When was the last time you played a truly moving game…on your phone? There has been a rise, in recent years, in games that function not only as interactive entertainment, but also as aesthetic and emotional experiences – Journey, Child of Light, Transistor, to name a few – but these are often games released for consoles or computers, the traditional platforms where one would expect a beautiful and moving environment to appear. Monument Valley is a much smaller game, one that fits in the screen of your iPhone or Android phone, but nevertheless manages to pack a walloping punch that you never saw coming.
Monument Valley is a clean, simple game, but it easily captures your imagination despite its minimalism. Featuring bright colors and a haunting, ethereal soundtrack, MV drops you in a world where normal physics does not hold sway, and an M.C. Escher-esque mentality is required to get from Point A to Point B.
You begin the game as Ida, a small girl in a white dress and a white cap. Where did Ida come from and how did she end up in this valley of strange monuments? The story only releases hints as you go along, rather than giving you an immediate sense of the whole picture; broken up into chapters, the game labels each section in the style of old children’s books: “Chapter II: The Garden – In which Ida embarks on a quest for forgiveness,” for example. But the simple story matches the simplicity of the game – I am content only to know that Ida is searching for forgiveness, as long as the delightfully miniature worlds that pop up on my screen continue to be as dynamic, colorful, and intriguing. Ida’s footsteps deliciously patter as she moves, columns that turn leave behind a rich echo of stone grinding on stone, and pink platforms that emerge from the water one by one sound off with ringing tones as they do so. Monument Valley is a delight for the mind, eyes, and ears. It is a joy to behold – the fact that you get to interact with this world only heightens the pleasure.
Each level is wonderfully contained and schematically organized, so that it feels as though you are being placed inside of a tiny snowglobe, or perhaps the music box of a magician (Designer Kevin Wong described it as a mix between a toy shop and the world of Narnia). Chapter 4 (In which Ida discovers new ways to walk) takes place in a lake, complete with lily pads and water lilies and a color layout to match. It is one of my favorite level in the game, as it so perfectly embodies the sense of expectation you have while playing Monument Valley. Each turn of the lever, each new path might lead you somewhere magnificent; the second castle you reach in this level spins to reveal a gurgling waterfall where no waterfall could possibly exist.
Monument Valley does an incredible job of encouraging a sense of slow burning wonder, so that you start each new level perfectly content with wherever it might take you. Chapter 8 begins as a box, but ends as a grand palace with disappearing rooms, colorful basements, and ponds complete with swimming goldfish. Each time you raise or lower or turn – the controls for the game are quite simple and belie the complexity of the puzzles – something new awaits you.
The puzzles often have a strange balance between overwhelmingly easy and painfully difficult – my only qualm with the game – and you may find yourself struggling, at times, to construct a complex solution when all you need to do is walk forward. Monument Valley encourages experimentation, though, and there were times I simply pressed around on the screen to see if I was missing an already available pathway (since Ida will walk, if she can, wherever you tap). The strange physics of the game make you think in ways you’re probably not used to, and you will quickly find yourself thinking things like, “But what if I walked upside-down to that next pillar?” It was a game so beautifully constructed, though, that while I often found myself frustrated, I never found myself upset – the calming music and intricate designs of the levels seem to embolden you and they leave you feeling that this is a place you wouldn’t mind finding yourself stuck in.
The story will not be hard to follow (though it carries a surprising emotional punch with the introduction of a ‘totem’ helper), and the levels will never be too challenging – but Monument Valley does not want for this lack of narrative and puzzle complexity. It is an experience as much as it is a game, and, as such, it is not meant to be stressful (the ‘enemies’ in this game will not attack you or kill you, but only serve as movable obstacles that you must eventually manage as you do Ida) and it is not meant to be ‘hardcore’ (this is a game that anyone could pick up, and it is better for being so). The biggest negative to the game is its length, and I found myself a little heartbroken when it was over and I had to leave its small wonders. Luckily, Ustwo has released an extension of eight levels to the game, a package called Forgotten Shores, that will let you journey with Ida just a little longer. For a game about the journey of a tiny princess through lost relics of a past age – and I applaud Ustwo’s decision to make it Ida instead of, say, Igor – you couldn’t want anything more.
Have you played Monument Valley? Let us know what you think of the game in the comments!