Monument Valley Review: Under the Moon and Beside the Waves
In the mass of stress and rage inducing mobile games, the never-ending runners and Snood clones that populate the marketplaces, beautiful, meditative games like Monument Valley have carved out their own space. In stark contrast to some of the most downloaded titles on the App Store or Google Play, ustwo’s perfect mobile title encourages you to move at a slower pace, without the threat of lost lives or progress, and without your previous high score looming over your play through. Instead, Monument Valley asks you to immerse yourself in its world as you ponder its architectural impossibilities; it asks you be present and aware.
A Silent Princess in White
The titular valley is a place of towering, Escheresque structures, seemingly abandoned save for the crow-people that pace back and forth and perch themselves on ledges. As Ida, a silent princess in white, you must navigate the “sacred geometry” of this pastel world in the name of forgiveness.
Admittedly, the game is light on traditional narrative, choosing to tell the bulk of its fable-like story through seemingly cryptic level titles and the initially mysterious words of a behatted blue spectral character found hiding in a handful of levels. The levels themselves contain some environmental clues pertaining to the valley itself, and the puzzle pieces you’re given can be put together if you pay close enough attention. And while there is a story to found in among the antiquated spires and arches, Monument Valley concerns itself more with delivering an experience carried by the sights, sounds, and the atmosphere of the valley itself.
The Sacred Geometry
Each of the levels is comprised of either a single or grouping of structures, spanning one or more screens, with the goal usually being to climb up. You tap the screen, and Ida moves to the desired point, if reachable. The architecture, which is daunting and illogical at first, with it’s upside down staircases and dead-ends, can all be altered to allow Ida to reach places that seem impossible through changes in perspective.
Monument Valley doesn’t seem overly concerned with making you feel smart through your ability to solve its puzzles; instead one finishes each level amazed at how a tiny structural shift or a change in an angle can alter the entire landscape.
This is the “sacred geometry;” the geometric illusion and the ability to alter the way a level is perceived to the eye. Gears are turned to rotate pieces of the various structures, chunks slide horizontally and vertically, and buttons are pressed that activate dramatic architectural alterations. Eventually entire monuments rotate, allowing staircases and paths that had huge gaps in them to connect and create a walkway that didn’t exist seconds before.
The various mechanisms for architectural manipulation are introduced at a gradual pace over the course of the game’s 10 levels, gently increasing the difficulty and complexity of the puzzles. The single-screen starting puzzle, with one gear to rotate, eventually leads to vertical and horizontal challenges that involve the turning of entire monuments, or multi-room, interactive puzzle boxes for Ida to unlock.
Ultimately the monuments, while being initially both simultaneously intimidating and wondrous, aren’t very difficult the traverse. Monument Valley doesn’t seem overly concerned with making you feel smart through your ability to solve its puzzles; instead one finishes each level amazed at how a tiny structural shifts or a change in an angle can alter the entire landscape. Perhaps in this sense Monument Valley encourages the player to think less about how they can make their way through each level, but more how can they transform the level itself in ways that make it accessible and navigable. It asks us to consider how we make our way through this world and the impossible places it puts us, through our understanding of and our limited ability to control the complex and beautiful environment.
The Wind and the Waves
The impressiveness of the inventive level design couples with a gorgeous sense of aesthetic, with each level acting as part of an interconnected gallery of living paintings. Clear attention has been given to the color scheme for each section, differentiating them from the next and making each location even more unique than the last. The game’s warm and vibrant pastels are incredibly pleasing, and complimented by its outstanding use of ambient, peaceful sounds and calming, unobtrusive music.
In your journey through Monument Valley, you may find yourself under a crescent moon that’s sliced its way through a plum night’s sky, or high above the jagged waves, beside red towers topped with onion domes and adorned with flags that stream in the wind. What you’ll hear is the sound of a gentle, yet constant, breeze or the sound of the surf against the sides of the structures. In darkened, subterranean rooms the walls echo with a vast sense of emptiness, and by a lily pad dotted body of water you’ll hear the soft babble of a stream. The quiet, aural calm is punctuated by the tiny tapping of Ida’s footsteps and the sound of musical instruments, gongs and strings being plucked, that chime in when the pieces of the monuments move.
While your trip to Monument Valley may be brief, the time spent there is perfect.
The result is an overall sense of peace; playing Monument Valley is ultimately a hypnotic, meditative, and rewarding experience. The gradual and never frustrating puzzles and level design, the memorable use of appealing colors, and the soothing sounds culminate in a mental effect akin to the sensation we get through practices like guided imagery, as we think of to the places we long to inhabit at a particular moment. Monument Valley is a game that’s free from pressure, without the threat of death or the ticking of a clock counting up or down, and is about recognizing and being immersed by your surroundings, and realizing what you can control.
While your trip to Monument Valley may be brief, the time spent there is perfect. It’s a place you visit for a couple of hours, and when you return you long not only for the puzzling geometry, but also for the sense of peace the place instilled.