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Ustwo: Monument Valley’s elegance is the result of "letting go"

Header image via Monument Valley development blog

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To hear art director Ken Wong tell it, Monument Valley owes its success not just to the game it is, but at least in equal part to the game it is not. “One thing that I think we did right was we acknowledged that … we were going to discard 70, 80, 90 percent of our work.” Those percentages sound brutal, but according to Wong, it was the ability to work within these strict self-imposed limitations that ultimately gave Monument Valley the spare look and feel that so many people responded to, an aesthetic effect that Wong refers to as the creation of “little worlds.”  

Inspired by an M.C. Escher architectural drawing, Wong knew early in development that Monument Valley would be a game principally devoted to the intricacies of architecture. Even so, they spun through a lot of iterations before it landed on Frank Underwood’s iPad screen in the most recent season of House of Cards. One version varied the types of puzzles that its main character, Ida, faced on her journey to the top of the game’s signature palatial structures. Some of these early puzzles involved the manipulation of time and space, for example, drawing on ideas made famous by Jonathan Blow’s Braid. Another version allowed players to zoom in, and rotate the camera around the structures in a manner similar to Phil Fish’s Fez.  

“We acknowledged that we were going to discard 70, 80, 90 percent of our work.” 

True to his promise, however, Wong incrementally cut each of these features, slowly winnowing his game down to a few essential core ideas. The camera would stay fixed as Ida ascended Monument Valley’s structures, meaning that players would only ever see them from a purely isometric perspective. This decision imposed further limitations, since isometric art is, by nature, composed from a palette of only three colors. “We removed a lot of tools from the artist’s toolbox,” Wong said, explaining that the corollary benefit of such minimalism was to force artists and developers to think carefully about the utility and necessity of each polygon that made it into the game’s final version. Over and over, Wong emphasized that nothing in Monument Valley was put into the game simply to look pretty, because pretty, nonfunctional elements had no place within the system of boundaries set by the game’s overall design. Instead of beauty, the Monument Valley team set out, in each level, to represent what they call “elegance,” or beauty made functional. There are no decorations here, everything is designed and placed for a specific reason.

The game’s length provided the design team with another constructive limitation to adhere to. Wong consciously decided to make a short game, which, it turns out, also has its benefits. Making a game that players could complete quickly opened up a wider audience. Even those who do play videogames habitually don’t always have the time to meet the demands of a longer game, and can become estranged from gaming if they allow themselves to believe that only works that take weeks of concentrated effort to complete qualify as “games.” Monument Valley met their needs, too. And then there’s the fact that Wong and ustwo view Monument Valley less as a game and more as a playable work of art. If one fundamental purpose of art is for it to be seen, discouraging a viewer from experiencing large parts of it, whether through game length or a steep learning curve, doesn’t make sense. It would be like hanging a painting in a museum with half of it covered by a sheet.

The minimalist logic of addition by subtraction is an attractive one, but is not at all easy to actually do well. Implementing minimalism requires killing a lot of darlings. Wong talks about this process in terms of “letting go” of Monument Valley, piece by piece, and it’s easy to hear in his voice how not every piece was “let go” without angst, or conflict, or pain. At the end, though, if you’ve done it right, if you’ve embraced your limitations instead of fighting them, the rigor of that process will have revealed to you Michelangelo’s proverbial statue hiding inside each block of marble, and the result won’t feel constrained at all. To hear Ken Wong tell it, his game grew larger, more fully realized, with each element he took away. “There’s something really comforting,” Wong told us, “about feeling like you can see the whole world in one image.”