Some of the most popular modern fairy tales are played rather than told.
Ustwo's "Monument Valley" spun a story about a quiet princess — Ida — who worked, often alone, to restore a colorful, geometric habitat, one inspired equally by the meticulously designed illustrated architecture of M.C. Escher as well as the joy of optical illusions.
For many, this mobile game 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 game 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.
On Monday, Ustwo 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. "Mothers are never present in video games, and when they are, they're usually seen as some kind of side character, someone who is vulnerable or someone to protect."
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 installment 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 prioritize 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 favored male leads, even those that don't still often emphasize 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.
"She has to bestow that power and knowledge on to her child," Gray continues "That was the angle we found. But this isn't the story of independence of a child. The mother has put everything into raising this child up to this point, and now she needs to learn to be independent again and fill her life with something else."
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.
"It's vague enough that it leaves enough for you to project what you want it to be onto it," Gray says. "Some people are going to look at the mother and child of 'Monument Valley 2' and put themselves in the position of the child. Someone else is going to put themselves in the position of a mother."
"The team at Ustwo are modern-day storytellers — they combine touching storylines with incredibly immersive games," says Phil Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing.
The original "Monument Valley" was created by an eight-person team for about $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.
Yet Gray does say that shortly after the release of the first "Monument Valley," Ustwo took a meeting with a console manufacturer that was hoping to woo the studio. He says the company, which he didn't name, asked "What it would take" to bring Ustwo to their platform.
"We kind of can't?" Gray says. "Anyone who's decided to buy a console has already decided they like games. What we're interested in is taking the user base of the App Store and people who are using an iPhone for everyday life and converting those people into people who want to play games."
In other words, gamers who just don't know they're gamers yet.
"A lot of the casual players on mobile devices are not going to sit down and play a really awesome console game that has a deep narrative," Gray says. "They're probably not going to play 100 hours of 'The Witcher 3,' as great as that game is. We're able to give people an emotional reaction with very little."
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