David OReilly's 'Mountain' Isn't Really a Game at All

I spoke to the creator of <i>Mountain</i>, a confusing—and incredibly addictive—app-cum-art-piece.

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Jul 29 2014, 2:35pm

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. My rock is 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 at the beginning of July. It's also on Mac, Linux, and PC platforms—and soon to reach Steam and possibly Android.

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. 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)—is due to OReilly’s stellar track record. Based in Los Angeles, the Ireland-born artist has a string of impressive credits and clients. 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—among 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 helped his profile skyrocket.

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.

I excited to start Mountain again, because OReilly has made several improvements and additions 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 Kuchera 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 mesmerized by this… I can’t bring myself to call it a game. It is something else entirely: an evolving art installation on an iOS device. 

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