Monument Valley is a thing of singular beauty, a gem rarely seen on the mobile game market. Available on all main mobile platforms, it is an absolute treasure due to its longevity in a shifting market and the lasting impression it leaves in the player’s mind.
Released in April 2014, Monument Valley was developed on Android and iOS mobile platforms by the studio Ustwo, followed by a Windows Phone port in 2015. Loosely classified as a isometric platformer, the player avatar, a little white figure with no distinguishing figures except a conical hat and a white cape, traverses up and down fantastical towers that could be rotated on the screen. Intriguingly, as long as the path appears to connect on the user’s screen, the avatar would be able to walk across it. As a result, the game is dotted with little eureka moments, where a turn of the stage would form un-thought-of connections and bring together previously impassable gaps. Therefore, from the very start, Monument Valley appears to be set on challenging the user to three-dimensional thinking and spacial orientation, encouraging the player to systematically map out a path for the avatar to move from the start of the level to the end.
However, Monument Valley is much, much more than a 3D platformer. It is not simply about how the player can plan a path to navigate through the levels, or find out which button caused a path to rotate. The game makes the player feel much more – it exudes a sense of tranquillity, of dreaminess, of transcendence. The experience is not simply analytical, or methodical, or disciplined. It speaks of spirituality and surreal beauty, terms that overwhelmingly make up the critical and popular responses towards the game. The combination of the game’s unique art, and the mind-opening maps that feel genuinely alive and breathing, make Monument Valley such an unique experience in the world of gaming.
When I first saw Monument Valley, ‘delicate’ was the word I used for its atmosphere. The maps, painted in bright and dreamy pastel colours, too crystal clear for reality, are spiralling mazes of verticality that expand as the player finish navigating through the section visible on the screen. The player avatar is absolutely helpless, a small white figure having no means of defending itself except by running away from the roaming black crows with the menacing, clashing beaks, her fragility veritably seeping through the vibrant colours on the screen. All of a sudden, the shifting narrow passageways of the levels seemed far too precarious. In some stages, where the map literally drowns in water, sinks into a dark cavern, or opens up layer after layer to reveal a multitude of inner worlds, the game seemed more and more akin to a spiritual journey. The total absence of friendly NPCs (save a few ghostly sages saying cryptic words in dark, colourless places) makes this journey feel so lonely, that the player becomes inclined to look inward instead of outward, that the wonder became less about how one successfully navigates through the puzzle but to watch with awed wonder as the map blossoms like a lotus flower. This sense of helpless wonder – to surrender one’s mind to the scenes within the game and pause the process of thought – lies largely behind the sense of surrealism and transcendence players feel.
The fantastical art style and visual design are tied in organically by the small amount of narrative lying beneath the game. Clearing the level means the player avatar must reach an altar on the map, where she removes her hat to release an intricate geometric symbol, which flies glittering into the sky. The implications behind the colours of the player avatar and the antagonistic crows (one pristine white, the others pitch black) are made clear as more and more of the game’s back story is told. The lively stages are interspersed with dark, monochrome, gloomy maps where titbits of the narrative are found, where only one dimly lit path exists and players had no choice but follow the path, reaching an enigmatic spectral sage at the end and then ascending back to the world of colour. Over time, players subconsciously accept this symbolism – the vibrant colours of reality versus the introspective monochrome of the abstract truth – that makes the too-colourful aesthetics seem even more fleeting and transient in nature.
If I have one complaint about Monument Valley at all, it would be that as the game progresses on, it actually becomes more difficult. Maps increasingly take on a Mobius-ring nature, twisting the paths to force the player avatar to walk on vertical or even up-side-down surfaces, and placing switches and doorways in places that are less and less intuitive to reach. But perhaps that is part of the charm of the game as well. The player cannot be a passive observer of this ethereal beauty forever – in order to advance, the player still have to think. The mental experience is one that periodically struggles out of easy platitudes to objectively think about the situation, and then sink into blissful observation as the level clear animation starts to play and we are once again free to look around the world with careless wonder.
Monument Valley isn’t the first game to have employed delicate, surreally beautiful graphics on mobile platforms. In fact, in this day and age where more and more indie games are battling for the attention of customers, there is a particular focus on graphics that many place above other factors in games. Monument Valley is special because its powerful aesthetic is coupled with an equally powerful user experience, glued together cohesively by the clever manipulation of the player’s mental state. Had it been simply a beautiful 3D platformer without a plot, it would not have made as much an impact on so many people. Instead, the fantastical setting and story keep the players in something similar to an awed trance throughout the game, and the immersion was so deep and so complete that when we come out of it, the experience and the journey become absolutely unforgettable.
Monument Valley now also features two DLCs, Forgotten Shores and Ida’s Dream, where players can indulge themselves further with additional levels of beautiful, twisted vertical maps with the same character and the same setting. As a game that had been lauded upon by dozens of reviewers and downloaded more than 26 million times, the popularity of Monument Valley remains strong almost three years after its release. This game stands as a true monument (pun intended!) amongst mobile games, and deserves a spot in everyone’s mobile collection.