Critical Play: Puzzles – Monument Valley

Monument Valley is a puzzle game developed by Ustwo Games available on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Microsoft Windows and meant for ages 4+. In this game, the objective is for the player to lead princess Ida through several levels made up of mazes composed of optical illusions.

Monument Valley itself is an experience, where narrative, challenge and visual/auditory aesthetics converge. The developers utilize the main game mechanics to create an experience that is relaxing and challenging, thus perfect for casual gamers.

Text displayed at the beginning of each level, including snippets of information.

Monument Valley offers gameplay that oscillates between chunks of narrative and levels containing puzzles, creating a sense of immersion into the world that is Monument Valley. This is executed with subtlety and a sense of mystery embedded. Players know nothing about princess Ida when they are first dropped into the game, and little snippets of information can be obtained by advancing through levels. Consequently, a sense of intrigue is created as players feel the inclination to continue solving levels to find out more. Each level is framed as a “chapter” with a specific premise, thus the game is able to push forward the concept of the game not solely being a game, but more of an immersive story. What we end up seeing in Monument Valley is a game architecture that involves several parallel arcs in order to build up a compelling narrative within the gameplay.

The main mechanics of tapping, rotating, and sliding allow for simple movement of princess Ida. The game also relies on imaginary boundaries where princess Ida will not advance towards a place she is not able to physically due to any barriers or the necessity for manipulation of the maze in order to do so.  Moreover, there is no concept of “dying” or losing lives. This creates dynamics where players are able to experiment and try out certain routes without repercussions, and thus makes it an overall relaxing experience with no stakes. Additionally, the soothing music in Monument Valley as well as the beautiful game design that utilizes pastel colors makes further makes for the game experience to create a sense of comfort and peace.

Optical illusion “after”
Optical illusion “before”

Monument Valley also does a really good job of onboarding and easing players into new interactions within the game.The game starts off very easily where players are shown the interaction loop of tapping to move and getting to the final platform that concludes the level. However, as players advance into new levels, they are introduced to new mechanisms and interactions with the environment where they can slide around platforms, rotate structures, and even have to deal with live obstructions in the form of crows that will not move and squawk at you when they see you. The meticulous level formation that is embedded in Monument Valley, thus does a really good job of easing players into new elements and teaching them new compound interaction loops that build off of the simple ones they had learned before. Moreover, with the addition of these new interaction loops comes added level of challenge where players have to start worrying about timing Ida’s movements and also considering different perspectives from which to view the puzzles they encounter. As a consequence, though Monument Valley makes sure to maintain a sense of simplicity and intuitiveness to the game, that is not to say that there is no challenge to the game. The usage of optical illusions creates a big sense of difficulty because as a player interact with the mazes, they have to think outside of the box and experiment in order to advance. At some points, when encountering a puzzle or manipulations that a player has not encountered before , the maze can start to become difficult and players have to leave their comfort zone and change their perspectives. This can be a point of distress for some players, and it was for me when I encountered this specific stair puzzle where I had become accustomed to other ways of solving the puzzle and hadn’t considered any other alternative paths. Monument Valley furthermore offers no hints, which can become really frustrating but I think is suitable in creating the right amount of challenge where puzzles are difficult but not impossible. This ultimately results in gameplay that allows players to relax while enjoying the narrative, but also remain engaged and feel accomplished.

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