Critical Play: Monument Valley

Monument Valley is a puzzle game made by the game studio Ustwo. It is available on multiple platforms, including iOS and steam, and I played this game on its iOS version. The game follows the journey of the main character, Princess Ida, who is on a quest for forgiveness. The target audience of this game is casual game players who enjoy using games to relax or who enjoy beautiful visual design. Monument Valley uses its rules, procedures, and resources to create fun as challenge, submission, and narrative. The game employs traditional puzzle mechanics, but adds use of optical illusions and narrative, in order to create a gameplay experience that is both calming and engaging for the player.

The rules of gameplay are deceptively simple at first. The player must navigate Princess Ida in walking to a given location on each level. This involves moving around pieces of the environment that Princess Ida is in in order to connect and disconnect pathways. The twist here comes in the game’s unique use of physics rules. Many of the pathway “connections” that players can create are not actually possible and are just optical illusions. But in the game, as long as a path is visually created, Princess Ida can walk over it. This mechanic makes gameplay much more interesting for the player in contrast to a game that just uses normal physics. The player must experience a submission to this new form of physics, which, although startling at first, ultimately leads to a relaxing experience for the player. They are not in real life. In some ways, movement is simpler in this space: as long as a path is visually there, you can take it.

Similarly to the rules of this game, the procedures that the player can take are greatly connected to the visual physics of the game. To move around Princess Ida’s environment, the player must rotate and shift portions of the map. For example, the below image shows a level with multiple platforms that the player can shift back and forth. Learning how to manipulate the environment using these procedures involves multiple interaction loops. The most important part of this loop is the feedback that the player can receive. This feedback is clear: when a move that the player made was good, it will have created a visual path that Princess Ida can take. As a player, this visual feedback made me feel great pride in figuring out the solution to that section of the puzzle. Players can immediately see that they’ve conquered part of their challenge, and are motivated to continue to use what they have just learned.

Although it does not connect as directly to the traditional puzzle mechanics of the game, an important resource that creates fun in this game is the snippets of narrative that are provided to the player throughout each level. For example, each level begins with a motivation. See a visual of this below. This narrative acts as a drive to complete each puzzle. There is a clear goal that, although not directly connecting to the way that the player solves each puzzle, helps to create a world that these puzzles exist in. The generation of narrative behind these puzzles makes the gameplay experience much more engaging for players. The narrative arc of the game again makes the player feel like they are escaping from their daily life. They can relax in this new space and just think about solving Princess Ida’s problems.

Overall, Monument Valley expands the definition of the traditional puzzle by creating a space that is governed by unique physics rules and a unique narrative. Players can escape into this world and experience the narrative and visually compelling optical illusions of the game. These mechanics create a gameplay experience that is overall relaxing for players, but also motivates them to keep playing.


Header image from Other images are screenshots from the Monument Valley mobile iOS app.

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