Unpredictable is a column from Caty McCarthy about recent games and other happenings bustling in the world of media. This week features the game Monument Valley 2 and album Big Fish Theory from Vince Staples. Note: I technically already featured Monument Valley 2 on this column, but given I had not beaten the game at that time, I'm giving it a new time to shine. Also a word of warning: this story contains SPOILERS for Monument Valley 2.
Sometimes when I feel overwhelmed with life, I imagine what my mom was doing at my age. Likely, it was a lot more stress than I deal with. She was juggling a dozen things at once: raising me (a toddler at the time), working, going to night school, volunteering. She did a lot. Far more than I could ever imagine.
Even in the times of freelancing, working a day job, going to school, among other pesky things, I often found solace in the thought "if she could do all that shit, so can I." Her gamble is a familiar one for single mothers, as she was left to shoulder everything in life in addition to parenthood in her early twenties.
Monument Valley 2 is a game about a mother and child, and how they learn to let go of one another after being codependent for so long. Ro, the familiar heroine from the first game, is seemingly a single mother. She teaches her child how to navigate the M.C. Escher-esque structures of Monument Valley; spinning knobs, standing on buttons. Her child is small, easily frightened, very much a kid in every way. When they break apart—sometimes ignited by buildings collapsing—it's traumatizing. Yet when they reunite Ro wraps her child in a long, tight embrace. They're safe again.
The game is less about their time together, and more about how they learn to live without one another. The mother, mourning the loss of her child's constant presence. The child, learning how to live without an adult figure guiding them through every step of life. Their relationship is conveyed almost entirely visually, through the game's colors and architecture. When the child embarks on a sailboat, the mother lingers alone at the dock, watching her child sail away across the purple sea out of view. Then the chapter ends. They're both alone now.
The next chapter sees the mother in a world sapped of color—completely disaturated, gloomy, where even the shapes of the architecture quiet to flat blocks. The scene's particularly striking, evoking the sense of loss the mother feels, and likely the world she sees. Her life, her energy, her reason for living has gone off on their own, and Ro now feels lost. And the player does too. It's a mixture of regaining that colorful, pastel-hued world; and finding what made Ro herself again, while meeting an old friend along the way.
In so many games that beckon to the themes of motherhood, the mother is often away, not even necessarily the focal point. In Ni No Kuni, the young hero Oliver is on a quest to find his mother's doppelganger to ideally bring her back from the dead. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy is on a quest to find the mother she never knew, only for its resolution to end up feeling secondary and underdeveloped compared to everything else in the game.
Contrast this with themes of fatherhood, which seem to have reached a boiling point in recent years. Between The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite, the upcoming God of War, among countless others, we're not starved on games about dads. Fatherhood is always portrayed as stubborn and complex, with father-like qualities slowly blooming over the course of a game's narrative. As if games were nudging the player and saying, "Here, look at these burly men learning to love and be compassionate between all the murdering."
Meanwhile, a similar approach to motherhood is nearly non-existent. Moms or mom-like figures in games are often lost or dead, serving only as a plot device and hardly with a presence in the game itself. Fathers in games wrestle with the emotional complexities of being parents, while mothers are hardly treated with the same nuance in games at all.
Monument Valley 2 refreshingly embraces its tale of motherhood by putting the mother at the center. That might come partially from Ustwo's hiring of game designer Florian Veltman, the creator of the sad and sweet Lieve Oma, a game about Veltman's own grandmother. Like Lieve Oma once did, Monument Valley 2 engages with the maternal bonds that only a mother (or grandmother) and child can share.
I adored the first Monument Valley, but it did feel empty in a way. Its architecture, its colors, its puzzles, they never told a story outside of a fleeting friendship with a sentient block. In Monument Valley 2, everything feels purposeful. Every screen is meaningful, sad, happy, sorrowful, abound with joy. Towards the end when Ro and her child unite, it's a cathartic thing to behold—a mother and child learned to live separate, but their love is really what's kept them together during all this time. In some ways, it's hardly like they were apart at all.
Summertime '06, rapper Vince Staples' breakthrough album, was long and overwrought. It had great tracks, a narrative, but something was still missing. His latest offerings—last year's EP Prima Donna and now this year's full-length Big Fish Theory—see Staples at his best. He's succinct, with no filler or bullshit in-between. Staples is at his rawest on Big Fish Theory, an album that caps off at a breezy 37 minutes after 12 tracks. (A far, far cry from Summertime '06's one hour, 20 tracks.)
Vince Staples' Big Fish Theory is available on iTunes, at retailers, and for streaming on Spotify, Apple Music, and wherever the heck you darn kids stream music at.