London-based developer ustwo has created a true work of art in its Escher-inspired puzzle game Monument Valley. Designer Ken Wong gives CNET Australia an inside look at where the game came from.
Last year, Swedish developer Simogo surprised everyone when it released, an adventure game that — conceptually at least — was a lot different to everything the studio had previously released, and put Simogo firmly in the "art game developers to watch" category.
Then, last week, the developer busted out Monument Valley (review), a beautifully designed game based on strange geometry, perspective, minimalism and a very odd, yet emotional story. It is very different to the games that came before — but the developer (quite rightly) feels that it should be judged on its own merits — and so should Whale Trail and Blip Blup.
"Every game is its own project, with different goals and sometimes a different target audience," Australian designer Ken Wong explained to CNET Australia. "Whether you're designing a building or a smartphone or a chair, a designer is always trying to make the best thing they can possibly make. We're thrilled Monument Valley has been so warmly received, but we're equally proud of Blip Blup and Whale Trail, which got us to this point."
Wong, who created the art for Alice: Madness Returns and released his own title,, last year, joined the team just over a year ago after ustwo advertised for a designer. At that time, Monument Valley wasn't even a spark of an idea.
"About a year ago we started brainstorming ideas for new projects," Wong said. "One piece of art from those sessions was a floating building with a figure at the bottom, which struck a chord with the team and with the wider studio. Encouraged by their enthusiasm, we added more concept art and developed a prototype in two weeks. The finished game is very, very similar. The biggest conceptual challenge was just how to transition from one screen to another. We experimented with panning and zooming before settling on discrete, triggered transitions."
The game itself is a strange beast, somewhere between puzzle and exploration. You play as the tiny Princess Ida, climbing strange structures to advance through the world, but advancing isn't always easy: the world is based on the surreal, perspective-shifting optical illusions of MC Escher, and you can move parts of the structures to connect walkways in ways that would be impossible in the real world. It's not entirely clear what Ida is searching for — but clacking black bird-faced creatures are not happy about her presence.
They're not the only ones — turbaned ghosts will appear from time to time, delivering censorious lectures, but vaguely filling in the story so that Ida's adventure becomes as much about unravelling the clues as spending time admiring the beautiful art.
"I had this concept of 'little worlds' that the game is based on... images where there was a central shape or sculpture or form, surrounded by empty space," Wong said. "So we studied everything from Japanese flower arrangements to installation art, from typography posters to dollhouses. We also looked at temples, palaces and mosques from India, the Middle East and North Africa. The soundscape was inspired by Brian Eno. Structurally, the game is inspired by Windosill and Portal."
That eclectic mix is evidenced in every line of the game, beautifully blended to create a world that is at once familiar and alien, that inspires a deep sense of curiosity and wonder. One thing that particularly caught our attention was when the game made a reference to sacred geometry, indicating that there was possibly a lot more going on under the surface.
(Screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET Australia)
"The term 'sacred geometry' just refers to the fact that humans hold a certain wonder in the perfection of geometry, everything from platonic solids to golden ratios to fractals," Wong explained. "It's a natural thing to explore in a digital art form. We did a little research, but actually people's perceptions of geometry and space were as important for us to consider as the truth of how geometry actually works."
Even so, the game makes a point of never pushing the gameplay into a realm where it feels impossible. The idea was to create a game that anyone could play, and enjoy, and what the player gets out very much depends upon what the player puts in. Part of that is striking a balance between that sense of satisfaction in finding a solution, without making the game so difficult it becomes frustrating.
"It sounds mundane, but we balanced the game through a lot of user testing. From the very first prototype we asked friends, colleagues and visitors to the studio to play the game, without giving them any instruction. We observed where they had 'aha!' moments, and where they got stuck," Wong said. But the strategy worked. "We're hearing from people that rarely or never play games, who completed and enjoyed the game. People are tweeting about playing the game with their kids and their parents. It's incredibly gratifying. Inclusive design is not something I think every game needs to have, and one of the most wonderful things about the games industry right now is that you can make incredibly niche games."
ustwo is certainly proving that to be the case — Monument Valley is currently the top paid app in the iTunes App Store, a testament to the notion that a game can be beautiful, charming, thought-provoking and inclusive — with a female protagonist, to boot! — and still succeed.
But the developer has set the bar pretty high for its next title, whatever it may be. "We've peaked," Wong joked. "We're just going to make Flappy Bird and Threes! clones for the rest of the year." We're sure they'll be excellent Flappy Bird and Threes! clones, anyway.