Most discussion of triple A games is done prior to release. The drives for preorders and first day purchases leads to a PR blitz that fizzles quickly; it seems by the time we do finally get a chance to dig into an eagerly awaited game, we’re a bit sick of talking about it.

On the independent scene, and especially with mobile, there’s more reliance on word of mouth, and a lot of mobile releases gather steam post release rather than losing it. Ustwo have trodden this path before, with the surprise success of artistic endless runner Whale Trail, and though the recently released Monument Valley had garnered  attention from some corners of the gaming press prior to release, the audience has steadily been building over the last week. Designer and artist Ken Wong is rushed off his feet. ‘We had a few interested parties before release, but going to number one on the paid charts has led to us getting a lot of tweets coming through and interview requests. It’s been a whirlwind, about as intense as just finishing the game I think’.

Much of that attention was accrued because of Wong’s spectacular art. While a certain Dutch artist was an obvious inspiration (‘the past few months [the press] has been all “you guys like MC Escher a lot; what’s that all about?”‘), but other inspirations, particularly as they relate to games, are a bit more surprising. ‘I’ve actually never played Echochrome!’ he laughs at mention of SCE Japan’s similarly Escherian puzzler, ‘a lot of people have commented that Monument Valley looks like Echochrome, or Fez, or feels like Journey, but there’s this misunderstanding that before we make a game we sit down, play a lot of other games and think “how can we leverage this?”.  There was so much more that went into this. Films like Labyrinth and The Fall, which is a mesh of fairy tales, architecture and world cultures. We looked at bonsai trees, listened to Brian Eno… There’s all this cultural context we took in to make Monument Valley.’

You want to have the biggest screen possible to drink Monument Valley in, but don't expect a leap to TVs anytime soon. 'It was always built for touch, and a portrait form factor'.

You want to have the biggest screen possible to drink Monument Valley in, but don’t expect a leap to TVs anytime soon. ‘It was always built for touch, and a portrait form factor’.

Much like fellow mobile focused devs Somethin’ Else and Perceptor, Ustwo at large have a broader reach than just games. The 200 odd strong multinational company predominantly works on interface design on a contract basis, but Ustwo Games is a discrete eight person team in the firm’s London office. Wong is fond of Ustwo Games’ indie studio feel that also has an easy source of non-gamer feedback.

‘The non gamers around us kind of keep us grounded,’ he explains. ‘(With Monument Valley) we didn’t just want to make something only we understood. We wanted our puzzles to be as intuitive as possible so that without instruction you can work out what can be done and what you’re supposed to do. We wanted people to be able to finish the game and get that feeling of completion, but where it’s ok for people to get stuck sometimes. The right amount of ‘stuck’, if you know what I mean’.

Pitching an involved, narrative driven puzzle game like Monument Valley requires some strong communicative skills, something Wong feels he honed working on Spicy Horse’s 2011 follow-up to American McGee’s Alice, Madness Returns. ‘I was living in China, working with all these artists that didn’t grow up with Alice in Wonderland, didn’t know what ‘gothic’ meant and weren’t so familiar with surrealism, so teaching the staff all of that was a real challenge. Doing the art direction work (on Madness Returns) in some way prepared me for this years later’.

Madness Returns was a challenging project for Wong. MV might be less dark, but Lewis Carroll's influence can certainly be felt.

Madness Returns was a challenging project for Wong. MV might be less dark, but Lewis Carroll’s influence can certainly be felt.

Monument Valley is drawing a broader church than Madness Returns did, but to call that audience ‘casual’ is unreasonably dismissive. The desire to create pigeon holes for audiences irritates Wong. ‘For many decades gaming was a cult hobby, and you had to be an experiences gamer to do these things. Now more people are playing and making games, the ‘core gamers’ feel they’re losing part of their culture, or attention, and the truth is it’s never been better for players or creators. Labels have been really unhelpful. When people look at Proteus, or Monument Valley and say “it’s not really a game”, that’s not what’s important; the interactivity is’.

In a mobile market bogged down with lazy clones and clumsy pay models, many, especially in mainstream gaming press, are skeptical of mobile platforms’ ability to present meaningful experiences to the player. Wong is philosophical. ‘When the App Store first came on the scene, the innovators and tinkerers were the first to be able to exploit that. Now the big players like EA, or people from a gambling background are finding ways to exploit the market. At the same time you have PC, and consoles getting their act together in order to provide a platform for these indie experiences, so a lot of people are looking to those means, or going cross-platform as a means to survive. But it’s not true to say “mobile is dead” or “premium is dead”, because if you make something that’s a good value proposition, then people will come’.

Full audio of this interview, covering the subjects above and much more, can be found right here, or on the Kaiju Popcast feed in iTunes.

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Gamer, Educator, Writer of Stuff, wrestler of professionals (sometimes)