Monument Valley

I’ve been interested in Monument Valley for a while now, and I’m glad I finally sat down and played it. It’s actually much better than everyone says it is, but that’s probably because it’s difficult to describe what makes the game so good.

Monument Valley consists of ten stages, each of which will take most people about five minutes to play (except the first, which is very short, and the last, which can be very frustrating). I’ve heard this game criticized as being “easy,” but I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s carefully designed to facilitate player engagement. Each level (again, except the first and the last) has a core mechanic, and the player is encouraged to learn the limits and potential of each mechanic in a guided yet natural way. My favorite stage is “Level VIII: The Box,” in which a cube can be opened, closed, rotated, and then opened again from a different perspective. This might sound complicated, but it isn’t; in fact, it’s nothing short of pure joy.

The story is hinted at in a few scattered text panels, and I’m not sure I have a good grasp of what’s going on, but here’s my interpretation: A human society used magical “sacred geometry” to create fantastic buildings (presumably in a valley?), but they fell into decline when their sacred geometry was stolen from them, and now all that remains are monuments haunted by flightless crow people. The player-character Ida is a princess who has been told that she will be given her crown only when she restores the sacred geometry to the monuments. As she does so, she begins to remember that she herself is a crow, and that it was the crow people who stole the sacred geometry from the humans. When she returns the last piece of the sacred geometry, the human curse on the crow people is lifted, and Ida and her people regain their wings and fly away. After spending the entire game forced to walk on linear paths along the surface of the monuments, the final animation of free flight is very satisfying.

I appreciate the narrative progression of returning treasure to temples instead of taking it, and I’m interested in what a traditional adventure game – okay, let’s be real, a Zelda game – would look like if the player’s abilities were limited instead of enhanced as they made their way through the story. I also appreciate the conceit of realizing that the player-character is actually the bad guy – or, in this case, the bad crow girl. Speaking of power, it hit me really hard when I realized that Ida is a crow. Monument Valley isn’t all that deep, but I can’t remember another instance of a game flat-out saying, “No, you are not, in fact, the hero of this story.” (I think Braid is supposed to be like this, but I’m garbage at platformers and was never able to get too far into it.)

In any case, the Monument Valley OST is fantastic. It’s almost exactly forty minutes of soft energetic ambient music, which makes it perfect for a good, solid writing session.