Telling an emotional tale through mechanics in Monument Valley 2

“The team didn’t want to add the story by usual methods; the goal was to leverage games as a medium and allow the player to feel the game through its mechanics.”

Like its predecessor, Ustwo Games’ Monument Valley 2 is a visually striking puzzle game in which players help its protagonist navigate an impossible arrangement of abstract environments, but the development team wanted to use the sequel as an opportunity to elaborate beyond what the first game had presented.

Speaking at GDC 2018, Ustwo Games game designer Lea Schonfelder said that the team wanted to retain but improve on key features of the first Monument Valley. Visually, they wanted every moment of the game to look as if it could be a piece of artwork, just as they had with the original game but this time with less of a 2014 feel. For individual levels, Schonfelder said that the impossible, M.C. Escher-like geometry was the heart of the Monument Valley world, and the team wanted to continue to explore those puzzles for the second game.

While the original Monument Valley told an endearing story on its own, Ustwo Games wanted to tell an even deeper story in the follow-up game. When trying to figure exactly what that deeper story would be, Schonfelder said the team considered a tale of forgiveness, freedom, acceptance, pride, or trust. But as they weighed the options, it started to become clear that all were elements of the same story.

“We started asking ourselves, what if all these variations were part of the same relationship?” said Schonfelder, and from there the story of the relationship between a mother and her child started to take form.

But rather than tell that story through dialog or text, Monument Valley 2 uses color, level design, and changing mechanics to portray the internal struggles and growth felt by each character as their relationship evolves throughout the game.

“The team didn’t want to add the story by usual methods," explained Schonfelder. "The goal was to leverage games as a medium and allow the player to feel the game through its mechanics.”

For example, early on the mother and daughter characters move as one unit throughout levels, but after being forcefully separated by a crumbling walkway that abruptly changes. While players still have control of the mother, the daughter is stranded on a separate platform and follows from a distance to try and get as close to her parent as possible. This abrupt change, explained Schonfelder, served both symbolize a change in each character’s role and teach players how the child’s follow mechanic worked without using text or an explicit explaination.

Though the exit level door is clearly within the mother's reach after that separation, Schonfelder explained that players still instinctively knew that the mother and daughter must be reunited before exiting the level, simply because of the emotional weight that had been placed on their cohesive movement during the early parts of the game.

Even after being reunited, the new movement mechanic remains as the child starts to explore the newfound independence that was suddenly introduced to her in the previous level, and that confidence continues to grow (and the dynamic continues to change) until the pair reaches a point in their lives where they must go their separate ways. 

At that point, the story of Monument Valley 2 branches out. For the mother, her journey has become a self-reflective arc about discovering meaning beyond motherhood while the daughter embarks on a bright and optimistic journey into adulthood. In both cases, Schonfelder explained, level design elements change drastically to reinforce the new stories being told.

“Both characters experience a transformation and develop from their old roles into an individual,” said Schonfelder. The artful way the team used visual metaphors to explain each character’s journey is especially apparent when looking at the scenes side by side; grayscale dominates the mother’s suddenly colorless world while the daughter’s environments are bright and vibrant. Schonfelder played a clip of audio from each level as well, explaining how vastly different sounds were used for each to drive home the emotional journey being experienced.

As each progresses through their individual arcs color, audio, and level design continue to inform the players of that character’s current state of mind. Schonfelder used the mother’s journey as an example of this during her talk. Eventually, as the mother looks toward self-reflection to rediscover herself during her journey, the levels themselves mirror spirals as a very literal metaphor for the process of looking within one’s self.

Meanwhile the daughter’s journey progresses from bright and optimistic to more muted tones as she is confronted with the difficulties solo living entails. But at the end of her individual journey she emerges from a flower as an adult, as Schonfelder says literally blossoming into adulthood. 

On the left, the child's early solo journey with the mother's first moments alone on the right. 

“Working this into the story meant thinking about how we could use these metaphors that were already present for the mood and tone of the story,” said Schonfelder.

She noted that the game does have some instances of text that compliment the story, provided as interludes between levels, but that those were a late addition to the game as the team was initially worried they’d lean too heavily on text to tell a story.

Using those small ‘storyteller’ scenes, she explains, does give the player a more direct message about the story but the team consciously designed Monument Valley 2 in a way where that information is communicated through gameplay first and foremost. 

“Games can tell story differently than other media; they don’t necessarily need written words,” closed Schonfelder. “There’s no one right way to do it, but there are different interesting techniques to explore.”

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