The Professor at Play: Fairy Tales and Sacred Geometry

I’m no gamer (as I’ve said before), although I do dabble a bit. When I do play, I prefer puzzle and story games, as a rule — I like working them out, and I like exploring their worlds.

I’ve recently fallen in love with Monument Valley (and Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores, the new upgrade/additional levels), both because of its playful, elegant visuals and because of its subtle use of story.

A beautiful night for geometry

Actually, that’s not really the best way to put it. The game doesn’t feature a “subtle use of story” so much as it demonstrates how a little bit can go a very, very long way in generating a narrative. So many contemporary film and television (and, yes, game) narratives are over-told — too much exposition, too much worry that the audience will miss things unless they are made blindingly obvious, too much attempted micromanagement of the audience’s response to what’s shown. By comparison, the barest sketch of a narrative in Monument Valley is surprisingly rich and effective.

This is not a game that necessarily had to tell a story — the designers could have decided to make a game in which a player-character jumps through its pretty hoops for no special reason at all. They could have motivated continuing play with points or bonuses or side quests that open special levels. It might have been perfectly entertaining as nothing but a collection of puzzles derived from Escher’s conflicting perspective illusions. It is also a game that could have been over-told — it could have used any number of expository cut scenes, it could have used more explicit directed dialogue, etc. in order to tell the story of Ida (the Silent Princess, the player character whose actions drive the game) and her people.

Waterfall in Monument Valley

The designers of Monument Valley did none of these things. Instead, we are given a main character who does not speak (and who, as we slowly learn through advancing play, is not what she seems). Ida interacts with ghosts who monologue, but their monologues are often cryptic. The ghost speakers hint at a tale of theft and curses and a redemptive quest that is only fulfilled in the playing of the game. The recovery/return of the Sacred Geometry of the long-departed people of Monument Valley (and the release of Ida and her people) is played out in geometrical puzzles solved by simple figures. The work of storytelling is shared by players and tellers alike, and the story is slowly revealed and/or built through play as the game itself continues.

The game encourages the sharing of the story among players (and as a way to recruit more players) — it’s got a built-in ability to take and scare screenshots of gameplay, which (given how pretty the visuals are) is a very cool thing. The music is simple and lovely, and the use of musical sound effects as an accent for the tools of gameplay makes the experience both immersive and just a bit whimsical. Game mechanics are simple and efficient, and the puzzles are challenging enough to be fun without being particularly frustrating — this is not a multi-day slog of a game. Its scope is relatively narrow, a refreshing little novella rather than a series of epic tales, but its impact is by no means lessened by its relative brevity. While there are walkthroughs available online, I recommend spending more time with Ida without them — these puzzles reward just a little patience and just a little lateral thinking.

The additional levels available in the Forgotten Shores update are actually in-between moments, not added on to the end of the story but rather missing chapters within it, an answer to the player’s inevitable worry about the fate of Ida’s companion for some of her quest. It’s a poignant interlude that ultimately brings Ida back to the original final stage of the game by adding another layer of complexity to her character. Oh, and the puzzles are fun. :)

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About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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