How Animation in Moss Created an Emotional VR Experience

Every year the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC) brings together many facets of the industry to network and share their expertise with one another. One of the most insightful elements of GDC are the various talks discussing developmental topics including game design, programming, audio, visual arts, business management, production, online games, and much more.

Among the plethora of presenters was Polyarc’s Richard Lico who took the time to discuss how animating Quill, from Moss,  was the key to creating an emotional experience for the player (specifically in the VR space). In this 45 minute talk Lico breaks down what makes compelling VR characters, how to create honest performances, and what the animation workflow looked like for their small indie start-up. Here are some of the key take aways from the presentation:

When Moss originally took the stage at E3 people were enamored by  Quill, the adorable mouse. But to this day gamers complain about the platform, stating things like “I wish this game wasn’t only in VR.” So hearing Lico detail why the game was developed for that platform was eye opening. He states:

The competitive playing field is often reset when new technology and markets becomes viable in the retail space. A good example of this is mobile gaming from 10 years ago. In these market places the competitive field is much smaller [and] the expectations [are] relatively undefined.

Thus, helping Moss stand out in a crowd of indies and allowing Polyarc to tap into the relatively undiscovered potential of VR.

Of course, VR presented its own unique challenges. Lico recalls this as he shows the crowd the original demo for the game, in which Quill feels relatively flat in comparison to the final product. At that time, Quill was as a simple avatar reacting to controller inputs: dull, lifeless. If she stayed that way it would’ve killed the immersion VR automatically tries to create. “You’re inside a world that feels real [so when] the creatures inside that world cater to you as a player it reminds [you] that [you’re] just playing a game,” Lico explains.

Instead the Polyarc team made you, the player, the avatar character. Although you control Quill, you’re playing as the “reader” of the story. “In the world of Moss, you and quill exist simultaneously.” You’re interacting with the world and the button inputs are just a way to guide  Quill. To help Quill on this journey your job is to interact with her, rather than just control her.

When it comes to creating immersive VR experiences Lico says you can, and should, break the 4th wall. Animation wise this mean having Quill make eye contact with you, the character. He uses real life comparisons to highlight how Polyarc gave this mouse humanity and personality. “If you were trying to get your friend’s attention at a party, you’d wave to them.” Well, you can wave at the character and “create personal boundaries [just] like real friends.” Likewise, the player can do things like pet Quill and high-five her after solving a puzzle (and if you leave her hanging she’ll high-five herself). All of this helps tell us who Quill is outside of just gameplay or cinematic cut scenes.

Because the game is in VR, there is no traditional UI to give the player hints. So Quill gives the hints instead, pointing and acting out what you should do next if you’re stuck. In this sense, she truly becomes your partner which helps convey that she’s “capable of complex thought not just sitting in an idol animation. It helps build the bond.”

Another fascinating analogy Lico makes is when he compares VR games to stage plays. He points out how you can’t control where the player is looking in VR, a problem that stage plays also have. But by giving the player a roll in the world there are moments where the dev team knows exactly where the player will be looking, and those moments are where Quill shows her personality through additional animations.

While challenges exist, more natural forms of interaction and immersion create additional opportunities in VR that aren’t possible on other platforms. Lico points out that industry outsiders may see an animator’s job as “creating movement” but the reality is that an animator’s job is “to bring a character to life.”Small additions made all the difference. For example, having Quill speak in sign language gives her a history, because she must’ve learned it somewhere. It also shows her intelligence and makes sense because it helps her overcome a “disability” i.e her inability to speak.

Polyarc thought of everything here. They even included moments of interrupted gameplay so that even players who are constantly moving are forced to see some of her idle animations, crucial to characterizing her and making the player emotionally invested. Everything in Moss is animated with purpose in mind. For instance, combat involves her swinging her whole body so that there’s never a moment where we feel like Quill is just an avatar we control, instead she is a character at our side.

Lico spends the last half of his talk doing a deep dive on the Animation workflow, an excellent resource for those in the field but a bit over my head as someone outside the dev space.

I highly encourage all of you to check out this talk for yourself and explore the GDC Vault in general.

About the GDC Vault

In addition to this presentation, the GDC Vault and its accompanying YouTube channel offers numerous other free videos, audio recordings, and slides from many of the recent Game Developers Conference events, and the service offers even more members-only content for GDC Vault subscribers.

Those who purchased All Access passes to recent events like GDC or VRDC already have full access to GDC Vault, and interested parties can apply for the individual subscription via a GDC Vault subscription page. Group subscriptions are also available: game-related schools and development studios who sign up for GDC Vault Studio Subscriptions can receive access for their entire office or company by contacting staff via the GDC Vault group subscription page. Finally, current subscribers with access issues can contact GDC Vault technical support.

For more insights from Richard Lico check out our interview with him.

[Source: Gamasutra and GDC YouTube channel]