve got a short term career ahead of us, because I think what you’re going to start seeing over the next 5, 10, 15 years is the advent of learning systems and characters that can learn how to walk and can learn how to gesture. And then what does an animator do at that point? In that world and animator isn’t going to worry about the arc of the hand anymore.” Lico believes that partnering with learning systems and animation automation will, over time, provide realistic and natural characters that no longer need to be animated by hand. Not only will it change the production flow of how games are animated, it will also allow those animations to feel more organic and natural, as opposed to manufactured.

Quill is one of those virtual actors, and it’s through her animations that players are able to bond with the character. “I think [Quill] was a good prototype for that. Yeah, I think she’s starting to go in the direction of that virtual actor, that more natural, meaningful connection that you get,” Lico said. The work that was done on Moss continues to set the stage for this future. It gave Lico and the team at Polyarc additional insight into how to make a character that is not simply animated by plotting points on a graph, but one that actually feel natural to interact and connect with.

The nature of connecting with Quill in VR means we’re unlikely to see her get a flatscreen release, at least not in the same way. That’s not to say it will never happen, but Polyarc is pretty focused on VR right now, even as they’ve brainstormed a ton of ideas on Quill’s future. There is one way you can get Quill outside of the headset right now, and that’s with the animated Moss iOS stickers (I’m still waiting for these to make their way to Google devices, Polyarc! Pixel 2 support please!).

Moss doesn’t just take brave new steps forward for the VR space, but provides plenty of tools and templates that even traditional flatscreen games can employ in the future. Moss quietly evolved elements that we thought we knew, making players rethink how they interact with characters in their game. When I play Uncharted, I feel connected to Nathan Drake on a character level. I am invested in his story. But when I play Moss, I feel connected to Quill as a friend. Polyarc have redefined “breaking the fourth wall” by allowing players step through it themselves, rather than having the characters break out. Quill isn’t aware of our world, but we are keenly aware that we have stepped into hers.

Moss soundtrack

Talking with Rick Lico, I could feel his passion for breathing more than just life into Quill and the world of Moss. He wanted to bring intent and history to every small movement. He wanted to make sure that characters felt intelligent and not manufactured. He wanted to allow a player’s bond to be reciprocated by the character in a way that games have never done before. While he accomplished all of that, he and the rest of Polyarc are already hard at work taking what they learned and evolving the way that we as gamers will interact with our games in the future. I can’t wait to see what they bring to the table. If Moss is just the tip of the iceberg, then it’s time to sink the Titanic of traditional gaming ideas with what waits below the surface.

We’d like to thank Rick Lico for taking time away from working on his future projects to talk with us. 

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