You’re probably more familiar with the work of David O’Reilly than you know. He’s got a formidable resume of idiosyncratic work both interactive and non, but readers of this site are most likely to have seen his contributions to Her, in that movie’s trash-talking holographic video game sequences. Now O’Reilly has applied his insight into gameplay to Mountain, available today for Mac, PC and iOS for a buck.
While cheerfully shedding the Simulator moniker that plagues every high-concept game (jokey or not) nowadays, Mountain is nevertheless a simulation of a mountain - just a mountain, hanging in space - as weather, vegetation and other forces grind away at it. It’s designed to run in the background as you do other things on your computer or mobile device. Mountain creation is a process of drawing three pictures, from which a mountainous effigy of your psyche is generated. Each mountain yields between twenty and fifty hours of gameplay, mostly consisting of checking on your mountain from time to time.
Mountain’s abstractified avoidance of direct 1:1 control is as curious as it is opaque. Input is limited to the initial drawings you make to generate your mountain, and optionally playing melodies on your keyboard to accelerate the passage of time. Apart from that, there is no way to steer the events in the life cycle of your mountain. You can look at your mountain; move the camera around or zoom in to examine the foliage; or zoom out to see its place in the cosmos; but once generated, the destiny of the mountain is set. But it's not just that the game has no conventional input mechanics; that lack of input is a mechanic in and of itself, and central to what I believe is the point of the game.
This may just be my interpretation as a tree-hugging commie, but Mountain has powerful environmental themes inextricably linked to its gameplay. In the opening moments after you draw your three pictures, you’re greeted with the message “Welcome to Mountain. You are Mountain. You are God.” You are also Nature. You only get one chance to generate your mountain, at which point you must surrender it to the forces and random objects the game throws at it.
It’s the random objects that give Mountain its character and thematic spin. The first thing to strike my mountain was a trash can. That was soon followed by a clock, an apple pie, a giant tooth and a park bench. There’s nothing linking the various objects that impact your mountain. It’s all just random shit. At first, it's amusing to see little dice or antique telephones careening into your mountain, but as they pile up, it becomes less adorable. Staring helplessly as your mountain is pummelled out of existence, it’s hard not to see the parallels to the life story of the Earth, formed billions of years ago and now falling victim to what might as well be ritualistic abuse at the hands of humankind.
This is a gauche, obvious metaphor, but there came a moment - when my mountain was becoming littered with road cones, crashed airplanes and the like - that it transformed from an amusing background game-thing into a tiny representation of future Earth, strewn with the trash of a hundred generations. Zoom out and your mountain becomes a tiny oasis floating through space - insignificant in the grander scheme of things, but increasingly more important to you as it evolves. Inevitably, it will be destroyed by a giant ice cream or something similarly odd, but for a time, it was yours, and it was good.
I’ve built and destroyed three mountains now, though unfortunately I’ve missed out on witnessing the deaths of each thanks to its “check back in a while” level of attention demand. It’s like a Tamagotchi with which you don’t actually interact. Despite the lack of control, though, I found myself growing attached to my mountain, and wanting to carry my progress from one device to another.
Is Mountain the year’s most riveting gameplay experience? No. But it’s a fascinating experiment with the video game medium, and I’d rather see one of those than a hundred throwback arcade shooters.