I just spent 10 minutes rotating a floating castle in the sky while soft piano music tinkled in the background. This particular structure is surrounded by a series of disconnected staircases. When I turn it just right, they connect in ways that don't quite make sense, but let me proceed through the level anyways. I can see the sun about to rise in the background, while strange squawking crow creatures lazily dangle their legs over the edge of the castle. It's an incredibly peaceful moment.
Monument Valley will break your brain in a way that's actually soothing. The pleasant music and beautiful art make it feel like you're traversing a lovingly illustrated fantasy world, but the puzzles rely on M.C. Escher-like impossible architecture that will make getting around a mentally taxing process. It's a brief game, with just 10 levels to solve, but they're so expertly crafted that you won’t mind.
"Our approach was that Monument Valley would be less like a traditional long-form game or endless game," says lead designer and artist Ken Wong, "and more like the experience of watching a film or an afternoon in a museum."
Each level in the game is essentially a building with its own unique properties and rules, and the challenge is in figuring out how to traverse through it — you can’t die and there isn’t really a way to fail. You control a young girl named Ida by simply tapping where you want her to go, but the real heart of the mechanics is in how you can manipulate the world. Levels will feature pieces that can slide around, or be pulled up and down, and in some cases you'll actually be able to twist and turn the level to your own ends.
"Like the experience of watching a film or an afternoon in a museum."
This lets you connect pieces or architecture in ways that are, in reality, impossible, yet they allow Ida to get places she otherwise couldn't. The first time you connect pieces to build a Penrose triangle feels absolutely incredible — and somehow Monument Valley manages to keep this feeling throughout, with a constant stream of new ideas. No two levels feel the same, and the challenge steadily increases with new elements like gravity-defying movement and moving enemies. There's also a Myst-like feel to the experience — sometimes you'll step on a switch on one side of the level, only for it to completely change things on the other side. But you never really know what to expect when you hit that switch.
Monument Valley doesn't really feel like any other game you can play on your iPad, or any device for that matter, and it's certainly quite a bit different than the rest of the games from developer Ustwo. The studio is best known for arcade-style titles like Whale Trail and Blip Blup, but also does user-interface design for a host of clients, from Google to Sony. The idea for Monument Valley first started to form last year, not long after the release of the trippy puzzle game Blip Blup. "I like to pitch games in the form of posters, so I created one of a floating building drawn in isometric perspective, with a figure at the bottom," explains Wong. "It drew a lot of curiosity and enthusiasm from the rest of the studio."
Actually designing the impossible architecture featured in each level was a surprisingly quick and intuitive process — once the team finally built the tools to make the levels, that is. "The code was quite tricky to write," says Wong, "but it's been revised and updated over the project's lifetime to become a really powerful toolset."
Every screen is a work of art
One of the defining features of the game is that each level adds a new idea; you're never really doing the same exact thing twice. Sometimes getting Ida where she needs to be means figuring out how to walk on walls, while other times it means constantly rotating the level so that she can keep moving forward. And that's one of the reasons the experience is so brief, the kind of game you can finish over the course of a single leisurely Sunday. "It would have been more challenging if we were trying to stretch the game out to 10 or 20 hours, and we wouldn't have been able to put the same amount of thought and customization into each level chunk," says Wong.
Wong's background in art also means that the game has a very heavy emphasis on aesthetics. Every scene in Monument Valley is beautiful, whether it's a deep, dark cavern or a sunlit vista. One of the core design tenets was that each screen of the game was itself a work of art — there's even an option to take a screenshot and share it at any time. "It forced us to design puzzles that fit within the frame of the screen," explains Wong, "that also worked as both architecture and graphic layouts."
The result is a game that doesn't just play well or look amazing, but does both simultaneously. There’s even a story that plays out over the course of the 10 levels, which culminates in a surprisingly touching final scene. Like the wonderful art and music, the minimalist story doesn’t influence the way Monument Valley plays, but it does make it a better game.
"Mechanically the game would be the same," Wong says of removing elements like the story, "but the experience would be fundamentally weaker."
Monument Valley is available today on iOS for $3.99, with an Android version to "follow soon after."