Let it be known that I'm a sucker for media that pushes the envelope. I like things that challenge and manipulate my expectations—I genuinely enjoyed studying and discussing language (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) poetry, despite not actually enjoying reading it, I found the footnotes in House of Leaves hilarious and brilliant, and I enjoyed the mind-bending exercise that was Primer.
MOUNTAIN, David O'Reilly's (the creator of the foul-mouthed robot game in Her, as well as the writer and director of the Adventure Time episode 'A Glitch is a Glitch') foray into the world of gaming, is kind of like that. This is the kind of game that a certain type of reviewer loves, the type that causes heated debates over what 'game' means.
At the beginning of MOUNTAIN, the screen prompted me to draw three pictures—one of happiness, one of confusion, and one of logic. I drew one of my cats, a spiral, and a chess piece, respectively. I have no idea if these drawings (which were awful) had any affect whatsoever on the creation of my mountain. A screen came up saying 'Patience,' and I immediately clicked it. Clearly, I have none.
As I write this, I'm watching my mountain calmly spinning on the right side of my screen. It's a lovely, bright green, and it seems that fall has set in—some of the trees have turned orange at the tops and there's a light rain falling. This is pretty much it, as far as gameplay goes. Not that I'm complaining; I'm the type of person who makes houses full of Sims just to watch them interact with one another.
So what can you do in MOUNTAIN? Draw a few pictures, have patience (or not), open the menu to see that your options include turning the sound on and off, viewing the controls (mouse and keyboard options are 'NONE') and saving your game, and push some of your keyboard buttons to play music. The frequency of the button-pushing increases or decreases the speed at which your mountain rotates, as well as the passage of time.
A light snow has begun to fall. The trees, oddly, turn white from the bottom up. I'm not complaining.
Occasionally, a light musical chime will sound and text will appear at the top of the screen—I imagine it is my mountain speaking. My mountain is a positive one. It says things like, "I am digging this warm summer night," and "I'm into this velvety night." Just after typing that, a phonograph crashed into the peak of my mountain. Why? I don't know. I don't think this is the kind of question MOUNTAIN wants me to ask.
So what does MOUNTAIN want, if anything? If avant-garde art challenges our expectations, what is MOUNTAIN challenging? Is it a game at all, or merely an interactive screensaver?
I'm willing to appreciate MOUNTAIN on a purely aesthetic level. The game is only $1, it's pretty, it's soothing, and I appreciate my mountain's good attitude about the weather. Watching my mountain revolve slowly against a pale sunrise is calming. If I want to, I can press some buttons and make nice notes.
And if MOUNTAIN is nothing but a joke poking fun at the pretension of some less-interactive 'video games?' Well, that's fine too. Art interrogating art is, I believe, absolutely crucial to creativity and the evolution of a medium.
As time goes on, my mountain becomes increasingly negative. I failed to capture any of its pessimistic statements, but they were generally about feeling alone, lonely, angry. More and more objects crashed into it until its surface was riddled with things like horses, giant meteors, and several bunches of bananas. Is this a Katamari Damacy-like statement of how the accumulation of objects has no affect on happiness? I still have no idea.
And, after thirty-odd hours of play (make of that word what you will), I came to the ending. I'm going to spoil it because I feel that it's important enough to warrant discussion and also because it wasn't particularly surprising, given where the game was headed—all the same, if you're opposed to spoilers, scroll on down to the bottom for the final verdict.
At the end of my game—there are different endings possible, but they all seem equally cataclysmic—my mountain was destroyed by, I quote, "a murderous dwarf star." Why this dwarf star felt murderous enough to attack my mountain is a mystery. In the universe of the game, I've seen my mountain go from happy to sad and angry, so it's not a stretch to believe that this particular dwarf star was feeling some serious anger; maybe my mountain accumulated more objects than the dwarf star. Who knows? Am I rationalizing a game that doesn't deserve rationalization? Is the game mocking my natural desire to craft a narrative? Is MOUNTAIN a social experiment in video game form intended to poke fun at the desire of human beings to insert social criticism and narrative where none exists, like finding shapes in clouds and seeing ghosts in mirrors at midnight on Halloween?
I don't know. I liked it.
Pretty, weird, and thought-provoking. For fans of avant-garde art and overanalyzing pop culture. Do not play if you've argued that Gone Home and Depression Quest are not games—seriously, MOUNTAIN is just going to make you angry.
Buy MOUNTAIN and check out David O'Reilly's other work at davidoreilly.com