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VICE vs Video games

Your New Favourite 'Game' Isn't Really a Game at All

I spoke to the creator of Mountain, a confusing – and incredibly addictive – app-cum-art-piece.

by Mike Diver
Jul 30 2014, 1:11pm

A screen shot from Mountain

My mountain’s got questions. Not content to simply revolve in a magic pocket of atmosphere suspended in the middle of deep space – a microhabitat of chirping cicadas and circling fireflies, subject to blue skies and snowstorms – it poses: “Can I do better than this? Do I have a name?” It tells me how it feels, as night becomes day and it still turns. “It seems like I am just trees and dirt and other stuff.” “I really am alone.” “I am within and without this this [sic] dawn light.”

I have no answers to give my mountain. All I can do is help it turn, with a swipe of a forefinger on the screen of my iPad. I can zoom in and out again, right up to the grass that grows on its sides, upending it to see the soil beneath – this rock clearly wrenched from a larger terrain never seen by the player, the owner, the observer. I can play it a song using the invisible notes at the bottom of the screen; I tap out a ditty – some piano motif I half remember from a 1980s movie but can’t find the name of online – and an aurora surrounds my mountain, glowing blue.

Is it happy? How would I tell? “That’s interesting,” it tells me. Why do I care about this virtual rock? Why am I still "playing" this so many hours after it became evident that, really, Mountain isn’t a game at all?

The trailer for Mountain

“I haven’t got in the way of anyone’s interpretations,” says Mountain’s designer, David OReilly. “It’s the kind of project where the less I say about it, the better.” Nevertheless, the gaming press has had much to say about Mountain since it appeared on the App store – and on Mac, Linux and PC platforms, and soon to reach Steam and possibly Android – at the beginning of July.

Polygon’s Ben Kuchera suggested it was a joke, one that he might be the butt of. He remarked that he felt nothing for his mountain – every one is tailored to the individual, who must answer three questions prior to its generation. I was asked to draw my interpretation of "love" and wrote my sons’ names. Thus, my mountain is slightly different from Ben’s, but ultimately the same things happen.

Random objects fly into the compact atmosphere from the void outside, their exact meanings unspecified. A bunch of bananas landed at the base of my mountain; a massive light bulb near the summit, which was in turn topped by an anvil; while a pie and a clock have taken up residence elsewhere, beside a couple of chairs, a bottle and some crates. All the while, the trees that were there from the beginning, when my mountain was uncluttered and pure, continue existing; the insects that swarm around them only make their presence known audibly.

“There doesn’t seem to be any actual gameplay,” complains Kuchera. He has a point – if you set your clock by Call of Duty kill streaks, then Mountain isn’t going to sate your appetite for digital destruction. Rather, it’s an entirely meditative experience – I know I’ve found something compelling about it, even if I’m not yet wholly certain why it is that I’m persistently drawn back to my mountain. “Its wide reception is surprising,” says OReilly, considering both the negative responses and the many positives – Gamasutra’s Leigh Alexander was smitten somewhat, writing: “…the time I spend with Mountain, it feels slightly more real to me than anything else inside my computer”.

The designer continues: “I never expected it to get out there as much as it has, as it’s an idea that doesn’t really work in theory.”

Part of the reason why Mountain has achieved a wide audience – it reached five on the US App Store chart (it’s a $0.99 download, or £0.69 to Brits) and went all the way to the top in Germany – is down to OReilly’s background. Based in Los Angeles, the Ireland-born artist has a string of impressive credits and clients on his CV. He’s worked on the movie adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, contributed animations to Son Of Rambow and made a music video for U2. He’s produced several short films – amongst them ????? and Please Say Something. His website is stuffed with inspired designs. Most recently his work was seen in Spike Jonze’s Her, during its video game sequences. That, combined with the reception for Mountain, has seen his profile skyrocket.

“I realise that, because of the press surrounding Mountain, some people think my career started when I worked on Her,” says OReilly. “But I have been doing independent work for over a decade, with little to zero profit, so any platform I have is hard earned.

Mountain isn’t my first stab at making a game, as much as the accumulation of years of thinking about the medium of 3D and our relationship to it, and taking risks over and over to actually make things when exploring it. None of [the press’s overlooking of past work] bothers me, though. I feel extraordinarily lucky to be alive.”

It’s interesting that Mountain’s maker refers to it, consistently, as a game above anything else. I don’t feel quite the same way. Zack Kotzer, writing for Motherboard, compared it to a Tamagotchi – a parallel I can see some foundation for. But you never water your mountain, or feed it or pet it. Sure, you spin it faster if the mood takes, or play it a sprightly melody, but your mountain – my mountain – never really pays back that affection. It just gets busier with arbitrary detritus, the oversized leftovers of a human society absent from the frame. A slice of cake, a horse, a bowling pin.

In most games I’m an active participant, affecting the outcome of a narrative that I can, at least to some degree, shape my own way. Here, I’m on the other side of the Gorilla Glass, for the most part a mute observer. I can’t prevent the fate that awaits my mountain – a fate that will befall all mountains that go the distance. No spoilers, of course, but come the end of Mountain – and there is an end – I feel that I’ve lost something important to me. It’s not like a sword through the heart of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII, or Lee Everett’s brave sacrifices in Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead. But, palpably, something’s changed.

As and when I begin over again, I will benefit from improvements and additions that OReilly has in store. “Right now, we’re tweaking the iOS version quite a bit, as the current version is very demanding on Apple’s hardware. There are also a bunch of new, hidden things that we’re putting in, that didn’t make the initial build. I think the ability to add updates is one of the best things about the medium of games – as with animation, you are kind of locked into what you release.”

Perhaps Polygon’s Ben will find what he’s looking for in the next iteration of Mountain. Or perhaps he’ll just go on playing with his Transformers while others remain mesmerised by this… I can’t bring myself to call it a game. It is something else: an evolving art installation in your iOS device, or the corner of your computer screen. I am entranced by it. I had more questions for OReilly. I asked them.

Mountain’s controls are listed as “nothing”, which while obviously not quite true is nevertheless a pretty striking statement. “There is a certain amount of misdirection in how the game is described, because it’s hard to describe something you don’t want to describe. In general, I feel like most products are oversold to us, so the ‘controls: nothing’ thing just lowers expectations. The game is more enjoyable when you discover things for yourself.”

Did you have any reservations about charging for something like this? “Not really. I paid for its development out of my pocket, and there was a very real risk of going broke. I will say that no publishing platform will actually let me charge less than the $1 (£0.59) it costs.”

I’m fascinated by the sound design, the drone that swallows the mix as you zoom out into space. “I will credit the sound work to Damien Di Fede. He’s a great coder, and a great musician, and has a very acute ear for sound design. He’s also extremely handsome. I did think about allowing the zoom to go out to infinity, but it got so incredibly terrifying and conscious altering that I decided not to do it.”

I love that flourish that comes in, with the dawn. It’s really celebratory, banishing the night. As a child, were you afraid of the dark? “Come on, man.”

Are you down with the Illuminati? Because I look at the shape of my mountain, of other mountains, and I see that thing Jay Z likes to do with his hands so much. “Dude, these questions are getting worse. You really had me on board earlier.”

One of the first things to hit my mountain was a bottle. What’s on your own mountain, right now? “We’re done here.”

“This is chill,” my mountain says, shrouded in darkness. I swallow and go on watching it spin towards its inevitable demise.

Find Mountain online

@MikeDiver

Previously: The Gloriously Stupid History of Sex in Video Games