There was a time when Dan Gray didn’t think Monument Valley 2 was going to happen. The head of Ustwo Games swore it, saying publicly that his team was done with Monument Valley, the isometric puzzle game that has been downloaded more than 50 million times since its release in 2014.
For a while it seemed that way. Months after releasing the original game, Ustwo followed up with Forgotten Shores, a pack of extension levels to expand the original game. A year after that, the team released its first VR title, Land’s End, a gorgeous exploration of what the medium could be. And then, the studio went quiet.
Beneath the surface, though, plenty was happening at the studio: It split from its parent company Ustwo, and opened its own self-sustaining studio called Ustwo Games. It expanded its staff from 8 to 20 people, and started to experiment with what could come next. The answer, it turned out, was the exact opposite of what Gray expected: a sequel to Monument Valley.
Today, Ustwo Games releases Monument Valley 2, a 16-level follow up to the 2014 blockbuster. The game is like a funhouse mirror of the original: On the surface it looks and plays like the first Monument Valley, but a closer look reveals a deeper, smarter game than before.
Into the Valley
The first thing you’ll notice about Monument Valley 2 is the familiarity. The opening scene features an avatar named Ro sitting atop a piece of geometric architecture. Revisit the first game, and you’ll see a nearly identical opening tableau—the same dusty blue colors, the same architecture. Even Ro bears a striking resemblance to Ida, the main character from the original.
But soon, you’ll notice all the differences. Ustwo set Monument Valley 2 in a different corner of the same universe. It still revolves around solving architectural puzzles, which themselves feel manageable and familiar, but that’s where the similarities end. Monument Valley 2 is subtly more sophisticated than its predecessor. “If you go back and play the first Monument Valley, it feels sort of retro,” Gray says. Small things—like a sleeker, sans serif typeface and generative audio that changes when you activate certain mechanics—make the update feel modern. The team pushed the artistic boundaries on certain levels, too, replacing the game’s signature isometric geometry with flat drawings in one world.
The biggest change, though, is the storyline. In the second scene of the game, you meet a new character: Ro’s tiny, nameless daughter, who accompanies her mother on the journey through the Valley.
The maternal bent isn’t coincidence. Monument Valley 2‘s development coincided with a time when Ustwo’s staff was starting to have children, which sparked a conversation around the gaming world and its depiction of mothers. “We realized there weren’t enough games about motherhood,” Gray says. “And when you do see mothers they’re often seen as something vulnerable or something to protect.”
Ustwo subverts that common narrative by acknowledging the nuanced relationship between parents and their children. Together, Ro and her child travel together from world to world, relying on each other to move monuments and solve puzzles. At first, the child follows Ro, mimicking her every move. Later, Ro encourages the child to take the lead and forge her own path through the levels. The game is, in many ways, a metaphor for the ever-evolving relationship between child and parent: one that shifts from reliance, to mutual respect, to a reversal of caregiving.
In that way, Monument Valley 2 feels less like a big-budget mobile game and more like one born of the indie world, which tends to value atmosphere and narrative over points and other typical metrics of success. That’s not to say it’s aimless. Unlocking Monument Valley 2′s storyline requires finishing puzzles and ascending levels, but the overtly tugs-at-the-heartstrings narrative gives players a sense or purpose that they might not have felt with the original.
In the end, the relationship between mother and child creates a deeper bond with a game that could otherwise be viewed simply as a beautiful puzzler. Gray calls the tactic “trojan horsing” emotion. “We engage people with the visuals and charming mechanics and impossible geometry first,” he says. “That way, we manage to get a whole bunch of new people who didn’t know they wanted emotion from video games to play.”