One of the mountains being fed a piece of cake.
“This must be some kind of joke,” said my mountain, seconds before a bundle of bananas landed on its rim like a potassium- rich asteroid. My mountain has already murmured a handful of Zen non-sequiturs like, “Being a thing is not so bad,” or “I’d love to tell someone about this night of nights.” Canadian game developer Kara Stone told me that, just as she was worried her mountain was putting up a wall of silence, it finally uttered, “everything’s fine.”
We, and plenty of other weird game folk, are nurturing a mound of digital rocks living on our phones thanks to David O’Reilly, digital animator and cult hero best known for directing some of Adventure Time and the make-believe video game from Spike Jonze's Her, not to mention his own projects.
Recently O'Reilly released his very first video game, a cosmic snow globe called Mountain, in which you watch over a mountain. A talking mountain. Floating in space. Think of it as a digital pet in the vein of Tamagotchi, but your mountain doesn’t poop all over the screen if you neglect it while you're at school.
Mountain first asks you to "answer" some questions by way of doodling a response to words like "death," "happiness," and "loss," which influences how the mountain will actually look. This is probably what O’Reilly was referring to when he told the LA Times that Mountain would be “more psychologically invasive than anything Facebook wants to know about you.”
From there I got to meet it, my mountain, my big rocky buddy. And at $0.99 in the App Store and playable on PC or Mac, Mountain is billed as a game that can run on your desktop simultaneously with other software, giving you close to 50 hours of gameplay as a mountain in space. Looking fairly balanced, the mountain has a few rashes of trees and fireflies that light up at night.
A mountain in space.
In the pause screen, the controls say: NOTHING. You can zoom in and out, snuggling up to your mountain or blow back into the echoing void surrounding it. You can also play a little xylophone keyboard to entertain your pet. I’ve tried playing the Close Encounters chime over and over without much luck, and I know I can’t be the only one in this gaming universe who has attempted this.
Just as I thought Mountain had shown me the works I heard a noise. My iPhone vibrated. I didn’t notice it at first, but after a few twirls around my mountain I saw a white park bench. It was weird, alien and really funny. Mostly because there was no reason for it to randomly appear. The bench towers over the trees, and to put it into scale it would be about four storeys high.
Since the bench, my mountain has been graced with other garage sale space debris. And as it evolves and matures, bricolage is my mountain’s pubescent acne. A lock, a slice of birthday cake, a tooth, a cup of coffee all appear from space. After the bananas fell came a barrel, making me wonder if there was a space Donkey Kong out there lobbing these things my way.
In other words, I realized the lack of rhyme or reason to Mountain makes it more than a talking pet rock or a video game that gamers will argue isn’t a video game: Mountain is a piece of artwork from O’Reilly I get to own, decorating my iPhone.
I’m not about to add to detractors ready to denounce Mountain as a video game, either, but I do feel with Mountain I’ve purchased a piece of digital art, on the cheap, as well as a video game. "Video games" are painted into an odd corner. Since the title describes something with expected agency and reward structure, which many other meditative games, like Proteus, have proven isn't always the case.
Mountain faces the same issues, because it never seems apparent what you're playing for. Ultimately, being able to buy a surreal digital object is a strange, gratifying feeling, especially when it grows exclusively for you. It's sort of that zine fair thrill of getting something warm off the printer.
Not unlike the same feeling of coming home to your Tamagotchi pet in fifth grade, every new development and meditation from my own mountain makes me happy, watching it grow like a bonsai tree. But there’s word that mountains can die in O’Reilly’s gaming universe, which has me a little concerned. So in the meantime I'll keep playing xylophone tunes to it as a method to make it feel loved.
The park bench that flew into Zack's mountain.
In the end this game is an art house evolution of the digital pet video game. Some traditionalists might argue the concept is derivative, but I think it's minimalist, if not contemplative. As you continue to play you realize more and more the game is microcosm of the world and a virtual pet that leaves much to personal interpretation.
It also raises the question about the future of sentient pets: with increasingly intelligent software, will it eventually be possible to own a fully intelligent mountain on your phone rather than your real cat?