Ustwo on creating the wonderful art and design of Monument Valley 2

Recently released on Android as well as iOS, the stunning Escher-inspired geometric puzzles, clever gameplay and an emotive storyline make Monument Valley 2 the mobile game of 2017. It’s creators tell us how it was designed.

When it came to Monument Valley 2, ustwo games – which has grown from eight to 21 people – moved into a new studio and restructured its staff since the first release, knew it had to be familiar to fans of the first game, but also appealing to those new to the franchise.

The enigmatic head of studio Dan Gray explains how the company approached it from the start: “The difficult thing is how do you make unique the second time?” he muses. “A really easy solution to that is to have other people lead the creative direction.”

And as Dan continues, you can tell that this game is more refined, with a more compelling narrative – a unique story that brings together a mother and child in a partnership to solve Monument Valley’s puzzles using new dynamics and interactions.

“[In the beginning] we were talking about stories that we didn’t feel were represented enough within video games. And the story of a mother and her child was definitely one that’s not present. How many games do you play where the mother is the main character?” smiles Dan.

“For us it was a really compelling story,” he continues. “Let’s make a game where the mother isn’t just about looking after a child; she’s an architect of this world. She has skill – she has to pass on this knowledge. She plays the flute in various parts of the game. And to try and express this really complicated bond between mother and child in something that’s probably only going to last an hour.

“So at the beginning of Monument Valley 2, the interaction is the same as the first game. You tap to move, the mother follows that point, and the child follows in tow. Which is basically how you’d act if you were a small kid. And then as you get through the game you get to an element where the child gets trusted for the first time – the mother moves the child into the dominant position and trusts the child to lead her.

“But the interaction to the player is the same – you’re still tapping to move. And eventually you get to a part where the mother stays still, and she trusts the child to solve puzzles on their own. It’s like you’re growing up. Like in real life.”

Lead artist David Fernandez Huerta had the same challenge – how do you make a better-looking game that the first release but still keep the aesthetic that made Monument Valley one of the best-ever looking games on any mobile platform?

The answer was to refine, not reinvent: “It’s not just the amount of details, it’s the level of detail,” he says. “Everything is softer, yet the colours are way more vibrant. The amount of elements you have in a level is amazing. But it still manages to keep this sense of minimalist beauty.”

So how do you even begin a project such as this? Lauren Cason, senior artist, reveals some interesting insights into ustwo’s development process. “We go through a sort of Pinterest process first where we write down all the words that we think describe the level,” she says. “So it was like ‘islands’ ‘layers’ ‘things turning’. Along with ‘motherhood’ and ‘new experiences’ that sort of thing. And putting together visual reference for all of that.”

And then things get a little more surreal, as Lauren explains: “We ended up with a board that kind of went all over the place – we had Nicki Minaj, we had candy, we had [Disney concept artist] Mary Blair, and then from that we thought about the themes of our inspirations.”

Lauren continues, delving deeper into the working process.

“We have really good tools designers here, so it’s a lot easier to sketch out the possibility in-engine,” she explains. “So our puzzle designers would come up with puzzles in the game engine first and then work with the artists to figure out a sense of place. And actually those roles aren’t super-defined: our artists are also designers; our designers have done beautiful illustrations, so it’s quite fluid.”

At the recent iOS 11 preview event, Apple marketing lead Phil Schiller showed Monument Valley 2 pride of place behind him on the big screen. Apple CEO Tim Cook even visited the studio on a recent trip to London.

Dan Gray dismisses the belief – often piped across social media - that ustwo were ‘lucky’ to be supported by Apple and be ‘their friends’. And he’s right. Monument Valley was unlike anything ever seen before. And with Monument Valley 2 bringing a new emotive storyline, sophisticated methods of interaction, clever puzzles and of course, beautiful artwork, there’s no reason to believe that this game will be just as monumental as the first.

HowWeWork takes you behind-the-scenes at some of the UK’s leading creatives studios – giving you an insight into how they create their best work. Groundbreaking games, market-changing rebrands, mind-blowing visual effects – these companies produce these and more.

In this series of stories and videos, we interview a variety of creatives from each studio to discover their workflow and creative process. We speak to creative directors and designers, heads of studio and programmes to learn how they all work together efficiently and effectively to produce projects that are more than a sum of their parts.

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