April 2014 was a banner month for the iOS store. Let’s face it, Hearthstone was released to such epic fanfare that one could be forgiven if they thought that it was the only thing released last month. Yet earlier in the month, a title sat atop the anarchic plethora of the iOS store to its own level of fanfare for different and much more aesthetically driven reasons. Monument Valley is an iOS game from director Ken Wong of indie developer ustwo Games. Prior to the game’s release, Wong described how their aims were driven by two core conceits: approachable gameplay and surrealist design. The final output is so spectacular, I can easily proclaim it my favourite game of the year, thus far (and I am a Titanfall addict).
Tonally, this game covers a wide range of feelings and emotions. Between its rather hypnotic sound design and the beautiful, yet simplistic approach to surrealist architecture, the experience manages to entrap the player in a restful, yet engaged, frame of mind. Players of Monument Valley will find their time fly by without notice.
The environments are at times somber and at others filled with a curious joy that comes from exploration. It’s capacity to run the gamut of emotional experience is due much in part to its minimalist approach to design.
That minimalism is evidenced in the game’s length, it’s use of character, and its approach to narrative. In terms of length, the game is a mere 90 minutes to two hours long. It is, in point of fact, the perfect length of time for Monument Valley. Mobile gaming as a medium often eschews any narrative structure in favor of time crunching. Endless runners, clones of Bejeweled: these are games that are not meant to be played with an end in mind. In fact, most mobile games that do have what you can call ‘an ending’ rarely have the emotional complexity or any true conceit that drives you forward to witness said end. Monument Valley, however, wants you to complete the game. It is of great assistance, therefore, that doing so takes little more than a leisurely Sunday afternoon.
Then there is the game’s minimalist approach to narrative and character design. You take on the persona of Ida, a silent protagonist dressed in white, and are set upon a mysterious path that leads you to interact with two other characters, the crow people, black birds that wander the paths ahead (or sometimes they are content to simply sit on a wall and squawk at you as you walk by), and the ghost, a mysterious be-turbaned specter that resides within the bowels of the buildings you traverse. The ghost provides minimal amounts of dialogue, usually derogatory statements towards your character and the character of others. The ghost is hurt by the theft of what it calls the ‘Sacred Geometry’, however this is hardly expanded upon. Indeed, you are left to interpret the story with very little guidance. You drive forward because of the rewarding structure of the puzzle solving, and yet as you do, you are resolving a mystery without any assistance from the game developers.
My interpretation, though very possibly inaccurate or far off base, was that I, Ida, was in fact responsible (along with my crow people compatriots) for stealing the sacred geometry. Ruler of a race of anthropamorphic bird people, we stole the ‘sacred geometry’ from the ancient civilization of which the ghosts were once part (those who designed the spectacular architectural marvels in each level). Sacred geometry, a term based on the concept of ascribed religious/sacred meaning to geometric shapes or patterns, are most often used in the construction of religious temples, structures, and art. Having stolen said shapes, the souls of Ida and her people were ripped from their bodies, and only the restoration of those artifacts could restore them to their once beautiful, colourful selves. When Ida reaches the conclusion of every level, she approaches a platform where you are seemingly returning one of those pieces of sacred geometry. An obscure shape is released by Ida and the chapter is complete. When all ten pieces of sacred geometry are returned, Ida is returned to her natural bird form, and all of the black crowpeople are changed into a rainbow of different colours, signifying the restoration of that which was lost however long ago. Like I said, this is my interpretation and your’s may be different.
What I love so much about this game’s approach to story telling is that I have nothing to base the above thoughts on but a few pieces of written dialogue from the occasional ghost. The narrative does not feel forced. In truth, whatever resolution you derive from this game comes to you through a natural drip of introspection, vague information, and forward momentum. It is a beautifully unique form of narrative exposition, often found in film and literature, but very rarely explored in games. As stated earlier, I can’t help but feel that this played a significant role in my own emotional journey as I played the game.
And then there is the imagery. When designing Monument Valley, Wong had in mind a game that revolved around architecture, but it was not until he came across the work of M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist whose pieces of ‘impossible constructions’ have inspired optical illusion enthusiasts for generations, that the true design of the game began to take shape. Indeed so much of the game seems based on work of Escher’s (think Relativity’s gravity-less series of stairwells and coridors, or Ascending and Descending’s never ending staircase). True to that design, Monument Valley’s stairwells and hallways connect in ways that should be physically impossible. Manipulations in perspective that could only be rendered real in a virtual space. Enhanced by minimal, yet dynamic use of colour, the architecture feels like a dreamscape. What strikes me as one of the greatest achievements of the design of Monument Valley is just how much my brain began to work within this perspective. I was able to so easily accept what should be unacceptable to any rational mind.
Fitting so perfectly with all this approach to design was the use of sound and music. The almost Brian Eno-inspired soundtrack, with its minimal uses of keyboard and string, partnered with a very appealing system of feedback based tones tied to your movements and the movement of objects help render the dream like visuals a complete sensory experience. The music adds to the meditative nature of your traversal, keeping you soothed, yet ultimately aware of your environment. There were times where rather than progressing in the game I would simply let its sounds wash over me while I closed my eyes (that is until my iPad went into sleep mode).
Now all of these little touches, these eccentricities that separate Monument Valley from the common dredges of the app store, would be of little consequence if the gameplay and mechanics were not inherently good. Thankfully, the gameplay, while simplistic, is perfect for what the game seeks to achieve. While there are spikes in difficulty within some of the puzzles, any frustration fades into the background with the slightest amount of exploration. Indeed, as you approach a new building that appears to be constructed with completely unfounded logic, it takes little time for solutions to reveal themselves through the direct engagement with and the manipulation of the game’s ten environments. Some may find Monument Valley lacking in difficulty, but as someone who does not gauge a game’s worth on its difficulty, but more the experience I had playing it, I can say that my time with the game has little comparison in recent years.
Monument Valley has been out on iOS since the beginning of April, and while there are plans to bring the game to Android, no date has been set at this time. That being said, if you have an iOS device, you owe it to yourself to pick up this game. It is beautiful in a way that only a game can be. It allows you, the user, to do the impossible while bringing a level of serenity into your chaotic modern life. Enjoy your time with this one because you will be sad when it is over.
Follow Tom on Twitter @thomaskagar