The brilliant Critical Distance have proposed “Choreography” as the topic for their March collection of Blogs of the Round Table and I think, as a choreographer turned game developer, I should have something to say on this. I pondered what to write and eventually decided to write about just one game, the wonderful Monument Valley by ustwo.
Launch Monument Valley and the first thing you see is a temple with the number one inside it. The symmetry of the view gives it stability, a calm beginning to the game. But there is far more going on than this screen-shot can reveal.
Stars fade in and out of existence, the patterns in the centre of the temple grow and transform, and the temple itself gently bounces like it’s the heartbeat of this game.
Through this movement the temple gently invites you to enter its portal. Touch it and the image fades and a new one replaces it.
Ida, standing on a walkway, looking around, calm and unconcerned as the breeze flutters her dress. You touch the path and Ida quickly turns and moves towards your touch. That turn is important. If you want Ida to walk this way she must first turn and face where she’s going and, unlike so many game characters, for Ida turning takes time. The turn is quick, but it is real. The designers decided it was important to animate that turn, to make Ida’s movement fluid.
On reaching your touch, Ida stands patiently once more. It is your turn to make some choreography of your own as you rotate the walkway to form the path that Ida requires and with that movement you discover your power to transform this world to her needs.
So you lead Ida along the walkway and up the steps to her destination. Note the gentle bounce as the control handles retract and then extend again, hear Ida quicken her pace as she climbs the steps to her goal, and then she stands at the top gazing out across the valley. A valley that she and you will explore together.
The choreography of Monument Valley isn’t about how characters move or how the player moves, it’s about how everything moves. The choreography is a vital part of the experience and without it the game would be flatter, duller and less enjoyable.
Of all the dance styles I’m familiar with Monument Valley reminds me most of classical ballet. The rigid discipline of the ballerina’s body as she turns and jumps, her fast footwork as she chassés and coupés around the stage, and the lyrical flow of her arms atop her rigidly controlled body are replaced by the mechanics of this world, Ida’s rapid steps, and the fluttering flags and flowers that suffuse most levels. The whole is a careful balance between strong mechanics and gentle lyricism.
With each level that balance shifts a little more away from the lyrical and towards the mechanical as Ida gets closer to her goal.