A surreal exploration through fantastical architecture and impossible geometry
Monument Valley is a surreal exploration through fantastical architecture and impossible geometry. The player guides the silent princess Ida through mysterious monuments, to uncover hidden paths, unfold optical illusions and outsmart the enigmatic Crow People.
We didn’t experience a classic ‘eureka’ moment that signified the birth of Monument Valley, but it was close. Ken Wong, the team’s lead designer, created a piece of artwork, an image of a building in isometric view with a single figure, staring at its strange but completely possible architecture. The image came with no suggestion of a game design, but it was instantly arresting and it dared us to come up with something that would be as powerful as it was. The great thing about looking at the image now is just how close it looks to the finished game. It’s incredibly satisfying that we managed to realise the potential of that very pure idea.
But while many have described Monument Valley as visually stunning, it’s the impossibility at the heart of the game’s puzzles that make it so special. We knew we were trying to make a game about architecture and so drew a lot of inspiration from the artist M. C. Escher, whose work incorporates impossibility into architecture in a way that, to us, suggested possibilities for gameplay.
The technical difficulties of recreating the impossible in a navigable on-screen environment was a big challenge. This game essentially required us to create a way to let the computer understand these impossible objects in the same way humans do — we taught the game to ‘see’ its own optical illusions.
During the development of Monument Valley we discussed many times which particular titles or which aspects of current video games resonated with us the most. One recurring theme was that of length. In general, on console or on a PC, gameplay is stretched over a dozen or more hours. Yet in mobile gaming the trend has been towards endless gaming, primarily as a side-effect of freemium titles looking to gain payment and hook a ‘whale’ — players who spend large amounts on freemium games, making them profitable even when over 90% of the games user-base spend nothing. However, we felt more and more drawn to games that made much less lavish demands on our finite and precious time.
Our testing showed that it’s actually a huge benefit to many players to give them a condensed experience, to allow them to see a piece of content through, from start to finish. Especially on mobile it’s a vanishingly small number of players who ever complete a game. It’s something we crave personally and something we hope to see more of in interactive digital entertainment. Offering that finality therefore became a defining factor in the design of Monument Valley.
Our ambition for the game became to produce a piece of work that was ‘all killer and no filler’ — something that would excite the player, but never frustrate. We wanted the player to stick around just long enough to deliver only novelty and delight. It would be a game with no grind, but also no real failure: there were no stars to collect, no leaderboards. Players should experience a game that is more akin to a film in length.
iPad Game of the Year
When we released a teaser trailer before Christmas 2013, it got a huge number of views, gained us thousands of new Twitter followers and generated over 10,000 beta test applicants. All this activity helped us begin a relationship with Apple that led to us to being Editor’s Choice in the App Store on release and culminated with Monument Valley being awarded the prestigious Apple design award. This kind of relationship with Apple — and of course Google Play and the Amazon app stores — is crucial to a game and a team like ours. We know from experience that ‘store featuring’ is often the most crucial part in a successful app store launch.
It was released for iOS on April 3, 2014 and shot to the top of the charts based on word of mouth, great reviews and widespread press coverage. We ported it over to Android soon after, and to Windows Phone in 2015.
As we mentioned, it won a 2014 Apple Design Award, and also went on to be named Apple’s best iPad game of 2014. It also won the BAFTA Video Game Awards for Best British Game and Mobile/Handheld Game, and was nominated for Best Game, Artistic Achievement, and Original Property. It was included in scores of ‘best of’ lists, including Time.
To date, Monument Valley has seen a total of over 25 million downloads since launch, across all platforms including iOS, Google, Amazon and Windows.