Three years after its debut, Monument Valley is getting a sequel — and it’s launching today on iPhone and iPad. (An Android version is coming “soon.”) The mobile puzzle game burst onto the scene in 2014, and its clever, approachable gameplay coupled with breathtaking, MC Escher-inspired visuals turned it into a runaway success. It’s been downloaded more than 30 million times, was featured in an episode of House of Cards, and was named Apple’s iPad game of the year in 2014.
That’s a tough act to follow, and, initially, developer Ustwo Games appeared publicly against the idea of a sequel. After the launch of Monument Valley’s only major expansion, “Forgotten Shores,” the studio switched gears to virtual reality, releasing the mysterious adventure title Land’s End on Gear VR. “We were creatively exhausted as a small team,” says studio head Dan Gray. “We really needed to work on something new.”
But during that time the studio started to change. Last year Ken Wong, lead designer on the original Monument Valley, left to form his own studio Mountains. Meanwhile, Ustwo Games over doubled in size, going from a tiny team of eight to around 20 people. The injection of new blood had a profound impact. “These were all people who joined the team because they loved Monument Valley,” says Gray. “So what we found was, they brought a whole bunch of new ideas that we had never even thought of.”
In its earliest chapters, Monument Valley 2 sticks very closely to the formula laid down by the original. The sequel stars new characters, a mother named Ro and her daughter, but it still features a series of beautiful, colorful buildings that are architecturally impossible. Getting to the end of each stage involves manipulating the landscape to make platforms and bridges connect in ways that wouldn’t make sense in the real world. There’s an incredibly satisfying “ah ha!” moment when you figure out how things click together.
But a few chapters in, Monument Valley starts to expand in new and interesting ways. You’ll encounter portals that shift you from one area of a stage to another, and trees that will only grow when subjected to sunlight. Toward the end you’ll control both characters, which gives a completely different feel to the puzzles.
Perhaps the biggest change in Monument Valley 2, though, is its much larger focus on storytelling. Like the original, the sequel isn’t a game with much in the way of an explicit narrative; there’s little text and no lengthy cutscenes. Instead, it tells its story through a combination of character animations and the environment; you infer what’s going on by watching the mother and daughter and how they interact with the world around them. Over the course of Monument Valley 2’s 14 chapters, you’ll see the pair’s relationship grow, an arc that begins with a young and helpless child who is utterly dependent on her mother, and concludes with her clearly much stronger and more self-sufficient.
According to Gray, the decision to focus on story was inspired in part by the response to the first game. “What surprised us a lot was how much affinity people had for the relationship between Ida and the totem,” he says. “We almost Trojan horsed a story into an experience where people weren’t expecting to feel anything.”
The parental narrative also came about in part because several members of the development team became parents themselves during the gap between the two games. David Fernández Huerta, Monument Valley 2’s art director, had his first child in that time, and he parlayed that personal experience into the game. He says he designed around 100 potential characters for the game, but found that the mother and daughter pair were the most resonant. Meanwhile, certain chapters were inspired largely by his real life. One stage, in which the protagonists separate, takes place in a grey and gloomy brutalist structure, and is based on Huerta’s struggle with coming back to work after paternity leave. “I really wanted that level to feel like how I felt,” he says.
That stage is also one of several that diverts from the original when it comes to visuals. While most stages in the first Monument Valley featured a similar art style — a sort of candy-coated take on MC Escher — the sequel pulls from a more diverse range of inspirations. Some stages look like oppressive buildings in the mold of Boston’s City Hall, while others have more in common with graphic design, like a minimalist Penguin book cover. In large part, the variety of visual styles is meant to reflect the range of emotions in the story. “If we have a broader set of emotions that we’re trying to convey,” says Gray, “that’s obviously going to result in a slightly broader array of visual styles.”
Ro and her child were also chosen as the game’s leads because the team at Ustwo wanted to do its part to help broaden the types of stories told in games. For all the strides the medium has made over the years, games still typically tell a fairly narrow set of stories, helmed by an even more narrow subset of character archetypes.
“Mothers are hardly ever present in video games, and when they are they’re usually something that’s vulnerable that you need to protect,” says Gray. “Usually their entire character is summarized by the fact that they have a child and not much else. With Monument Valley 2, she’s not only there to protect and bestow knowledge on her child, she’s also very influential and powerful within the world of Monument Valley.” Huerta adds, “If you can make a game where the characters have no faces, and tell the evolving relationship of a mother and child over the years, then there’s no excuse. You can tell any story [in a game].”
The sequel is also slightly larger than the original Monument Valley — a relatively short length was one of the few common complaints with the first game — and it sounds like the team has plenty of ideas for ways to potentially expand the experience even more. Of course, whether those ideas will ever be something you can play, either in the form of a sequel or an expansion, isn’t something the team is ready to divulge just yet.
“I’ve always been against working on sequels,” says Huerta. “But there’s something about Monument Valley that is fertile ground — you can do anything with it.”