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‘I was trying to create the sound of a really warm hug’: the poignant story behind Monument Valley 2’s music

<span>‘This game is about a mother and child, and towards the end of the year, I lost her’ … Monument Valley 2.</span><span>Photograph: ustwo</span>
‘This game is about a mother and child, and towards the end of the year, I lost her’ … Monument Valley 2.Photograph: ustwo

‘The part where the mother and child are separated on a red mountain, in a level quite early on in the game where you have to get back to the mother and find her … I was completing the sound design and music for that in a hospital, right beside my mum when she was sleeping, recovering from open heart surgery.”

Todd Baker pauses for a second. He is recalling the development process of 2017’s Monument Valley 2, an indie puzzler, the highly anticipated follow-up to the one of the biggest success stories in mobile game history. The second game is more experimental than the first; it has more of a story, which in turn changed its feel. Whereas the first title is all optical illusions and impossible objects, the sequel moves away from MC Escher-inspired towers and spires and towards non-Euclidean geometry and brutalism.

At its heart is a mother and daughter, wordlessly weaving in and out of each other’s paths, desperately trying to stay together as the world heaves and undulates and does its best to tear them apart. It is about female legacy and relationships, and for Todd, there was a parallel between fiction and reality. “The fact this game is about a mother and child, and that towards the end of the year I was making the game, I lost her … it’s a very poignant thing.”

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Monument Valley 2’s soundtrack is the sort of music you want to listen to when you’re not playing it; even divorced from its parent game, it’s still so swaddling, so rich and textured, that it provides a comforting backdrop to whatever you’re doing. Its warm, organic tones and ambient, welcoming sounds wash over you like a wave. This was always Baker’s intent. Even before the unfortunate dovetailing of fictional and actual loss, Monument Valley 2’s soundtrack was designed to be soothing, approachable and gorgeous.

“Basically, what I was trying to do was create the sound of a really warm hug,” smiles Baker as he explains one of the game’s early moments – where the child first comes to the mother and is caught in her arms in an embrace. “In that moment, the child walks in and they hug and there are all these bass notes there … it’s super warm, and it needed to feel fuzzy, like, this is exactly where I want to be right now.”

This moment in the game is crucial: it’s setting up what’s at stake. Yes, the story is abstract and minimal, but there is such power in this moment. Baker – layering in three tracks of improvised acoustic guitar melody, playing with an EBow to give that slightly supernatural sound, and propping it all up with those heady, supportive bass notes – does as important a job as the visuals here, all presented in that Apple/iOS-friendly “bright on white”, in establishing everything that’s at risk. If you don’t see the game through, you never get to see these two reunite.

That resonated with the audience, Baker says. “What blows my mind is that, now, I get messages from people saying ‘this was the soundtrack to my childhood’,” laughs Baker. “Talking to me as the adults they are now, having played this game when they were even 11 or 12, telling me that this is a nostalgic thing, a safe space for them. It’s touched people’s hearts and they’ve got big pangs of nostalgia for it now.”

Baker wasn’t just in charge of the music in Monument Valley 2, but also the overall sound design – how certain interactive elements chime and chirp when you swipe or tap them, how little notes of music play when you investigate the curious geometric world you are getting sucked into. It was a chance for him to emulate the approach that Martin Stig Andersen took with Limbo and Inside – both games that heavily inspired Monument Valley 2’s audio, even though they couldn’t be more different in tone.

“From the start, I had the confidence to say that I could do this; I could do the whole project in a holistic way. There was talk of licensing music for the trailer, or using other artists, but for this one … I had to have it for myself. I wanted to let the music do the talking and tell the story, and for the rest of the development team to get really excited about it.”

As Baker says this, he mimes a hug, bringing it in around himself, recreating the hug he tried to summon in the minds and ears of players in that early moment of the game. Ten years since the original game was released, Apple still promotes both Monument Valley and the sequel on the App Store, and the latter has been installed on at least 30m devices. There is no doubt that millions of people have heard that hug, and the echo of Baker’s relationship with his mother. If you have never had the pleasure of playing this game with the sound on, find your headphones, head to the App Store, and give it a go. I promise, it’s worth the effort.

• The Monument Valley series turns 10 years old this month, and developer ustwo is celebrating with a dedicated anniversary website.