Inside the Monument Valley App

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It’s safe to say that 2014 is a year of application inundation. We have apps to analyze our sleep and apps to streamline our budgets. There’s an app out there to help you with virtually anything you want to do.

So what are the best apps?

In the app age when technology continues to expand and iterate around us, fortunately the “well-designed app” still rises to the top. In 2014 there are many cool apps with a nod to aesthetics and sound user experience, but none as mesmerizing as Monument Valley.

Best Designed Apps: Monument Valley

monumentvalley1_crop; Monument Valley

In April of this year, Monument Valley took its iPhone and iPad audience by storm, winning one of the five high honors, Apple Design Award, at WWDC. In light of the app’s unexpected acclaim, we caught up with the app’s creator, Ken Wong of ustwo games. Wong filled us in on the story behind the app’s smashing success, and gave us a glimpse into the monument’s future.

Did you target a specific audience when designing Monument Valley?

We didn’t firmly define an audience. We had a general notion during the design process to make a game that could be played by people who don’t usually play games. This greatly informed the entire user experience, from the user interface, to the controls, to the design of the world. After release we were really happy to hear from non-gamers who enjoyed and completed the game. We seem to get a lot of attention from people in the UX and design industries. We were also surprised to hear so many stories of people sharing the game with children as young as 3, and their older parents.

Was there anything specific that inspired the app’s creation?

I’ve had a long standing ambition to make a game about architecture, where architecture could play a central role. I struggled to figure out how to make this into a game, until I came across a print by M.C. Escher where a building was portrayed from a bird’s eye view in it’s entirety, in isolation. This inspired me to create a piece of concept art where the goal was to guide a character from the bottom of a building up to the highest point. That idea kicked everything off for Monument Valley.

How do you feel about it being likened to MC Escher’s style?

It’s very flattering. There’s a lot of crossover… both our team and Escher are interested in geometry, impossibility, architecture and aesthetics. Some people think all we did was take Escher’s art and make it interactive, but there’s so many more influences that came into play, like Japanese gardens, Arabic calligraphy, architectural models, and poster design. We never actually studied Escher’s art very thoroughly or intently.

What’s the real purpose of the app? Purely aesthetic? Or, entertainment and fun?

I don’t think it has a singular purpose. It can be many things to many people. There is no ‘message’, our intention was to allow players to play at their own pace and derive their own meaning from the experience. One thing that Monument Valley was never intended to be, was an addiction that counters hours of boredom. There are other games that do this very well. We didn’t want to waste our user’s time. Everything in Monument Valley is designed to have weight and substance and context within the greater work.

Monument Valley

What makes Monument Valley special?

Monument Valley is designed as a short experience. Instead of stretching the game out as long as possible, we only included a level if we could add new gameplay or story. The short length also means the majority of players will be able to actually complete the story and achieve closure. The game features a female protagonist. There is no violence and you cannot fail or die. Unlike many other games, it is designed around an aesthetic experience rather than challenge.

Every level is designed with graphic composition on the screen in mind. (We built a camera into the game so people could take pictures of their favorite locations).

Describe the approach to its functionality.

We designed Monument Valley specifically for the touch screen. We dedicated a lot of time studying how people interact with the screen and translating this into commands in the game. Almost no instructions are given to the player – instead we urge them to discover for themselves what is possible and what needs to be done in order to progress. We user tested heavily, observing the behaviour of players. Through this, we learnt how to guide the player using colour, space, and the architecture itself.

What can we tell our Monument Valley friends about what’s next on the horizon?

The soundtrack will be released soon, and we’re working hard on creating some some extra chapters …


What do you think of the app’s incredible success and popularity?

We’re incredibly happy, of course. We created this game with what we felt was a lot of honesty, and we weren’t sure if there was going to be an audience for this sort of game on mobile, for a premium price. Just to have completed the project as a happy team, on schedule, was a real joy. Popular and critical success has been almost an entirely separate experience from creating the game.

Stories from creatives who are using the app that you’d like to share?

We even have a tumblr for our creative fans …

Tim Schafer, legendary designer of Grim Fandango, Psychonauts and Broken Age tweeted:

Monument Valley is the most elegant game I’ve ever played. Every aspect–the presentation, the puzzles, the UI -amazingly elegant! Play it!

Lee Unkrich director of Toy Story 3, tweeted:

Monument Valley is one of the most imaginative and well-designed puzzle games I’ve ever played. Well done, @ustwogames

Want more app inspiration? Find out the 4 best designed apps in Print Mag
azine’s 2014 Regional Design Annual