Mobile games keep it simple and smart

July 19, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

Mobile game 'Monument Valley' has players guiding a princess through a shape-shifting miniature landscape. (Ustwo)

In the mobile game “Monument Valley,” players guide a princess through a shape-shifting miniature landscape. (Ustwo)

About a year ago, hip-hop’s enduring crank Eminem rapped what many interpreted as a jab at the increasing complexity of video games. “All these buttons,” Eminem scolded modern tech kingpins. “You expect me to sit here and learn that?”

The man had a point.

For those not yet converted to video games, the controller remains a potential barrier to entry, this even as the medium more regularly explores relatable topics. One may have been intrigued by the paternal existentialism at the core of last year’s survival horror game “The Last of Us” or curious about this year’s Chicago-set techno-thriller “Watch Dogs,” which explored the concept of hacking as a weapon, but the idea of learning a rules system before exploring a virtual world can be something of a language barrier.

What a godsend then has been mobile and touchscreen gaming.

This is an interactive universe free of the stress of having to tap out a combination of buttons marked with Xs, Ys, triangles and squares. It’s a simpler world, yes, but also at times a more elegant one.

Liberated from the precise, action-heavy requirements of many console and PC games, mobile titles such as “Monument Valley,” “Type: Rider” and others put players in the role of a guide, asking them to lend a helping hand to virtual characters rather than steer them through gargantuan universes that attempt to immerse via sheer size. And they’re affordable, often costing $4 or less.

The princess in 'Monument Valley' never says a word. (Ustwo)

The princess in “Monument Valley” never says a word. (Ustwo)

This spring’s “Monument Valley,” from the global company Ustwo, just may be the best fantasy film one will play this year. A princess in a white dress and a cone for a crown is nearly alone in a magical kingdom populated with shape-shifting castles. A moonlit tower reaches for the stars, a sandy shrine emerges from the sea and an Arabian-influenced music box unfolds to reveal a labyrinth of hidden passageways. The feeling is one akin to exploring the ruins of a dream, albeit a reverie set in the world’s most finely crafted miniature architecture museum.

There isn’t much in the way of enemies. Crows, nettlesome as they may be, squawk and block paths but never bite. Meanwhile, a glowing sprite warns of dark days that have long since passed, hinting at some sort of tragedy that befell the ancestors of our princess. The greatest mystery in “Monument Valley” is how the game’s structural design itself becomes a character. Touch a hallway and it hums a warmly abstract electronic tune. Move the hallway and the entire formation shifts before our eyes.

This is a sparse, modernist fairy tale, an M.C. Escher-inspired world of tiny, interlocking bridges and caverns. “Monument Valley’s” tightly cropped corridors form puzzles and play tricks with our perception, as a stairway to nowhere becomes a course to safety with just a twist of the building. It’s a wistful window into a minuscule alternate reality but one reflective of our own, where awesome architectural creations long outlast a once-great empire.

History is at play in “Type: Rider” as well, where two dots — or two-thirds of an ellipsis — roll and jump their way through fonts past and present. Levels in “Type: Rider,” a game produced by Ex Nihilo and Arte France, are fashioned out of books, scrolls and other typographical images through the ages. Fonts become whole universes, as the likes of Didot and Clarendon become the jumping-off points for worlds where giant letters of the alphabet are stacked and arranged so they become perilous cliffs and dastardly gorges.

"Type: Rider" shows it's possible to have fun with fonts. (Ex Nihilo / Arte France)

“Type: Rider” shows it’s possible to have fun with fonts. (Ex Nihilo / Arte France)

Our heroic marbles traverse Gothic fonts while faded parchments hover in the background and in-game prompts inspire players to learn about the likes of Johannes Gutenberg. Clarendon inspires a Western look, where tumbleweeds and mine carts have our two dots rolling and hopping through a ghost town. Like “Monument Valley,” “Type: Rider” isn’t stressful — hold the screen to move forward, tap it to jump — and the setting and spacious score inspire a more reflective atmosphere.

They’re puzzle games, sure, and they’re also tranquil. But if a game can calm, can it also be a sensual? That’s a question raised by Tale of Tales’ “Luxuria Superbia,” a mobile game released last year that fascinates more with age. In “Luxuria Superbia” players descend into the center of a flower petal while in-game prompts beg the player to touch the screen — and sometimes even kiss it.

Tap various flower petals, and the game most often responds positively. Surrealist eyeballs fly around and odd fish-like creatures hop amid the patiently rhythmic orchestrations. Moving leisurely is key — one wants to keep the flowing glowing in colors as long as possible. It isn’t long before it becomes clear that “Luxuria Superbia” is attempting to bring the too-often taboo subject of sexuality to games, but it’s handled in a playful manner, even if some audio cues make it clear what’s really happening to the flower.

"Luxuria Superbia" brings a little romance to touch-driven games. (Tale of Tales)

“Luxuria Superbia” brings a little romance to touch-driven games. (Tale of Tales)

And that only hints at the endgame possible in the mobile space. Just a touch of a screen, for instance, can turn a game into a relaxant.

“Luxuria Superbia,” the oddest and most conceptual of the three games, works to inspire its players to slow down and aims to explore what’s possible in touch interfaces.

It may even be a little awkward at first. The first time I played it I questioned whether I should be bringing pleasure to my iPhone, but over the last few months I’ve started to view it as a more meditative experience. Take a few breaths or pop a Xanax … or maybe play “Luxuria Superbia” instead.

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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