The director of the next Monument Valley game is a storied former Nickelodeon, Disney and Sybo game-maker – and a life-long environmental activist.
And so it follows that Jennifer Estaris’ take on Ustwo Games’ flagship series looks set to tackle the climate crisis.
“Monument Valley’s ongoing themes of impossibility and architecture have many similarities to sustainability topics,” Estaris tells us. “We also explored deeper nature themes in Monument Valley 2’s level pack The Lost Forest, released five months ago.”
“Ustwo games’ mission is to bring what’s meaningful about games to everyone; this resonates so strongly with me, even though it’s slightly different from mine, which is to bring meaningful games to everyone. And thus save the world.”
It has been almost five years since Monument Valley 2 was revealed and released as part of Apple’s 2017 WWDC event. But Estaris says her team is not in a rush to release the third game.
“Regarding the next Monument Valley, we have spent a good amount of time experimenting with different concepts,” she tells us. “We want to take our time to hit the right balance between innovation and giving our players what they want.”
“I can’t say more about that, but what I can talk about is the nice side benefit of the experimentation we have been doing: the original Monument Valley is playing gorgeously on landscape and on PC – this experience is something we are hoping to release sometime this year.”
Estaris’ formidable career in games has been shaped by two world-changing events. In September 2001, she was programming e-commerce and eCRM software in New York City.
“After 9/11, many of my coworkers and I re-evaluated how we were spending our time,” she tells us. “One is now a kindergarten teacher, another is a fine artist, one is a professional trombonist. I went to Columbia University for an MFA in creative writing.”
“Since we could take electives, I took a game design class where my professor Bernard Yee hired me to work on game projects, and it snowballed from there.”
Her first full-time games gig was at Nickelodeon, where she worked on games based on big kids IPs like Dora the Explorer. A move to LA, still within Nickelodeon, brought work on Neopets, where Estaris began to think more deeply about the positive influence games can have on players. That continued into her later work at Disney and a range of other studios, large and small.
“I loved finding small pockets in a game where we could elevate meaning and reconnect players with their human side to connect them with the rest of humanity,” she says.
Then it was off to help design and direct Subway Surfers at Sybo in Copenhagen, for several reasons. “A colleague I respect worked there, and Subway Surfers is a game with wild reach – two billion plus downloads – and that gives a platform for a variety of cultures, from world cultures to street cultures. Denmark’s community values and their environmentalism had me wondering what it would be like to live in such a paradise.”
This is where Estaris and the Sybo leadership got involved in sustainability projects, leading to Estaris’ involvement in the UN-backed Playing for the Planet Alliance.
Then COVID happened. “When the pandemic hit, I joined what some call ‘the great resignation’ but is in fact ‘the great re-evaluation’,” she tells us. “When Ustwo games reached out, I re-evaluated the time we have left. Specifically, eight years left to cut emissions before we reach a catastrophic point of no return.”
“At Ustwo Games, not only had they made elegant experiences like Monument Valley, but they were also working on Alba, a game about nature conservation, about communities and about how even the smallest person can make a difference,” she continues. “Alba is such a hopeful, sunny game – just what we need in the face of climate doom and gloom.”
Ustwo’s pledge to plant a tree for every Alba download was another way in which the studio won her over (It has planted over a million trees so far). In her leadership role at the London studio, she says her team is “committed to finding ways for our games to have a positive impact on people and the planet.”
Estaris in on the road spreading the word at SXSW on March 17 and at GDC on March 22. And while we wait for the next Monument Valley, she is uncompromising on what we should be doing in the meantime: fighting climate change.
“This is a huge, urgent challenge but not insurmountable if we work together,” she adds. “Think of a 40 person raid, playing off each other’s strengths, subduing a mega-threat together. How could I not be a part of this? Why not let this be our legacy? Let’s not bow before our ending – let’s not go gentle into that goodnight.”