Monument Valley Will Blow Your Mind Through Your Phone

I’ve played a lot of video and computer games in my life, but most of them, I’ve just sampled – you know, I’ll play it for a half-hour, decide it’s not my thing, and then go back to the games I know I love. When I do love a game, I truly do fall in love with it, and that’s why I have a lot to say about the Zelda franchise – because some of my heart, and some of who I am, is in those games.

Until recently, I haven’t had that experience with an iOS game. Most of the games you can get on whatever device you use don’t have the same sort of mythical aura and storytelling imperative that I got out of Zelda. Games for your phone, by and large, are fun but not sentimental. They don’t draw you in with artful, beautiful design – pleasing design, yes, but not the kind of design that takes your breath away and makes you want to physically enter and live in the game. They don’t have soundtracks that are designed to evoke your more difficult emotions. They don’t have characters you’re sad to leave at the end. And, actually, most of the most popular games – Candy Crush, Angry Birds, Trivia Crack, Threes – are meant to be either massive and open-ended, with options for updates, or they’re meant never to end at all. They don’t really have stories, because they don’t have conflicts, they don’t have character development, they don’t have endings.

Until now. Monument Valley was released almost a year ago, so I’m late to the game (so to speak), but can we talk about how amazing this compact little universe is? Developer Ken Wong wrote on the game’s blog: “My hope for Monument Valley is that it might contribute to the argument that the medium of entertainment we call video games is in fact art.” In my post on the new Zelda title, I talked about the fact that it is possible to consider video games a radically participatory form of literary fiction. Monument Valley succeeds here, on every count. The story is simple, but coherent: The Valley’s sacred geometry has been stolen and must be returned in order to save the people who have been cursed to walk the monuments forever. The characters, although speechless and faceless, are not affectless, and you come to enjoy their presence and the way they react to the game’s few prompts. The gameplay is nearly flawless.

The puzzles are just the right kind of challenging – they’re hard, but they’re not so difficult that they make you want to quit. What I found interesting is that they’re designed around a mythology, but not a mythology based on old gods, but a mythology based on human ideas that we assume are impossible, especially perpetual motion machines and the design style of M.C. Escher. I’d hate to get too drippy here, but the puzzles – the sets – are always larger than they seem, and some of them are bigger on the inside, which is the way I like to describe human beings: Our imaginations make us bigger on the inside than we are on the outside. And if that’s the case, then maybe Monument Valley’s sets can stand in for the human mind, and the heroine, Ida, can stand in for an ego that is trying to balance an id. Or something.

And more than anything, the game is beautiful. I mean, truly, truly beautiful, so beautiful that it is inspiring; when I started playing it, I audibly gasped several times. I was literally breathless over some of the sets. I didn’t know that iOS games could be this beautiful, and if that’s the case, it means that Monument Valley succeeds in opening up possibilities in the human imagination and human experience. And that, in my opinion, is successful art.

There’s been some controversy about the game’s pricing: It’s $3.99 for Monument Valley, and an additional $1.99 for its update, Forgotten Shores. Many players who bought the first game were disappointed at its length – it’s not very long, it’s not very big, it doesn’t take forever to play. When the update was released for an additional cost, those users voted Monument Valley’s rating down to one star in the App Store. Their argument was that because it didn’t take long to play, Monument Valley wasn’t worth it; because Forgotten Shores can be played in approximately the same amount of time, and because most game updates for most games are free, it was offensive for UsTwo to ask players to pay another $2.

But that’s most games. And, frankly, most games are developed with an nth of the intention, artfulness, and focus on quality that went into Monument Valley and Forgotten Shores. Plus, most games run ads, while Monument Valley spares the user the distraction and thereby maintains the immersive quality of the game. I’ve already played Monument Valley twice, and I’ll start on another round of Forgotten Shores later today. And, like the Zelda games, I’ll play them over and over and over. The beauty of Monument Valley is that it’s fun, engaging, and gorgeous, so its gameplay and design make you want to go through the experience again. I’ll pay $6 for a game of that caliber, and so will the many discerning gamers who rushed to vote up the reviews for Monument Valley and restore its five-star status.

So go buy it, and live in Monument Valley for a few hours, and let it crush your heart, expand your mind, and make you marvel at the human imagination.


You can buy Monument Valley in the App Store for $3.99.

[Image via UsTwo]

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