'Insurmountable' Finally Gives Us Video Game Mountains Worth Climbing

A procedurally-generated mountaineering game captures the majesty and satisfying minutiae of climbing expeditions.
May 21, 2021, 1:44pm
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'Insurmountable' screenshots courtesy of ByteRockers' Games

The thing about “See that mountain? You can climb it” is, it was never all that fussed about the actual climbing part. It was just a promise that some conspicuous peak in the distance was real, something you could touch and stand atop, and if the reality of that meant switchback bunny-hopping against a low-res rock texture to no real benefit, well, so be it. If we think of it as a mathematical proposition, it would be much more interested in its own unstated corollary: that if the mountain is tangible, everything on the route between you and it must be tangible, too. And who knows what mysteries that might hold?


When I first booted up Insurmountable, a new game by developer ByteRockers’ Games, I worried—erroneously, it turns out—that any sense of that awe was going to be precluded by cold, hard geometry. My little adventurer was standing at base camp, a hexagonal platform of rock. A tutorial pop-up explained that my route would be made of more of these little, tiled shapes, and that they only came in 3 varieties of texture: rock, snow, and ice, each with a slightly craggier “dangerous” version. 

I was skeptical that a mountain made of these simple repeated elements could impress me much, “procedurally generated” or no. The images of all those old skybox mountains still held my imagination; if I couldn’t actually touch them, I figured, well, that was just the cost of truly evoking nature’s unfathomable grandeur.

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And then I looked up. There was nothing abstract about the peak above me, true: it was an echelon formation of the same hexagonal geometries. I clicked the one at the peak, one pinnacle column crowned with an aurora, and a glowing line traced a path from it to me, stepping steeply down a rock shoulder draped with a waterfall of prismatic ice, disappearing behind folds of extruded Giant’s Causeway basalt.

It was beautiful, and daunting. It turns out that by using the hexagon as a scale reference, the real distance between me and the tiny shapes of the peak becomes discernible. Rather than diminishing the imposing effect of the climb, it enhanced it: I knew roughly how far and how high I had to go, and it looked like a lot. That’s no small thing, as anyone who likes watching GoPro hiking or skiing videos on Youtube can attest: verticality just doesn’t translate well through a screen. Gut-churning descents always seem to scan as bunny slopes. Once during a ski trip, I pointed a camera almost straight up in the air to take a picture of a craggy peak I was standing underneath, so moved was I by the sheer, looming presence of it. Looking at it back home on my desktop, I had to delete it; it simply looked like a flat landscape of some rocks.


In Insurmountable, click the peak (or any other visible destination), and an optimal route to it is traced out in a green line, which changes to red if the process of getting there will fully deplete any of a handful of meters describing your climber’s fitness: health, energy, oxygen, and body temperature. With another click the player character takes off on their automated way, until they reach their destination or meet one of the markers for the simple textual events that give or take equipment or stats. Higher tile-to-tile climbs cost exponentially more energy, and so more circuitous, gentle routes are easier on your energy usage, while also consuming more time and potentially involving more of the “Dangerous” tiles, where negative events sometimes trigger that chip away at your meters. You crunch the numbers: current stats, known costs, unknown risks, and set off.

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As depictions of the perils of climbing go, that’s a little math-y, even for a pastime where the trial of months and miles can whittle down to the matter of a few last feet. There is a stat for “sanity,” but don’t expect any Eternal Darkness-style jump scares when it goes down. It “only” induces some text-based descriptions of paranoia and hallucinations, which though I gather are a real risk of extreme climbing, but here don’t feel much different than any of the other threats. Depleting any meter other than Health won’t end your run. Rather, it activates a percentage chance that you might lose health (that’s right: even if you run out of oxygen). Eventually you realize: you only lose health when you change tiles, and you can also pass time without changing tiles by sleeping...and there are abilities you can activate every few hours to restore health or other meters. Rattle those ideas together for a bit, and eventually you’ll realize the game is quite cheeseable.

But for most of my brief time with Insurmountable, I found that it wasn’t necessary to tax its mechanics for all they’re worth. Not on the comfortable uphill of the “Normal” difficulty, at least (there are two harder modes after it), and I don’t need more challenge out of the game than that. The pleasant problem of wayfinding is enough for me. It scales nicely for a breaktime diversion: I can pick up a climb midway, and set my adventurer on a route while I tab around some webpages, listening to the gentle clinking of carabiners and crampons with one ear, and leave her again at some suitable midpoint. A few hours with the game are sufficient to experience facsimiles of a real climb, anyway. There are the prolonged, water-treading hikes-around, the precarious sprints upwards before inclement weather sets in, the delays...oh god, the delays. 


Nights and storms (and stormy nights) are genuinely disorienting, as it becomes easy to lose track of the peak and any immediate wayfinding markers. If there’s no cave nearby, or you don’t have a tent on hand, you might be forced to climb in the dark. That’s when the cold sets in and inefficiencies pile up, resulting in wasted energy and dwindling resources. Regaining the sight of the peak, it starts to look like Mount Doom, with no Samwise there to pull you out of the onset of despair. Frequently, you must go down in order to go up, as you wind your way around the mountain looking for promising ridgelines or glacier-carved valleys that penetrate deep into the final zones. 

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It’s all quite beautifully implemented, for a geometric, procedural system. Impassable outcroppings, trees, and landslides are integrated into the grid to improve the naturalistic look of the mountain, while complicating your route. I would like to see other, more conspicuous points of interest rendered on the map though, to tempt diversion from the quest for the peak—the game’s floating icon POIs don’t really inspire the imagination, nor do the repeated bits of text and corresponding stat boosts or penalties. References to a bigger mystery hidden in the mountains, involving a disappeared occupying force, ultimately lead to nowhere.

But if the developers stick with it, I believe they can fill in that content in the spaces they’ve carved out for it. And hopefully they do, because I think they’ve really got something here. Insurmountable has a strong, foundational bedrock, and it already shows how even that, piled high enough, can amount to something quite striking.