App review: Monument Valley 2
Monument Valley is a mobile game that probably delivered more puzzles than life lessons.
"There are so many people who played 'Monument Valley' who would never consider themselves to be gamers," says Dan Gray, head of Ustwo's London studio. "They see them as a distraction, like a crossword in a newspaper. It's a throwaway experience."
Since its release in 2014, that experience has been downloaded more than 30 million times. Gray feels confident that "Monument Valley" succeeded in its mission statement.
"We like to think we change the perceptions of what games are and the people who play them," Gray says.
Now the design firm is back with a new game, one that once again wants to shift the mainstream awareness of what games can - and should - accomplish.
Ustwo has unveiled "Monument Valley 2," a sequel that aims to take the calm and abstract shapes and ruins of the first title and inject even more emotional depth.
In turn, "Monument Valley 2" will explore the relationship between a mother and a child, from adolescence to adulthood. Such a character choice alone instantly makes "Monument Valley 2" something of an interactive outlier.
"Parenthood was something that we didn't see that commonly in video games - at all, especially mothers," Gray says.
Some levels - all playable in a few minutes, depending on your puzzle acumen - explore the bonds of companionship and the sudden panic of loneliness when those bands are broken. Others delve into teenager-hood, aiming to illustrate greater independence among its young character while also touching on the sudden autonomy some once again can face in old age.
Gray says the company initially swore off of a sequel to "Monument Valley," a title that once had a show-stealing cameo in Netflix's "House of Cards."
But work began in earnest in February 2016 on the second proper instalment of the game, one that is currently available exclusively for Apple's mobile platforms via the company's App Store (an Android release will come later).
"We found that story," he says, referring to Ustwo's desire to prioritise narrative in the "Monument Valley 2" development process. "That story was the story of a mother and a child."
While it's no secret that most mainstream video games have long favoured male leads, even those that don't still often emphasise heroism rather than parenting. And while it's true that someone could play "Monument Valley 2" solely for the brain teasers and gloss over the story, the game's tone - one of reverence and camaraderie - brings its themes to the forefront.
"For us, we wanted to tell the story of a mother who didn't just have to bring up her child," says Gray. Instead, the mother character stands as one of the original architects of the game's world, the titular Monument Valley.
The game primarily tells its story visually. For instance, on levels in which the adolescent character is on her own, a lack of light may indicate fear. Puzzles, Gray notes, could then be built around windows that must be open to let sunlight in to grow trees, which in turn will affect the landscapes and reveal the solutions.
There is no fail state. There is also very little text. Simple taps or wipes are the extent of the controls. The story is told solely through play.
The original "Monument Valley" was created by an eight-person team for about US$852,000. Ustwo, which primarily develops apps for corporate clients, grew the team to 20 for "Monument Valley 2." The firm declines to comment on the sequel's budget.