Monument Valley's Lead Designer Takes You Inside the Game
At GDC last week lead designer at ustwo, Ken Wong, gave an interesting presentation over the studio's award-winning game Monument Valley's art design. It was an apt discussion given that Monument Vally took home three GDW awards including Best Visual Art. Monument Valley is a very unique game visually speaking along with having an unusual story behind its production, popularity and promotional strategy.
The thesis of Wong's talk was about re-examining the role visual art can play in the design of games. He argues that ways of thinking about designing around game play are giving way to a focus on a game's aesthetics as a means of engaging players. Technological advances have given us a wider understanding of games as an art form.
"We can now make more sophisticated works," he explains, "This means that we can create incredible narrative and visual experiences, that while still being interactive are perhaps not as rooted in game play as we once thought. We create entire player experiences. What we create is not just mechanics dressed up with art, story, and sound. For a lot of us here, enjoyment comes more from the story, art, and sound and less from the gameplay. Designing with aesthetics as a focus can lead to the creation of different and new experiences." This is Wong's main point: being with the game's look can inspire you to greater creativity or to looking at game development differently.
This aesthetic-heavy perspective is unsurprising give that Wong comes from an art and design background and that ustwo is primarily an app studio with a small sub-department devoted to game design.
Wong attributes much of the inspiration behind Monument Valley's unique M.C. Escher-esq look to his life-long love of architecture. "I could never figure out how to make a game where the architecture was sort of the main character. One day I was staring at this one picture by M.C. Escher, and what struck me about it was not the impossibility, but the fact that there was a single building framed in this void with this character at the bottom. I thought if you could guide the character through the building to the highest point, if that was the goal of the game, and if you could solve some puzzles using the building along the way, then that's how I could make a game about architecture. The camera would remain focused on the building rather than the character."
Another inspiration for Wong was the game Windowsill by Vectorpark, a relatively simple puzzle game with a strong focus on aesthetics and animation. Much of the enjoyment of Windowsill comes from your interaction with its mostly non-functional, aesthetically focused components. "A lot of [Windowsill] is just about the joy of animation...it's not strictly driven by logic and by gameplay. There's just fun and delight in interacting with things. I thought it was really amazing that a game could simply be about beauty and interaction and didn't have to have tough puzzles and be so skill based."
With these two ideas, Wong had a good notion of what he wanted, so he went to the dev team with some concept drawings. The team was using Unity's game engine, faced with a tight schedule and limited resources; however, the dev team felt confident they could make it work. One of the big questions that had to be addressed was how to create some of the impossible geometry that would go into the level designs. For example, one of the impossible shapes that was being planned was the Penrose triangle, an "impossible" shape that is dependent upon a fixed point of view to work. Similarly, Monument Valley's geometry would need a similarly fixed camera position.
In the Penrose triangle, your point of view must align the structure's ends to create the illusion. The dev team used this fixed position to their advantage as in the image above (right). However, in order to get Ida, the protagonist, to "walk" correctly on the triangle, they needed to direct her pathway over open spaces as seen in the left image. When the Penrose triangle was rotated at the correct angle to the camera, Ida would appear to walk on the impossible space.
"I think this coming together of art and programming is one of the secrets of Monument Valley. That's one of our strengths. We didn't consider art and programming separately. We tried to combine them together."
A Work of Art and Science
Now that Wong and the team knew they could create a visually engaging game and that building the geometry was possible, they began looking for visual references on which to build the levels. The search took them around the world looking for beautiful and unique architecture.
"We didn't want the game to feel like any one place. The more we looked at places around the world, palaces, temples, monasteries, churches, and mosques, we found that they had really vivid colors and amazing structures...our search helped us to bring in culture from outside of video games."
Creating Little Worlds
The team's overall conception for creating the game was the idea of "little worlds". It's structures would be independent worlds that seemed to float within a void. This meant that every level had to fit within the screen. "What we discovered was there's something very comforting about seeing the whole world in one page," Wong explains, "Everything you need to solve a problem is right there in front of you." The fixed camera position and overview of the "little worlds" worried the team at first, fearing that level's would become too small or challenging if players weren't able to zoom in or orbit around the architectural structure. During user testing, however, it become evident players were effectively able to adjust to the smaller areas of the levels and that confusion or size wasn't an issue.
A Minimalist Style
Wong approached Monument Valley with a minimalist style. The project was approached with a restricted tool pallet where extraneous decorations or non-functional components were discarded. "We tried to remove anything that wasn't necessary," Wong states. Essentially, this meant that what features did make the cut were even that much more important. They had to relate the correct thing, prompt the player in the just the right ways, etc. . He explains, "When every element on the screen becomes so powerful, everything has meaning, everything has context. We had to become very disciplined with our use of visuals"
The ustwo game dev team used Unity to design building blocks like staircases, pathways, arches, and other elements from cubes. The intention was to create a Lego-esq workflow where designers could quickly assemble and change levels using pre-made cubes.
Using Aesthetics as Marketing
Wong expressed his opinion of the current state of aesthetics within game design: "Current video game aesthetics are extremely conservative. For a long time there has been a traditional idea of what a video game should look like...Now we're seeing this bloom of really visually attractive games.
For Wong, aesthetically-driven games that are designed well can give indie studios a leg up against larger ones. "I feel like aesthetics and visual design are a kind of free marketing. If you have to decide on an art style and you have to create the graphics, why not pick something that's bold and interesting. We spent nothing on marketing Monument Valley. We felt the screen shots described the game very well." Wong went on to explain how customers we posting screen shots of their Monument Valley levels without being incentivized. People we're just wanting to share something beautiful with others. This can translate into free content marketing for you. Aesthetics allows small projects to punch above their weight," he added.
If your just starting or in the middle of a game's development, you may want to take some advice from what Ken Wong and the ustwo game department have learned from making Monument Valley. Aesthetics can be a very powerful thing. It can be powerful for the player's experience and for marketing. Monument Valley has certainly shown that a game can thrive on looking good, that there is a market for beautiful experiences.