M.C. Escher’s artworks of impossible constructions have long provided inspiration for game developers. Sony’s Echochrome titles for PlayStation 3 and PSP took a direct lead from his work, as did 2013’s The Bridge.
Escher’s influence can be seen in everything from blockbuster movies, such as Inception, to a 1982 Doctor Who story that was not only named after one of his pieces, Castrovalva, but also explored the subject of recursion as seen in his drawings Waterfall, Ascending and Relativity. Even Super Mario has dabbled in such things, with levels in Super Mario 3D Land toying with perception and depth of field.
There is something fascinating about tricks of perspective. A pleasure in the construction of impossible objects. A thrill in seeing the rules of physics broken and the constants of structure manipulated. It’s this fascination that Monument Valley explores. However, whereas Escher’s pictures are viewed from a fixed point, Monument Valley lets player interact with these constructions and break the illusion.
The game is set over ten levels, each featuring a vibrant echo of Escher’s work. Your task is to manipulate the architecture within the environment, shifting perspective in order to open up impossible bridges and paths. This then allows you to guide the game’s protagonist, Ida, to her goal. Traditional spacial logic counts for nothing. It is the player’s perspective that has control over what the environment is, or is not.
Having direct physical control of the space is also fundamental to the game’s success. To play Monument Valley with a controller, while absolutely possible, would be to rob the game of its connection with the player. Experienced on an iPad there is a tactile feeling of cause and effect as your finger unfolds staircases or as your touch opens and closes pathways that join hitherto distant platforms.
Although its inspirations are obvious, the game’s art design also deserves commendation. It’s one thing to see these structures in screenshots, but another to interact with them so directly. Changing their shape and purpose feels like manipulating a piece of concrete origami. And it’s here that the game’s excellent sound design plays its part. The rumble and low growl of stone lends significance to every movement you make. It makes what could be constructions of card into objects of weight and heft. The effects are complemented by a delicate, melancholic score that provides subtle emotional cues to Ida’s journey.
This combination of movement, art and sound make Monument Valley a pleasure to experience. Which is just as well, as it’s not a particularly complex game. It certainly becomes more difficult as you progress through its 90 minute duration, but it’s no Portal. Most levels can be completed on first attempt and even in its trickier moments the process of trial and error will usually serve you well.
That said, there is an undeniable thrill in just doing what’s asked of you and it’s a game that you’ll want to replay just for the experience. There is a slight, and wilfully obscure, story here too. It hardly seems necessary, but the pay off is poetic and the final moments are heartwarming.
Monument Valley never quite lives up to the expectations you might have for a game inspired by Esche,r and it would be good to see the format pushed a little further. The hope is that the add-on levels being developed by Ustwo will provide a sterner test of the old grey matter.
Nonetheless, Monument Valley is highly recommended and proves to be a delightful, and delightfully bite-sized, way to spend an afternoon.