Monument Valley (Ustwo; iOS/Android: $4) is a small game. It won’t take you long to finish, and it’s not very challenging, but what it offers is such a pure delight that it became my personal favorite game of 2014. Indeed, I would argue that it was the best game published all year, and for an iPad-only puzzle game, that’s quite an achievement.
People are throwing most of their 2014 GOTY awards at Dragon Age: Inquisition. I have no problem with that: it’s an impressive piece of work. I may be just suffering Bioware fatigue, but I’ve had enough Biodialog-trees and Biorelationships and Biocombat and Bioquests to hold me for a while. Honestly, if I had to pick an RPG that I enjoyed more than any other this year, Inquisition would have taken a backseat to Legend of Grimrock II. Endless Legend also would have been ahead of Inquisition.
Monument Valley offered something different and simple and appealing, and I like that more and more the older I get. It’s an example of a game that is more about the experience than the challenge. None of the puzzles in either the original game or the Forgotten Shores add-on will stop serious puzzlers for more than a few minutes. Altogether, the play time probably adds up to about two hours at the most. The appeal is in the quality, not the quantity: in the experience rather than in the difficulty.
The visual style of Monument Valley is what grabs you first. Drawn with clean lines and sharp angles, it packs a lot of information into its shifting, single-screen puzzles. The most obvious comparison is with the artwork of surrealist MC Escher. His impossible architecture is at the heart of Monument Valley’s world and its puzzles.
You guide a little princess in a conical hat through ten worlds (with another seven in the add-on), attempting to get her from the beginning to the end. Each screen is given a chapter number and title, with a subtitle that hints at a “story” that never develops and only provides another layer of atmospheric mystification.
It’s not a wholly unpopulated world. The Bothersome Crow People walk set patterns that either block your path forward or enable you to trigger buttons remotely. There’s a mystic/monk figure offering cryptic comments. And, best of all, you have an occasional companion/helper called Totem. He’s a big-eyed totem pole who provides help with a couple of levels, and when he appears to die, you actual feel a little sad. It’s a game that gets under your skin in weird ways.
Each screen can be manipulated with levers and buttons to alter the configuration of its various structures in impossible ways. As with the work of Escher, a walkway will suddenly turn one direction only to open up access on a completely different plane. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to describe in print, but the result is that you climb through impossible architecture at strange angles, triggering changes in the layout in order to get to the endpoint.
The gentle music, soothing visuals, and dazzling use of space and motion create an otherworldly experience that moves beyond the limits of mere gameplay. Of particular note is Chapter VIII: The Box: the one of the best implementations of a mechanical puzzle box that I’ve ever played in an electronic game.
I’ve certainly played much harder puzzle games, but few that I found quite so enchanting as Monument Valley. Even when the gets a bit dark (and there are storm-tossed seas and deep descents that hint at classic elements of the hero’s story), it stays enjoyable. The key to its appeal is that as a game, it’s content to find a balance among its various aesthetic elements (art, music, animation, structure) and its gameplay, which is mild and refreshing. Careful observation and tinkering will yield a solution pretty quickly, so frustration never overrides the gentle atmosphere. I’ve always argued against games as art, but Monument Valley come closer than most to making me question that opinion.