Monument Valley, a game for iOS and Android by developer usTwo Games, is by far the most gorgeous, elegantly designed mobile game I have ever played. Granted, the only mobile games I really ever play are Clash of Clans, Boom Beach, and Pixel People, but even so, I’m especially picky about the mobile games I play, and this one makes the cut and then some. Hardcore gamers often make fun of anyone who plays mobile games, calling them “casuals” and the games themselves not “real” games. This game alone should silence those people, while at the same time be another example of how games are art.
The premise of Monument Valley is the following: you are a princess who has been cast out of the kingdom you ruled over because you stole some precious pieces of geometry, and you are now trying to give them back and ask for forgiveness. But all that’s left of the place are magnificent monuments that the people built, geometric wonders that boggle the mind. The game clearly takes inspiration from Escher by challenging you to solve puzzles where you have to move architecture around, walk on walls, and really just forget everything you know about the laws of physics.
The story is intentionally ambiguous, as is often the case with indie games, which I happen to really like. Ambiguity allows the player to draw his/her own conclusions, and come up with fantastic fan theories. Besides, compared to the gameplay, the story of Monument Valley isn’t all that important anyway. The game lasts for only about an hour or two, but in that short amount of time you will think differently than you ever have had to before, and that is an enormous compliment for any video game.
Not only will you have to move architecture around, but you will also have to think in terms of perspective. If you’ve ever played games like Fez or Super Paper Mario, you’ll know what I mean. Sometimes, even if you think that it shouldn’t be possible to walk across a certain pathway, if you shift the perspective in just the right way, it suddenly becomes possible, simply because it looks possible from that angle. I’ve written papers about this stuff before—these kinds of worlds are called “strange spaces.” It’s an utterly fascinating topic that I encourage anyone who’s interested to pursue.
I also would be doing the game a disservice if I neglected to mention the amount of variety on display here. Every single level adds new gameplay elements. When you think you’ve mastered the game, in the next level your perceptions are suddenly thrown out the window and you have to think differently again. There are timing levels where you have to avoid crows, levels where you have a totem pole friend that brings to mind Portal’s Companion Cube, and even one level where several different levels are all contained in one box and you have to continuously unbox them and open up doors to advance. It’s amazing how many different ideas are present in this masterpiece.
The art style is one of the most praised aspects of Monument Valley, and for good reason. The game is stunning to look at. It looks like 2D when you play it, but only when I looked up behind-the-scenes videos later did I realize that it was actually made in 3D, but the graphics are so crisp and clean and the camera is angled in just the right way that it manages to look relatively flat while at the same time popping out. It’s kind of like a beautifully put-together pop-up book. It’s hard to explain unless you see it for yourself, but needless to say, the visuals are breathtaking.
I’d also like to mention the sound design, which provides a really nice, relaxing atmosphere to play against. Some of the puzzles are quite difficult, but the soothing background music prevented me from ever really getting too frustrated. None of the puzzles are infuriatingly difficult though—in fact, even when I was stuck on a particularly hard one, I thought, “There’s a very simple way to do this, I’m just not seeing it.” The designers provide just enough clues to show you the way, the perfect balance between handholding and leaving you to fend for yourself in open water.
Whether you’re a seasoned gamer who mostly plays AAA console games, or someone who’s never even played a game before, you should play Monument Valley. This is the kind of game you’re going to want to show your friends and family. It’s a beautifully rendered brainteaser that consistently surprises. It’s everything a mobile game should be and more. I normally don’t buy iPhone games, only download free ones, but for $4 this gem is worth it. Although it is almost painfully short, I don’t fault it for it. There’s so much in here that it just leaves you wanting more, and that’s a great thing.