The lead designer on Monument Valley helped revolutionize mobile gaming, but he's only getting started.
Monument Valley is one of a handful of titles that started to change the perception around mobile gaming and challenged the notion of what games could be. In a sea of free-to-play fare seeking those elusive “whales,” the folks at Ustwo Games published an esoteric isometric puzzler with MC Escher-esque visuals. Monument Valley sold millions of copies and lead designer Ken Wong went on to found a new Melbourne-based studio, Mountains, in 2016. Wong’s aim is to continue pushing the boundaries of games so that more people who aren’t “gamers” can get immersed in interactive entertainment.
Earlier this year, Wong took the first step on this journey by releasing Florence, a short mobile title about love and relationships, featuring a graphic novel style. Annapurna Interactive published the game, which seemed like a perfect fit for an arthouse company that’s also backed efforts like What Remains of Edith Finch and Gorogoa.
“I love [Annapurna’s] approach to films,” Wong told me. “They seem to find experienced, proven filmmakers and just say, 'Hey, let's just work on your next thing, let's just make it great.' And, I think that basically translates to their games business and it seems so simple but it's kind of refreshing in the games industry.
“They're just here to empower creatives like myself. I've asked them a few times, what's the brand about? And, I think they're kind of reluctant to define that, because it's more of a feeling and it's amongst all of them… I do think a common thread is looking beyond the core gaming audience. It feels casual is a bit of a dirty word, and about a decade ago it was but I think we're kind of past that now. We're recognizing that you kind of make games for everyone without dumbing it down.”
He added, “When we first got to see Edith Finch, I was like, 'Oh, this is like Florence but a triple-A game.' So, there's a lot of similarity there but I think, whether it's Donut County, or Gorogoa, or some of the other titles, I think they're all trying to widen the discussion of what games can be and that's really exciting to me.”
Similar to Gorgogoa, Florence conveys its narrative without spoken dialogue. As Wong noted, “wordless storytelling is quite an old art form,” but that doesn't make it any less powerful. Wong chose this method for a very deliberate reason.
“My background is in illustration so I was a digital artist before I became a concept artist and then an art director and then a game designer. So my sort of default mode of creativity, or storytelling is imagery and I feel growing up with picture books and art, I came to really respect and understand the power of image and when you don't say something and you just let the image speak for itself, or maybe leave things open to interpretation,” he explained.
“That could be incredibly powerful because the audience kind of fills in the gaps. It's like in a horror movie when something's in the dark, it's more scary because you don't know what's there and you imagine the worst. That's something that we used in Monument Valley and I tell people, it's really important that [Princess] Ida doesn't have a face and that her animations are quite stilted and we never dip the camera and get close to her.
“It's because we want you to fill in the gaps about what she's thinking and experiencing. We didn't want to tell the player what she's feeling. That's up to the player and that sort of thinking just carried through with Florence.”
It certainly makes for a unique narrative process, but designing a game about human relationships with this method is no easy feat.
“It made things very difficult because so much of the way that we process relationships in the real world, we talk about it, right?” Wong said. “Say I'm like, 'Hey are you seeing anybody? How are things going?' That's similar to the experience that I had when we tell stories. And by removing that tool, it means we have to tell all the emotional ups and downs and all the mechanics of how they met, and who's in what place and who said what, just through images and through gameplay and the music.”
Over the last several decades, game designers have honed their craft and there’s no question that games stand on their own feet as an artform. But that doesn’t mean that designers can’t look to the older artform of filmmaking for inspiration.
“I think actually [with] movie thinking, we can learn a lot from that,” Wong observed. “A cinematic storyteller has to kind of seduce the audience, has to keep them interested for two to three hours, and you get really angry if they don't hold your attention. It feels like they're wasting your time. And I honestly feel there's this Stockholm syndrome kind of thing happening with games where actually we get into these patterns of addiction, where we play games for hours and hours and it's not actually a good time.”
Think back to all those platformers with collect-a-thon mechanics. Sure, some players are just completionists, but how gratifying is it in the end?
“We're there because we're watching the numbers go up, and we're getting this endorphin rush, but actually I think a lot of the Annapurna games, they're taking sort of a fresh approach to interactivity in games and just saying, 'How can we just reframe what we do, when we play games or when we interact?'
“I think it's an ongoing conversation throughout all media and maybe that's to do with the fact that as a culture we're time poor now, not money poor. We have more movies and games than we know what to do with. So, it's actually, ‘How are we going to spend our time.’ That's why with Florence we felt very confident putting out a 45-minute game. Because actually, making a really long game is not the most important thing. Making a game that respects people's time and makes them really satisfied with how they spent that 45 minutes, that's what's important.”
As opposed to the more heavy-handed approach that some games take, where the designer very clearly lays out the narrative and theme, Wong likes to leave things open to interpretation. Like his art, it’s a minimalist style where less is more. And frankly, as an indie developer, taking that approach makes things easier from a budget perspective.
I think games are in quite a modernist space, where more is more. A lot of development time and engine power goes into making things shiny and loud and expensive. And, as a small developer, how are you ever going to compete with that?
“I guess maybe I'm just a big fan of subtlety and being under spoken and trying to do more with less,” Wong commented. “I'm a big fan of big spectacles as well, and I really love the Fast and Furious movies but, you take a movie like Drive on the other hand, where so much of that is about mystery and about style and flavor and maybe the reason I'm interested in that, is I think games are in quite a modernist space, where more is more. A lot of development time and engine power goes into making things shiny and loud and expensive.
“And, as a small developer, how are you ever going to compete with that? And especially what I didn't realize -- and I didn't realize this until much later -- on the phone, you've got a smaller canvas, right? You've actually got less space to convey anything and so, it's actually really hard to tell an epic story on the phone. It's like watching Lord of the Rings on your phone, it doesn't make sense, right? You don't get that feeling so let's go for intimate. It's the power of one person playing an acoustic guitar and that can still break your heart, right?”
Wong loves the fact that he is indeed touching people with a game like Florence. Games can wield great emotional power, and Wong is enjoying seeing people’s reactions to his game as he continues to break down barriers in interactive entertainment.
“People get what we we’re trying to do and they're surprised that a game could make them feel what they feel,” he said. “I love that on Twitter we get a lot of men writing to us saying that the game had them in tears, probably on public transport and I love that. I love that we're breaking down this hypermasculine idea of boys don't cry. I think maybe, people in our age group, we're so ready to feel things. Having grown up with games, we're ready to engage with games on another level.”
A big-screen console game might seem like it has more power to stir reactions in players, but mobile design is continuing to evolve and it’s fascinating to see what talented designers like Wong can do with the small screen. Games have been around for about 40 years but mobile gaming is still very young with a little more than a decade since the advent of the smartphone.
“Every year there's some crazy little innovation that people come up with that really just goes crazy,” Wong said. “Draw Something was one, Pokemon Go was another, and I think looking at these emerging technologies and not relying entirely on them but [figuring out] how to sneak them into the general populous, that's that trick.
“Whether it's geo-location or integration with something or AR, mobiles are incredibly versatile devices and they're such an integral part of our lives. There's so much that a mobile phone can do. It just takes a game developer to look at that and go, 'What can we do with that? What experience can we do?' And, forget about Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Mario, that's how you make a console game or an arcade game… Anything that you can sell on the app store could be an experience. Tinder is an experience. How do you learn from that? How do you turn that into a game. Well, you make Reigns, right? So, there are all sorts of possibilities.”
Coming off of Monument Valley’s success, Wong knew he’d feel the pressure at his new studio, Mountains. Monument Valley is not an easy act to follow. The game was popular enough that it even was featured in Netflix’s House of Cards (long before the Kevin Spacey sexual harassment scandal crushed that show).
“Regarding House of Cards, it was a very surreal experience,” Wong expressed. “But, I also think that people put a little bit too much emphasis on that -- that the television medium validates the video game medium, and I actually think, 'Oh video games is doing fine,' because games, this is the medium of young people today, and that gets me more excited about anything else.
“[With Mountains] I knew what I was getting into. It's like, 'I'm going to use Monument Valley to boost the next step in my journey.' But, it also means I have to fulfill this quite high obligation. We made a game for people that don't normally play games. Young children would play it, and people play it with their older parents, who maybe have never finished a game before. And Monument Valley is very inviting, it doesn't look like a game. It looks like a piece of interactive art.”
He added, “It's an important thing for us to explore as an industry: how can we break down conceptions of games and maybe rebuild something that could be more meaningful, more accessible? So, that was kind of the impetus. It's like, 'Whoa, how do we do that?' How do we find something that's not running and shooting and jumping and racing? And, I'm so glad that we figured out relationships.”
The characters and relationships in Florence are heavily inspired by Wong’s own life experiences but also certain movies, he said.
“I think there's a lot of me in both Florence and Krish,” he admitted. “There's this aspect of me in there. There are a lot of relationships that I've been in and then the relationships that I've seen in my friends and family and then another layer beyond that is the stories around us. I mean there are so many stories in film and in books and in songs and all of that just forms… a tremendous core to draw from. I think the goal was to try and tell as universal a story as possible and not just an idealistic portrayal of a relationship but a accurate one, a true one. And, for that we were particularly inspired by [films like] 500 Days of Summer and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind.
“Because there's a lot of power to not showing the ideal of something, but holding up a mirror and saying, 'You know your life is like this.' Sometimes it's amazing, sometimes it sucks, but it's all good man.”
Game designers today more than ever before are tackling serious subjects like love, illness, death, grief, sexuality and more. What does Wong hope to see as this medium continues to blossom, and what does he expect others to gain from Florence?
“My greatest hope is that people play Florence, and that other game designers take whatever lessons they want from that and use that to tell new types of stories in games. I would like it if more people told their versions of love and their versions of relationships and infuse their cultural backgrounds into their games. There's nothing wrong with the kinds of games we've had for 30, 40 years. I love Street Fighter, I love a good first-person shooter, but let's have more, let's tell more stories.”