Ten Years Later, ‘Monument Valley’ Is a Monument to Mobile Gaming’s Bygone Era

A scene as still and pure as it is confounding: towers stretching up, flags billowing gently in the wind, stone walkways appearing to defy the principles of architecture. But this is a non-Euclidean dream rather than a nightmare, an image swathed in warm pinks and turquoises. You poke at the screen with your finger, and a tiny, hooded figure begins to move. You tap on a giant crank, and walkways start swinging 90 degrees. Lo, a route presents itself out of this maze.

In 2014, pulling out your iPhone and playing Monument Valley felt like a cloud was being lifted from your brain. The game was crystalline in its execution: every beautifully composed image, every carefully chosen sound, its handful of meaningful interactions. “I used to talk about it as a sanctuary in your pocket,” says producer Danny Gray, who is now chief creative officer at the London-based studio that made Monument Valley, ustwo Games. “You’re on the tube or having a hard time, and you’re able to go into this Zen-like space where you’re in a kind of flow state—just existing.”

The world was a different place in 2014. For a start, not everyone had a smartphone, and those who did were a little less plugged into social media apps than they are today. The term “doomscrolling” had yet to enter the popular lexicon. But even during this ostensibly less anxiety-inducing era, the pressures of the world were not nothing. Enter this serene puzzle adventure, which had a knack for making life a little more tolerable—certainly a little more beautiful. It did so in ways that were concretely different from mobile peers like Candy Crush Saga, the free-to-play, match-three juggernaut that, in the week before Monument Valley’s release, helped its maker, King, soar to a $7.1 billion valuation on the New York Stock Exchange. Where Candy Crush Saga tickled and then gnawed at the brain through design that resembled the kind used in gambling machines (with levels numbering in the thousands), Monument Valley could be wrapped up in 90 minutes—a brief and bittersweet sojourn without the hangover.

As far as it’s possible for a multipurpose, multigenerational machine like the iPhone to have a killer app, Monument Valley was it—like Wii Sports for the Wii, or Halo for the original Xbox. Its minimalistic design perfectly matched the form, function, and elegance of the device it was played on. Adriaan de Jongh, maker of the 2017 hit mobile puzzle game Hidden Folks, describes it as “archetypical”: “You played in portrait mode,” he says. “The puzzles were slick and clever; a gameplay session only had to last a handful of minutes.” Apple seemed to know as much, awarding the game a prestigious Apple Design Award in June 2014 and then announcing—and launching—its sequel onstage at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in June 2017 in San Jose.

But Monument Valley wasn’t even conceived of with the iPhone in mind; at first, it was meant for the iPad. “Initially, we used to say it was a ‘coffee-table’ game: big format, bright colors, inviting,” David Fernández Huerta, senior artist on the game, recalls. “We didn’t want it to look like a game game. We wanted it to look like something you’d see in a design magazine.”

Even in the process of shrinking Monument Valley to fit the more compact iPhone screen, this central tenet of its visual design came through loud and clear for reviewers. “A painting you can touch,” enthused Kill Screen. “If there was ever a game that begged to be framed and hung, it is Monument Valley,” opined The Guardian. The mobile games specialist site TouchArcade described it as a “feast for your senses.” Effusive reviews translated into gigantic download numbers on iOS and, starting the month after that initial release on Android: some 3 million in the first year and many tens of millions more in the following years (the game has amassed over 100 million downloads to date). “I remember being totally wowed by it,” says Kyle Orland, senior gaming editor at Ars Technica. “For the gameplay itself, it sounds braggy, but I found it kind of simple. But maybe that’s not bragging; maybe that’s just the [way the] game was designed. The solutions came naturally. Your brain wrapped around this weird geometry without too much effort.”

Harry Nesbitt, the maker of Alto’s Adventure, another indie mobile darling from the era of sleek, graphic visuals, recalls that part of Monument Valley’s appeal lay in how cohesive it felt: “The sounds, animations, visual effects, colors, gradients—when all of those things combined, it was just delightful and very accessible,” he says. “It was the first time I really played a game on mobile that I could point to and say, ‘Yes, this is the kind of thing I want to make.’”

With such gigantic success, Monument Valley should have become a blueprint for indies on mobile (and it did, for the small cohort of artful titles such as Alto’s Adventure and Old Man’s Journey that followed soon after it). But as the years wore on, it became clear that the game was really more of an aberration. Premium mobile games, i.e. those that you pay for, eventually turned into an endangered species, crowded out by free-to-play, “forever game” behemoths such as Clash Royale and, most recently, Monopoly Go! (the latter of which is partly bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and spent an eye-watering sum of nearly $500 million on marketing and user acquisition alone). A binary, then (and thus a battle), presents itself, pitting the art game that values people’s time against the commercial product that seeks to exploit it with ever-increasing, capitalistic intensity. “In 2014, it was just the beginning of that battle,” says Orland. “We didn’t have a clear winner.”

Now, it’s easy to see which way the wind ultimately blew. Cast your eye across the top 50 games on the App Store. Beyond the acclaimed roguelike Hades, which first came out on consoles and computers, there’s hardly a title that doesn’t subscribe to the attention-grabbing and attention-holding logic that took root in the 2010s (and suffused everything from media to politics). For this reason, playing Monument Valley today only reveals its fundamental qualities more potently: its lucidity, charm, and deft, artisanal touch. To return to Gray’s own formulation, the game now offers a greater sanctuary than it ever could have a decade ago, and not just because the woes of the world arguably feel more intense.

Surely, a quiet, reflective work such as Monument Valley would have been made under circumstances reflective of such a contemplative mood. Not so, according to its development team, which sat in the busiest part of the original ustwo office, next to the front doors and sandwiched between the IT department and kitchen. The office, located in Shoreditch, an undeniably hip part of east London, had a “very Nathan Barley–esque feel,” says Manesh Mistry, a programmer on Monument Valley and now ustwo’s technical director. Michael Anderson, QA lead on the game, agrees. “It was just wacky,” he says of the decor, which included a Wendy house with a PlayStation 3 inside. “One of our cofounders, [Matt] ‘Mills’ [Miller], used to be known as ‘chief Wonka’ as opposed to CEO. His whole thing was to make the space fun and playful.”

Except UsTwo wasn’t cooking up delicious confectionery; it was banking apps—and, in its earliest days, user interfaces for Sony Ericsson phones. It was first and foremost a design agency rather than a games studio, one that looked conspicuously different from the “core” games companies that Gray and Anderson had worked at before. In Gray’s mind, it wasn’t just “white dudes in black hoodies,” but fashion-conscious people “from all over the world.” Mistry emphasizes the “multidisciplinary” nature of the workplace, a “real melting pot of the early days of digital creativity.”

Prior to Monument Valley, the games team, which included Mistry and Anderson, had made two warmly, if not rapturously, received mobile puzzle games, 2011’s Whale Trail and 2013’s Blip Blup. Now it was time to level up. Mistry, Anderson, and a few others were joined by Ken Wong, who had previously served as art director on 2011’s Alice: Madness Returns, the sequel to the acclaimed third-person adventure American McGee’s Alice. Gray jumped ship from Hello Games, which was in the early stages of developing No Man’s Sky. The group sat together in their chic surroundings hashing out ideas, some in the form of interactive prototypes and others as little more than pieces of visual art. These would be stuck onto a nearby glass wall, attracting the idle-minded attention of passersby. The one ustwo employees kept cooing over was a drawing of Wong’s, just a “small character at the bottom of a portrait screen with a very clean, isometric structure in front of them,” remembers Gray. “There was no crazy M.C. Escher–style stuff yet.”

A few more pieces of concept art were drawn. And then, while making a prototype, the team stumbled upon a bug (while dragging some of the architectural building blocks in front of other blocks) that ultimately led to the impossible architecture mechanic. Such was the clarity of the vision, when Fernández Huerta joined UsTwo a few weeks later, that he “understood immediately what the game wanted to be.” Still, he thought there was room for improvement. “It read as very cold, a bit serious,” he says, a point he made when quizzed about the prototype in his job interview. It was a moment when Fernández Huerta thought to himself: “Do these people want to hear what I think, or do they want me to just say yes?”

A look began to coalesce. On the one hand, Wong’s original art: pristine and perhaps a little clinical, yet charged with a deep, tantalizing mystery. On the other, an effort by Fernández Huerta to soften it: a warmer color palette and playful animations, crow people kicking their legs with carefree abandon, totems that hopped like puppies. A further ingredient: minimalist Japanese art. Woodblock prints and, perhaps surprisingly, ikebana, the ancient practice of flower arranging. There was a “sobriety” to these decidedly delicate works, says Fernández Huerta, and instructive lessons on the “composition” of an image from a few key elements.

Then, a battle, or perhaps a creative tussle, over the introduction of plot: “Ken was adamant that the game shouldn’t have any kind of story whatsoever,” recalls Gray. “He was keen on the main character being the architecture.” Wong, the project’s de facto lead, eventually relented, letting players step into the shoes of Ida, a princess who must traverse the world to return the so-called “sacred geometry” she once stole and seek forgiveness. Gray characterizes the tone of these discussions as “very direct,” adding, Monument Valley is the “only game I’ve worked on where someone has told me to ‘fuck off.’” The guiding principle of the team was “efficiency,” one of the reasons why the game took just 10 months from start to finish to create. “We had to assume that this was a highly talented team who all trusted each other’s work and opinions,” Gray adds. “There wasn’t much time for the fluffier side of communication.” Fernández Huerta doesn’t recall it being a particularly “clashy team” but notes that everyone on it had had a “very high, critical mindset.”

(In 2019, a former employee at Mountains, the studio Wong cofounded after working on Monument Valley, said that Wong had been emotionally abusive to staff while working on the award-winning mobile game Florence, which was published by Annapurna Interactive in 2018. Wong issued an apology. Ustwo team members I interviewed described a challenging work environment during Monument Valley’s development, but nothing that corresponded to Wong’s later behavior was reported.)

Gray recalls feeling intense self-imposed pressure. The eight-person team wanted to do justice to the acclaimed design work of their colleagues, but they were aware of the fact that the unbridled creativity they’d enjoyed likely couldn’t last—there was only so much goodwill and funding their bosses could offer. “We were this little renegade team that wasn’t bringing in any money,” he admits. “We pretty much only had one chance to make something before the team was probably going to get disbanded,” either fired or absorbed back into the design agency.

The team pulled in one direction, which perhaps explains why there is such a thrilling coherence to Monument Valley. Its architectural puzzles exude the solidity and control of an actual building, each mechanic built on another, giving the whole structure strength, all while gently expanding the game’s suite of possibilities. There are no progress-halting difficulty spikes, and when a new interaction is introduced—like doors that enable Ida to magically traverse space or the ability for her to walk upside down and on walls—you barely even notice; such is their seamless integration. At times, Monument Valley goes down so easy it can feel like a hallucination.

This was not the result of happenstance or even design genius but the application of a philosophy used by ustwo’s design team: The user is never wrong. In order to make good on the promise, accommodating the greatest number of players with a wide range of skills—and giving them the best chance of actually completing the game, something famously few players actually do—the team adopted a rigorous and borderline obsessive approach to testing. It started with the approval of other team members; they’d swivel their office chairs around to show work-in-progress material and then develop it further if it passed muster or can it if it didn’t. Then they hit up their ustwo design colleagues, a vast resource of what Anderson calls “normal people,” i.e., non-gamers. They’d grab, say, Paul from finance, a dad with a couple of kids who played golf but didn’t play games. They’d jot down when the gratifying sounds of “oohs” and “ahhs” came and feed that back into the design, ultimately eschewing the traditional approach of working from a design document in favor of something more fluid and intuitive, albeit rooted in the empiricism of user testing.

Fast forward to April 2014, and the unorthodox approach paid off handsomely. Within a month of its release, Monument Valley had secured the top spot in the paid app charts in more than 30 countries; it had become profitable in just a week. Yet a portentous omen for premium mobile gaming loomed with the release of its expansion pack, Forgotten Shores, six months later. The expansion whisked players off to a melancholic coastline bathed in mist, giving them another hour of gameplay for the hardly bank-breaking cost of $1.99. Yet rather than celebrating the arrival of this additional adventure, many flocked to the App Store to leave one-star reviews. “I expected the new chapters to be free,” wrote one player. “Such a rip off,” complained another.

“It was a sign of things to come,” reflects Gray. “We’ve trained consumers to expect various things, and oftentimes that is a lot for not very much. Something like Journey [roughly 90 minutes long, like Monument Valley] cost $14.99. Monument Valley was $3.99. We didn’t pick that price because that’s what we thought it was worth. We picked it because that’s what we thought mobile players would pay, and we hoped the volume of sales would make up for it.” Gray says it was “demoralizing” to see players react like this, not least because he and the rest of the team were burned out after flinging themselves into the DLC (while contributing to an Apple charity campaign) immediately after finishing the game. “But at the time, we didn’t blame the players,” he adds. “We kind of collectively blamed the games industry for taking us to that point—that we have devalued art and culture so much that spending $1.99 on something that took a number of people six or seven months of their lives to make is too much.”

Just under a decade later, on March 21, 2024, the U.S. Department of Justice, alongside 16 state and district attorneys general, filed a landmark antitrust case against Apple, revolving around how the biggest of the five major tech companies was said to have used its locked-down iPhone ecosystem to build an illegal monopoly. The suit arrived hot on the heels of the Epic lawsuit against Apple, which took umbrage at, among other things, the 30 percent cut Apple took of every financial transaction on the App Store. (Spotify, which owns The Ringer, was part of a group of companies supporting the suit.) But the mere existence of the DOJ case arguably makes a more powerful argument than one filed by a competitor ever could.

The U.S. government, like many App Store users on both the consumer and developer sides, has grown disillusioned and dissatisfied with the effects of Apple’s 65-70 percent share of the smartphone market. Ethan Gach, a senior reporter at Kotaku and author of the newsletter Dead Game, sees this backlash as reflective of a widespread sense that many of the things Apple promised—functionality, a device that’s “not throwing crap in your face”—have not come to pass. He singles out the App Store, which was for so long the best platform for a game like Monument Valley to make money on but in recent years has descended into something akin to the cluttered Amazon Marketplace. “You’re just sort of sifting through all this stuff,” he says.

On the developer side, de Jongh has grown “increasingly frustrated” with Apple as a “gatekeeper,” focusing particular ire on what he refers to as “discoverability” issues. He released two further games on iOS and Android after 2017’s Hidden Folks: Wurdweb, which was distributed via Apple’s subscription service, Apple Arcade, in 2021, and Secret Shuffle a year later. But the situation has worsened so much for game makers such as him that he describes premium indie games on iOS in 2024 as effectively “dead in the water.” It’s a stark turn of events that the purchasing of premium mobile games has gone from being something tens of millions of people do on a regular basis to an act so rare that the closest analogue Orland can think of is a music fan buying an MP3. “It’s reserved for this niche of people who are really devoted to a market for art’s sake,” he says. “They want to support it more than they want to get the best deal.”

De Jongh points to a single date as the watershed: June 5, 2017, a handful of months after the release of Hidden Folks. That’s when Apple introduced a redesign of the App Store. Before, says de Jongh, Apple “featured” a couple of titles per week, promoting them to anyone across the entire globe who opened the App Store. It was the “single biggest marketing beat” for Hidden Folks, helping the game earn just more than $50,000 on its very first day. Then, with the redesign, the opportunity practically vanished. iPhone users had to navigate to a different tab to see new games. In de Jongh’s view, this was a fundamental and ultimately fatal layer of friction.

Felix Bohatsch, cofounder of Broken Rules, the Austrian studio behind 2017’s Old Man’s Journey (which managed to secure a feature on the App Store just two weeks before the redesign), sees it the same way. “The amount of eyeballs we got was amazing,” Bohatsch says. “What made it even more valuable is that we got eyeballs from people from all kinds of cultures, all kinds of backgrounds, all around the world, and not only gamers.” His studio released a follow-up, the musical puzzle game Eloh, a year later under the new conditions, securing featured placements within the “new games” tab and even winning an Apple Design Award. But the game didn’t break through in the same way. “None of those events had as much of an impact on sales numbers,” he says. “Even if I understand some of the intentions behind the redesign, it was clear that discoverability was much worse.”

Without making it sound like the moon landing, the App Store from the early 2010s to 2017 offered something close to a gaming utopia. Experimental and expressive titles found their way to audiences that were genuinely mainstream in their size and demographics. These games could hold their own against those whose core gameplay loops weren’t always designed according to the most ethical of principles. But, de Jongh says, alongside the App Store redesign, something else changed at Apple. The recommendations of indie gems started to dry up, supplanted by plugs for sports titles, branded titles (which mobile developers have increasingly turned to), and, of course, free-to-play goliaths, the “stuff that just makes money.” Gaming on the iPhone, previously a breath of fresh air, began to feel stale: Rather than inspiring emotions such as wonder and calm, as Monument Valley does, the titles that dominated this new era of the App Store were more likely to leave players with a sense of shame and guilt. Now, in 2024, it’s clear that Monument Valley is emblematic of a creative golden age for mobile games, albeit one that has been unequivocally consigned to history. The future it pointed to has fizzled out—little more than a faded dream, and maybe a naive one at that.

Gach describes a “dereliction of duty” on Apple’s part in the way it “allowed the worst things to flourish,” not least because it appears to him, in hindsight at least, as though Apple was cynically leveraging premium titles like the Apple Design Award–winning Monument Valley to build the iPhone’s reputation in the 2010s. “At the time, it felt like Apple was trying to promote these sorts of games as part of the brand of the App Store—like, ‘Come here for quality things that you won’t see anywhere else’—and in the years since, it’s been clear that this has atrophied,” Gach says. In his view, there’s perhaps no greater (or more ironic) indictment of what happened to gaming on the App Store than the very existence of Apple Arcade, the subscription service many, including Gray, viewed as an attempt to save premium-style games. But, the new storefront, says Gach, is just another walled garden within a much larger one, or “a little App Store within the App Store where none of the other garbage is.”

Even Apple Arcade has sputtered. It burst onto the scene in 2019 with a generous slate of games from an all-star lineup of studios, including Simogo (Sayonara Wild Hearts), Dinosaur Polo Club (Mini Motorways), and, naturally, ustwo (Assemble With Care). But in 2020, the service reportedly pivoted (canceling contracts in the process) from one-and-done premium-esque titles to “sticky” games, i.e., those with high replay value. Last month, another report alleged the “smell of death” around the service. De Jongh, who also helps fund indie games, hasn’t heard of a single title that has signed to Apple Arcade in the past year. “Either they’re going to radically shift direction again, make their minds up about it, or the whole thing is going to get killed,” he says.

Regardless, Gray sees a logic baked into the subscription service that makes it susceptible to the same kind of forces that have afflicted the App Store: “At the end of the day, they’ve created subscription platforms to make people subscribe for months in a row,” he says, noting how retention-based games “aren’t a million miles away” from their free-to-play counterparts: “You’re just taking the monetization out of the equation—it still has to last forever.”

A decade on, Monument Valley feels emblematic, in a way that stretches beyond gaming, of a time when digital culture and media still had an opportunity to chart a different course. The battle that Orland speaks of, waged between artistic games and glorified slot machines “with pretty lights and randomized rewards,” was really a battle for the “better angels of our nature.” Ten years later, it feels as if those angels have been decisively crushed (or maybe they just logged off). To varying degrees, we’ve all been pulled deeper into the “machine zone,” hooked on social media, short-form video, dating apps, on-demand television, and, of course, free-to-play games (microtransactions make up some 98 percent of all mobile revenue). There have been corresponding declines in the amount of sex we’re having and our levels of happiness. For the writer Magdalene J. Taylor, there is a clear culprit: “It’s obviously the phones.”

But this is too simple a diagnosis, making a scapegoat out of our screens. Perhaps more accurate is Gray’s contention that “we got too good at capitalizing [on] people’s attention.” He’s talking about how the video game industry has married compulsive interactive design with an economic system that profits as people spend ever-rising amounts of time with machines, but he might as well be referring to pretty much any subsector of tech. This is the landscape into which ustwo Games will at some unspecified point release Monument Valley 3, about which scant details exist beyond the identity of its director, Jennifer Estaris. Gray does, however, divulge that the game will make concessions to players’ increasingly voracious appetites for sheer content by lengthening the experience while taking pains to preserve and expand the original’s distinct vision. Monument Valley 3, then, will move with the times, but perhaps not too much.

Gray admits there is something fundamentally “weird,” and maybe even uncanny, about such an endeavor in 2024. “It almost feels like a glimpse into a parallel existence,” he says. “One where we didn’t optimize for analytics, monetization, and attention capturing, but one where, somehow, as an industry, we optimized for quality and beauty instead.”

Lewis Gordon is a writer and journalist living in Glasgow who contributes to outlets including The Verge, Wired, and Vulture.

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