How long have you wandered, silent princess?
Monument Valley is singular. A story of atonement with the visual stylings of M.C. Escher, the new puzzle game by ustwo makes a unique and powerful statement that feels almost out of place on a mobile device. When I think back to the earliest games I played on my first clunky Nokia, or to the lucrative ferocity of Candy Crush Saga, I’m particularly struck by how much this app has been able to accomplish in the name of gaming.
Ida, a tiny princess in a tall white hat, is on a mission of redemption. The player must guide her (with finger taps) through a dozen bizarre structures of impossible physics to find each level’s empty plinth. Once Ida places an object on the plinth, the level is over. Periodically, Ida meets ghosts who impart cryptic messages, each telling her just enough to create a full, storied experience. Other characters include obstructive crow people and a friendly yellow pillar, which has no dialog and yet won my heart completely.
To get from the beginning to the end, you must rearrange the paths and buildings in ways that are not always intuitive. The key is to look at the seeming three-dimensional world as what it really is—two-dimensional. Once your brain wraps around this perspective trick, the puzzles are not very hard. The first time I played, I finished in about an hour. I love games with manipulated spacial awareness (e.g., Fez, Portal, or Year Walk), and Monument Valley pulled it off perfectly.
But although Monument Valley is a puzzle game, my experience wasn’t really about puzzles. As I moved through the different areas, some bright and sunny, others dark and stormy, I knew that I was bearing witness to a personal journey, one that far outweighed Monument Valley’s simple and elegant game mechanics. The puzzles were fun, but it was not the satisfaction of solving a puzzle that kept me playing. Rather, it was the beauty of the design, the subtlety of the story, and my own ability to affect a quiet and ancient world with the flick of a finger.
At almost any time in the game, the player can go to a menu that provides the option of taking a screenshot, complete with grid lines so you can frame it just how you like. As the developers at ustwo recently explained, “we set out to create an interactive experience in which every screen is a piece of art worth hanging on a wall.” They succeeded. It was super hard for me to choose which images to publish in this article, because I have yet to see an image from this game that I dislike. (I’ve already updated my iPhone wallpaper and lock screen.)
But screenshots don’t entirely capture the beauty of the design. The sound effects, the minimal music, the roll of the waves, the tiny movements of Ida’s head or of her delicate feet—each enhances the story in just the right way. Where the dialogue is sparse, the world is verbose with visual cues and auditory adornments.
I have played Monument Valley on both iPhone and iPad now (the only two platforms on which it is currently available). If you have access to an iPad, that is definitely the way to go. One of my few complaints is that it was occasionally frustrating to play such a visually enticing game on the small screen of my phone. The developers have stated that they are hesitant about porting the game to computers or consoles because of both the portrait design of the levels and the touch element of the gameplay. I understand, and appreciate their artistic integrity, but it’s a shame. The 3.5 inch display of my iPhone 4S is hardly the perfect venue for this kind of detail.
Then again, by bringing a game as artistically valuable as Monument Valley to a mobile phone, ustwo makes an interesting statement. There’s a certain separation between mobile gaming and “serious” gaming. By bringing serious interactive storytelling to a mobile device, ustwo is crossing genre lines in a way that couldn’t make me happier. The simplicity of the puzzles and the brevity of the story both contribute towards an experience that is designed to be inclusive of all kinds of gamers, and since my professional passion is convincing non-gamers to game, that gets me pretty excited.
Even knowing and loving why they made the game short, I was still bummed out that there weren’t more worlds for me to wander through, more characters for me to meet, and more story for me to unfold. Luckily, ustwo has announced that, due to popular demand, more levels are coming soon. I’m curious to see how they will integrate these levels with the existing content, because it would be a shame to damage the integrity of the story. However, ustwo has explicitly stated several times that story is of foremost importance to them, so I can’t be too worried.