Box Art Review: How Monument Valley taps into existential wondering

Monument Valley, the recently released iOS and Android game, boasts a beautiful aesthetic that takes a few style ideas from Limbo, Q*bert and M.C. Escher. A puzzle game on its surface, and a genuinely satisfying existential journey below, Monument Valley puts us in control of Ida, a “silent princess” who wanders through levels designed like Penrose stairs. Adding to the existential feel, each “chapter” is given a heady, ethereal title. Chapter IV’s “The Water Palace” is subtitled “In which Ida Discovers New Ways To Walk” while Chapter VIII’s “The Box” is subtitled “There Lie Strange Delights.” It’s cryptic and purposely evasive, mimicking the puzzle-like nature of the narrative.

In the game, each chapter presents a malleable structure that, as Ida, you have to navigate. You can twist knobs, shift stairs and alter the path of stone ledges, all accompanied by dulcet musical tones, creating your own “Ascending and Descending” Escher-inspired lithograph. The game can be complicated, but the design is evocative in its simplicity. Each structure feels as if it’s part of some grander whole, either reaching high above the clouds or dipping into the depths of an underworld untethered from anything resembling a physical world.

While Monument Valley doesn’t have box art in the traditional sense, the image being used to promote the game is suitably minimalistic and expressive. Ida stands atop a staircase that rises out of a depthless black, staring up at the world around her. The cool color palette, all varying shades of blue, hint at the serenity of playing as Ida, who remains calm and collected as she embarks on a journey that touches on heavy themes of identity and the cycle of life and death. At the heart of the image is the word “Explore—a fitting, if somewhat overwrought, one-word walkthrough for Monument Valley. This is no open world, though. Instead, we’re being asked to explore thoughts, feeling and reactions, to engage with the sound and art design of the game and attempt to get at the heart of our silent hero’s plight. After all, the box art design beckons us to explore, yet only gives us an empty void to stare into.

The image, then, asks us to explore our connection to games with more depth and a wider range of understanding. By restricting the frame of the box art, giving us only an endless expanse and our main character, the design pushes us to move away from simplistic value ratings of games, where visual splendor often masks rudimentary, reductive thematic material. The design here is akin to walking through a dream, where the feeling of endless possibility and deeper meaning is contrasted by a deeply felt loneliness.