Monument Valley is a brief, wondrous piece of art about structure and perspective. Technically it’s a puzzle game, available now for iOS and coming soon to Android, but its puzzles serve less as brain-teasers than as a vehicle to explore Ustwo’s beautifully crafted environments. The game’s artwork, which unfolds across ten succinct chapters, borrows heavily from the works of M.C. Escher, the Dutch graphic artist known for his “impossible constructions” — grand rooms filled with infinite staircases, balconies simultaneously above and below one another, spires at once in the foreground and background. Monument Valley isn’t entirely about optical illusion, but its pastel stages consistently channel this brand of imagination.
Players control Ida, a princess of unknown origin wandering the halls of Monument Valley, an empty fantasy world. Moving around levels is simple at first — just tap your touch screen where you want Ida to go. Gradually, however, new puzzle elements emerge that require thoughtful environment manipulation — stepping on switches, turning wheels to revolve staircases, sometimes even rotating an entire stage. These puzzles increase in difficulty at a steady pace, never holding your hand, yet never getting too hard for the casual player. You may encounter two or three stumpers, as you should in any good puzzle game, but it’s evident that the goal here is for everyone to finish. Expect to complete all ten levels in one or two hours.
Monument Valley is a labor of love, not only visually but aurally. Ida’s footsteps pitter-patter neatly as she moves across the stage. Ancient stone columns release a deep grind as they shift and slide. Even more notably, each movable in-game object works on a musical scale, resolving as it settles into position. It might be a stretch to say Monument Valley is a music game, but music and sound are absolutely integral to the full experience. Headphones recommended.
There is something deep and intangible at work inside Monument Valley. The game is light on plot details, more proverbial than narrative, but it constantly exudes a sense of existential wonder. Cryptic utterances like, “How far have you wandered, silent princess?” and “…but forever, will our monuments stay in this valley,” lend import to Ida’s journey. Dark, anthropomorphic crows wordlessly watch her progress, squawking menacingly as she gets near. At the start of chapter six — one of the game’s most challenging and emotionally touching stages — Ida makes an unlikely friend, a moment that shortly after turns into genuine heartbreak. Many of these junctures are of course interpretive, perhaps even meaningless, but that is oftentimes the beauty of an artistic work.
In many ways, Monument Valley follows a thread of recent, poetic, mega-popular independent games: perspective-based level design not unlike that found in Fez; lightly integrated music elements in the vein of Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP; cryptic, narrative proverbs à la Braid. Nevertheless, Monument Valley is its own type of creature, an accomplished and incredibly creative puzzle platformer tailor-made for mobile devices. Just about the only things worth criticism in this game are its short length, a not-so-revelatory conclusion, and a low level of difficulty that might be disappointing for some players.
The game’s developers have mentioned that they may or may not release additional content for Monument Valley, depending on fan interest. To them I beg: Please consider this review a plea for more Monument Valley. While you’re at it, don’t be afraid to up the ante.
Matt Akers is a freelance journalist based in Boston. He writes about geek culture and works for a youth literacy project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Follow him on Twitter @ScholarlyLad.