We’ve all been playing Monument Valley, a serene and wistful game structured like a novel. Each chapter is a separate and self-enclosed puzzle, the skills developed in each chapter building towards the skills needed in the next. The game itself is a surreal ride into a logic that is completely its own. Like being inside an animated Escher drawing.
Ida is the main character of the game, a girl dressed in two white cones – one a hat and the other a dress – the imagery geometric rather than feminine. She is little, in comparison with the towering constructions she must navigate, and yet her nimble feet move her quickly in almost any direction, depending on the gravity rules that particular part of the game is working under. We become Ida as we enter the game. Our cognition is what moves her. We are her mind.
The trick we learn very quickly is that nothing is what it seems. A dead end becomes a gateway, a wall becomes a door, an open chasm is bridged in an instant, all with a flick of the eye, an adjustment of perspective. What seems impossible is rarely so. The challenge is firstly to rebel against our senses, which would have us believe that there is no solution, and secondly to find the shift in perspective, or slight re-arrangement of elements, that provides the answer. And Ida moves forward.
I realised, after playing the game for several days, that my life is like Ida’s. A series of challenges, one leading surely on to the next. My sense of being Ida is one of being alone, as Ida is. No one else is in the game with her. There are no tracks to follow, no evidence that anyone else has been this way. But the loneliness is a gift. For Ida, it means the answers lie within her. She is not searching for the answer outside her somewhere. Neither is she waiting for a rescuing hero to arrive. Her self, which we enact as we play her, is where the agency and insight comes from. Clues help, and minor characters support, because she (read we) wills them to do so. But the crux of each challenge is worked out within her, in her mind. As she hypothesises, tests, explores and ultimately unlocks each puzzle. The answers lie inside.
I was brought up, overtly and by example, to distrust myself. It had as much to do with the peculiarities of my brain quirks and sensitivities as it did with the concept of original sin, that ancient bugbear. I was wrong because I was silly, messy, and clumsy; later because I was unpredictable, unreliable, and too emotional. In other words, a liability. And I was wrong because I had always been wrong and would always be wrong, in my deepest self. The challenge of my life, as I saw it then, was to find the answer to my wrong-ness. The “right” answer.
These answers always lay beyond me. They were in the possession of those whom I allowed authority over me. If I pleased them and unlocked the puzzle, I found the right answer. Then, for a brief, sweet moment, I felt “right.” But the moment never lasted long, and the right answers never got any easier to decipher. And the answers were always out there somewhere, in someone else, in a book, in the future, away from me. I’ve spent a long time trying to be good.
You can replace “good” or “right” with your own version of acceptable. We’ve all got one. We can spend our entire lives trying to attain it, so desperate for approval. It’s an automatic process, one we are often barely aware of. These are the drives that pull us, that cause us to move our lives in one direction or another, that shape the way we respond to the ordinary challenges of life. In this way of living, self-doubt is a constant companion, and shame so familiar and so awful that we craft a million ingenious mind-tricks to avoid feeling it.
But if we stop long enough to listen to ourselves, we find the scene alters completely. This takes courage, and the presence of mind to realise that something must change. For the first time, the voice begins to make sense. We wonder, to our great surprise, if perhaps we can trust ourselves after all. And so, like Ida, we step out in wonder. Beginning again with a new purpose, and in a new way. Our power no longer belonging to others, but to ourselves. And so we move forward.