When game developers rely on limited dialogue and basic body language, it leaves the player to take specific words and examine them closely. From a storytelling stand point, it creates context for the player and purpose behind what they are doing and why. Monument Valley, a puzzle game by UsTwo, does an excellent job of balancing out its story and gameplay in such a way the game mechanics, the plot and the characters all go hand in hand. The gameʼs main protagonist, Ida is a prime example of a character who never has any speaking parts whatsoever, let alone any facial expressions, but the player gets to know who she is, whatʼs sheʼs doing and why based on her interactions with her environment and the other characters and through her body language.
Ken Wong, the lead designer of Monument Valley, describes the basic premise of the story and Idaʼs role in the Behind the Scenes video. “[I]n the game, you guide…Ida…who needs to reach the top of these monuments and Ida is there to seek forgiveness, but her larger story is up for the player to unveil as they play the game”. Wong discusses the story in more detail during his talk Itʼs Nice Thatʼs Nicer Tuesdays. Upon going into what he and UsTwo conversed over in regards to what should go into the gameplay and story, the themes of Monument Valley focused on topics such as “[r]eturning, not collecting”, “[j]ourney, not battle” and “[h]ubris & stolen knowledge” as stated on one of the slides shown during the presentation. Wong recalls:
“As the gameplay developed, we started to talk more in this team about how these characters were and what their backstory was. [I]n games…the immediate assumption is that you play the hero and that everyone else are the bad guys. And even though these crows get in your way and kind of feel very oppressive, we thought that itʼd be interesting if the crows werenʼt evil. They were just mindless and they kind of walked back and fourth on these paths and got in [Idaʼs] way just because their minds werenʼt quite there. And Ida isnʼt necessarily the hero. Maybe the reason that she has to return these artifacts is because sheʼs done something bad in the past and now sheʼs making up for that and sheʼs seeking forgiveness”.
Based on the context Wong offers, it should be noted that Ida, in all her simplistic features carries a great deal on complexities as well. Itʼs never specified what bad deed she did, but ʻhubrisʼ or the sense of having a higher superiority is one subtle hint as well as the ʻstolen knowledgeʼ she most likely deprived the Monuments of that would inevitably lead to their downfall appear to be telling the player her wrong doing were acts of selfishness. Returning the sacred geometry is the only way she can truly redeem herself.
The first example that softly introduces us to Ida as a character and what her role is in the game is revealed at the beginning. Ida is first seen in a grayscale colored scene. There she makes her first encounter with a ghostly spirit character, who serves as the narrator of the story. Her interaction with him throughout her quest gradually reveals more subtle hints at what crime she committed and what she must do in order to redeem herself. We learn early on from the Chapter 1 title card that “Ida embarks on a quest for forgiveness”. Eventually itʼs revealed by the spirit that “[t]hose who stole our sacred geometry have forgotten their true selves”. This touches upon what Ida has done and that she did steal something that was deeply significant and spiritual to the monuments. The spirit goes on and says, “[c]ursed to walk these monuments are they”, which describes Idaʼs punishment. “Foolish Princess, have you forgotten too?” is his remark in questioning Idaʼs motives for returning to the Valley. Given these details, it seems that Ida is hinted to have been a flawed leader, who might have abused her power and position as a Princess. From the sound of the context, she might have stolen the sacred geometry, possibly for her own personal gain, power or expand her supremacy. As a result, she returns to Monument Valley to return what was stolen and bring restoration to the land. Ida as a character is most certainly flawed in the sense that she was overcome by her egotistical deeds. By stealing the sacred geometry, that was a step down from her highest instincts. As the spirit constantly asks Ida the purpose behind her return to the Valley, she is reminded of the results caused by her actions. This speculation is best supported by the spirit reminding Ida “[t]his was the Valley of Men. Now all that remains are our Monument, stripped of their glories”. The Valley once was a symbol of pride and honor, but when the spirit asks “[t]hieving princess, why have you returned?” Ida is reminded that despite whether or not her intentions are noble, she is not above the consequences and thus her return is going to be called into questioning. The Monuments are beyond past their glory days, so whatever reason Ida returns, she has to prove her actions are genuine. Apparently, whatever acts she committed has caused massive damage that she has to truly prove her integrity. Each time the player completes a level, Ida is seen releasing a piece of the sacred geometry in order for her redemption.
From one interpretation, it seems Idaʼs relationship with the other characters offers further insight as to how she is seen through their perception. In the midst of her loneliness, one of the only other characters she meets are The Crows. As Wong mentioned during the Nicer Tuesdays talk, The Crows are anthropomorphic creatures who walk the monuments, serving as an obstacle for Ida. Whenever she comes too close to them, they squawk at her with a hint of anger and coldness in their screech. While it appears they are repeatedly pacing in the same direction non-stop and screaming at Ida in such a feather-brained manner (so to speak) at a glance, there could be more to this than just their monotonous state on minds. Presumably another reason could be personal with Ida. One could interpret it as they could have some resentment of her and therefore, donʼt want her to pass through the Valley.
As far as allies go, Idaʼs only friend is known simply as The Totem, who is made up of four yellow blocks and sky blue markings. Its top block consists of a purple eye. Judging by the location of where its introduction is taking place, The Totem could be the last of its kind as the other Totems remain in stone like a time capsule of a sort. Idaʼs interaction with this character is expressed through a simple gesture. When Ida is standing next to The Totem, if the player doesnʼt move either of the playable characters, Ida can be seen patting it in an affectionate manner. This gesture clearly supports their nature of their relationship as true, long-time friends. They are seen working together in order to progress and both do an equal share to help other out. What is out of Idaʼs reach, The Totem fills in that gap and where The Totem cannot go, Ida assumes the role. There is one moment in the story when Ida is standing on a floating platform, heading out to sea, The Totem is submerged into the ocean as there is no space for it on board.
They donʼt see each other again until much later when Ida is on a sunken Monument in the middle of a storm. Fittingly, the chapter is entitled “There is nobody left to forgive us”, in which as the player completes some tasks to elevate to structure, the skies clear. The Totem, thus emerges from the sea. Both gesture and gameplay depict Ida and The Totemʼs willingness to go out of their way for each other, which demonstrates Ida does have a selfless side to her nature. Unfortunately, the temporary loss of her old friend in the middle of the ocean could be alluding to what might have caused the other Totem characters to perish along with the rest of the Monuments. Perhaps Ida has taken the Totems for granted and took advantage of them to get to the sacred geometry. The specific one Ida befriends might have gone out of its way a bit more than it should have, causing it to be withdrawn into obscurity once more. As they part ways, Ida is seen watching The Totem sink, implying guilt as she never turns her back or looks away throughout the entire scene. When Ida finds eventually finds The Totem and sets it free, this adds to Idaʼs redemption and character development.
After The Totem is recovered from the depths of the sea, heading to the top of the Monument, Ida takes the red flower she found blooming in the middle of the stormy weather at the start of the chapter inside the structure. The flower leads to further revelation of Idaʼs character development. When all seems lost and hopeless, this item represents itself as a reminder for Ida all is not lost and she still has a chance to be forgiven for her past mistakes. To further support this analysis, the title of the chapter
being “nobody left to forgive us” is the introduction to this desolate setting. This is no coincidence given the sequence of events proceeding from this level. Ida is later seen placing the flower on a tomb which is standing out from a sea of similar ones. Most likely, it belongs to the spirit who narrated throughout Idaʼs journey as he is never seen again afterward and at that point on, Ida is close to the end. It also seems he has forgiven Ida and is able to rest peacefully based on the context of his last dialogue: “Long Ages lie heavy on old bones in these buried halls. Sacred Geometry was our pride, our downfall. But forever will our monument stand in this Valley.” The connection between the Sacred Geometry and the Valley as a whole is what goes hand in hand. As long as the geometry is separated from the Valley, its Monuments will crumble. When Ida returned the geometry to its rightful place, she breathed new life into the Valley.
The ʻold bonesʼ that have been buried long ago indicate time has passed and with time old wounds are either healed or picked at. Idaʼs quest has brought healing in the end and thus the spirit rests peacefully. This goes to show Ida would continue to venture as far as she needed to in order to restore the Valley to its former glory, regardless of the perils her travels would bring. In the end, the spirit forgiving her is well deserved. Even so, at the end of the game, The Crows are seen free from their curse and Idaʼs true form is revealed. The Crows, transformed from black to multicolor and Ida reclaiming her place on the throne (herself turning into a crow as well upon receiving her crown), she guides them to the newly restored Valley, leading them to a brighter and more promising future. This was also hinted early on that this was Idaʼs true self when she sees the Spirit for the last time when passing a mirror. Her reflection shows herself as a white crow with a crown, which foreshadows her fate at the end of the game and who she was truly meant to be.
Idaʼs character is simplistic in mannerism and in concept, yet complex in story and character development. A seemingly humble, delicate character makes the mistakes anyone in power would abuse their leadership status goes out of her way to make amends for her sins. By doing so, Ida slowly but surely evolves from the character who sought the sacred geometry out of ill-considerate pride, which ultimately lead the Monuments to decay over time to recognizing the severity of her wrong-doing and retuning what she had stolen. The noble gesture of returning to the Valley and giving back what was lost demonstrates Idaʼs benevolent nature despite what she had done in the past.
Monument Valley is one of those rare titles in gaming today that provides so much beauty in its simplicity, yet still tells a very well rounded story of self-sacrifice, redemption, forgiveness and understanding what has to be done. With the main character, of this gameʼs story, players see these themes come through via her interactions with the other characters as well as with her surroundings and how the gameplay is set up. Indeed, Ida is one of those unique characters where the players have to interpret by actively reading the text to fully comprehend her objectives fruitfully.