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There is nothing to 'do' in OReilly's Mountain - and that's a good thing
There is nothing to 'do' in OReilly's  Mountain  - and that's a good thing
July 8, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander

July 8, 2014 | By Leigh Alexander
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Last week a colleague was being systemically and hatefully harassed on the internet about video game websites or something, and that was when I decided to get a Mountain.

David OReilly's new "ambient procedural mountain simulator", called Mountain, is simple. There is nothing to "play"; your mountain exists, sunlight and dark play over its green craggy face, weather happens to it. Occasionally a few words appear on the screen: The mountain has thoughts or feelings about the weather or the night.

It's annoyingly simple, one of those things where you assume someone either "thinks they are so deep" or is making fun of you. But listen: I love my mountain. I want to keep it.

Let's back up. So, I'm having an increasingly stressful time on the internet.

When we were younger, world wide web was a magical phrase, conjuring the idea of a second reality in cyberspace. An information superhighway, for us all to speed down in Blade Runner hovercars. The weird thing, though, is that the modern internet doesn't actually behave like a 'highway': It's one of those mad, physics-defying wormholes from science fiction.

In the vortex, we choose our individual reality -- the images of ourselves we offer, the issues we publicly identify with, the narrative we construct of our lives. And then, we self-select what we consume to enforce that reality. Articles written to be 'shared if you agree'. "Likes" are not just instantaneous avenues of approval and reinforcement -- we actually tend to use them as measures of how much things matter.

Something I did got more RTs than something else you did, so it must be better and more important. Maybe the number of Twitter followers you have is a real metric of how popular you are, like you can map yourself on a graph relative to others and gain a mathematical measure of just how "liked" you are.

This is an extreme thought exercise. And I know already I'm going to get website commenters, Tweets and things from complete strangers who'll want to let me know that they themselves don't use or think about the internet this way. They will want me to know that they use the internet in a different or better way. And I will decline to read the comments -- "don't read the comments" is a well-trod, even celebrated sanity strategy, and yet people keep leaving comments. I will block the Tweets.

When you're on Twitter, you only have to listen to people if you like what they think and say. You choose and curate a community that behaves in accordance with your beliefs, and within your community tiny issues loom large, warp and devour the world. In that twisted little info-tube that each of us siphons, we forget that these curated realities, with tidal waves of static and noise constantly rattling, are not real.

This entire conversation, this entire line of thought (the stress of social media?!) is absurd, irrelevant, can bear little resemblance to how issues affect people (or how people affect issues) in the rest of the world. But our online lives are a simulation chamber -- we map these distorted landscapes, we test and adjust based on false data about ourselves and others, and we feel as visible as we want to, and as if we can control things.

It's a deeply addicting fiction. You pull and pop for one more refresh of this and that, in case it's your moment. You can compose the perfect reply, you can win an argument, you can see a notification, a hovering number letting you know that maybe someone you admire has become a little bit more endeared to you. When Charlie Brooker's "How Videogames Changed the World" special last year declared that the number one "most influential" game ever was "Twitter", I scoffed -- it was like when Time Magazine put a mirror on its cover and said the Person of the Year was "You", I thought.

But social media works in the same way as video games do -- in both cases, you're enjoying a closed system with a logic you can memorize and master. You get your pleasure from the fact that you can learn perfect control over your environment, a steady upward arc of mechanical, numeric gains and prolific fictions. In the social media game, "enemies" are obnoxious: People who want to assert their power by trying to take yours away. It's destructive. It's disassociative and consuming.

So when someone I knew was fielding hate speech from internet forum gamer dudes with flamin' badass cartoon avatars because she had an opinion about the internet forum -- these completely irrelevant little-boy issues, bloating like black balloons and creating what I imagine must be profound stress and upset for her -- I finally started playing Mountain.

I had heard there wasn't much to do in Mountain. When you look at "Controls" in the game menu, it says "NOTHING." It asked me to draw a few pictures of feelings, at the beginning (the only one I remember is "FEAR", and I made an abstract squiggle), but I couldn't tell what it did.


"Weather is considered small talk, boring, empty conversation -- but itís an interesting thing to think about."
My mountain promptly began to gather snow, which made me angry, because I hate snow. I found at one point I jerked the mouse around futilely, as if I could get rid of the snow. This steadfast, disobedient, silent object resisted responding.

My Twitter feed was blowing up with angry internet men because I lost my temper about what was happening to my colleagues. You can read conversation threads to find out what kind of people they are. You can find out what's happening to someone or what they think by following the conversations. Any event can be traced to a logical origin, even if the circumstance has abscessed beyond help and beyond reason.

But I couldn't understand why a plane had crashed into the side of my mountain. No matter how I spun it round and stared at it and listened to it, there was no way to know how it got there when I wasn't looking. And I couldn't get rid of it either. As I went through my Twitter replies feed systematically blocking people I didn't like in succession, the mountain chimed softly at me.

"The starlight is almost too beautiful to look at," said my mountain.

It took almost an entire day of looking at my mountain, watching it turn slowly in its suspended space, its little desktop window, before I was ready to let go of the idea that there was actually no reason for the mountain's behavior, and nothing I could do about it.

"There is nothing to do" is such a villainous thought to video game people. It's cool but there's not enough to do. It's not a game because you can't do things. We live in a world where people would rather receive an electric shock than do nothing but be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. I bet for video game people the threshold is even lower.

For some reason Mountain became exactly what I needed. I resisted the urge to hate it when it sprouted a gigantic umbrella at its base, like a wart, and when a bowling pin erupted unceremoniously from its flank. I didn't want an umbrella or a bowling pin on my mountain, and I wanted it to stop snowing and I wanted it to always know when I needed help and talk about starlight, not just sometimes by accident. But I could accept that I would not be able to have those things, and there was suddenly a sense of peace in my own powerlessness.


I also stopped wondering whether my Mountain experience was like anyone else's. Like, if it's dark on my mountain is it dark on anyone else's mountain? Does anyone else have a bowling pin? How come Marina has a horse in hers and I don't? What did she draw at the beginning, and what effect did it have?

I embraced the idea that the answers to these questions did not matter. My mountain is uniquely mine. I am not having a "communal experience." I am not networked. There is no multiplayer, and nothing to show or "share." Mountain felt like a rebellion against everything that had been bothering me.

I wrote to David OReilly about it. The artist and designer says that Mountain is about a mountain instead of any other object, because mountains "defy objectification because they can't be owned or put in a museum."

Mountain's landmasses don't feel a particular urgency to prove anything: They chat about the weather, mostly. They are so into the weather, all about it.

"Weather is considered small talk, boring, empty conversation -- but itís an interesting thing to think about," says OReilly. "Itís common because its the one thing that binds us, it reveals our deepest rooted relationship with our environment, its something we canít disagree on and itís always changing."

"Talking about the weather is our brain dealing with the subject of now," the creator adds.

There is something deeply beautiful about little cone-shaped trees, a rough-hewn 3D object, this mountain of mine, and the tiny fireflies that sometimes wink amid its forests during the night. Its vocabulary is still game-like, it has the kind of pleasant foreignness that attracts me to imaginary places, but none of the task lists, none of the dangling promise that I can conquer, map and own everything I see. It lives in my desktop window, but for the time I spend with Mountain it feels slightly more real to me than anything else inside my computer.

"Mountain is a kind of visual silence," says OReilly. "You can control parts of it, but itís more about letting go of control."


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Comments


Carlos Contreras Peinado
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What a beautiful article man... :)

ken wong
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Or woman, even!

Carlos Contreras Peinado
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Ups :S

Sorry Leigh :(

Matthew Calderaz
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Don't worry about it; she 'doesn't read the comments'.

Rodney Emerson
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I wonder why folks in the computer entertainment industry appears to have effectively forgotten the term "Toy"? Such a terms seems to be so fitting for a product like this.

As for social networks...I don't know, because I don't mess with that nonsense. ;)

Fabian Fischer
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Is it, though? I'm not sure and I couldn't really deduce it from the article: Can you actually do anything with it other than look at it? If not, a term like "virtual art installation" might be more appropriate, because "toys" are usually "played with" to explore the intricacies of their behavior and their possibilities, and not simply watched.

Rick Kolesar
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I see tons of "toys" around the studio here and no one is playing with them. They buy them and put them on their desk to look at.

I like Mountain. It's my new virtual pet/zen garden/cookie clicker. I check in on it, play some music and wait for the fireflies.

My daughters (5 years old) love just spinning it around and making up stories of stuff that has happened on the Mountain.

Darius Drake
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The concept is interesting. The thing about this game is that it obviously taps into a player's interest of "what happens next?" along with touching the player's curiosity and desire to know "what" and "why." There seems to be a sense of wonderment here. That inquisitive mindset is apart of what causes users to be engaged in something. They want to see "what happens if..."

The article is gracefully written. This game is only a dollar on the website:
http://mountain-game.com/?mc_cid=090c291ce9&mc_eid=8c9d55a858

Felipe Budinich
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I think the article is very good, actually better than the game, which is just a more interactive Dear Esther.

As someone that moved from the contemporary art field to videogame development, I don't mean that as a compliment on the game by the way.

You may want to read Pierre Bourdieu, "Production of Belief".

Pierre Chanliau
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This seems super neat, a dynamically changing art piece.

Might get this.

Alex Boccia
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more "ambient gaming" propaganda, just what I like to see, Gama!

Joseph Cook
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Do you feel threatened by things like Mountain? If not, why do you seem to be paranoid about its existence and Gamasutra's subsequent coverage about it?

TC Weidner
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This would be interesting to to me if what was created was a mountain of detail, one you could zoom into its almost photo realistic setting, one with its own ecosystems. One where you could see little animals born in the spring, playing during the summer etc, one where you could witness streams freezing over or flooding due to weather. I think witnessing your own unique mountain, an ecosystem, and weather would be very zen like and even fun, but that would require that this game have some real detail and some real visuals, and some pretty cool procedural coding going on behind the scenes. I see none of this in this "game".

Throwing something together and calling it art, doesnt make it art in my book, it makes it a waste of my time.

If the developers actually put some time into this, then I would be willing to as well. I think the idea here is neat, I would love to see someone do it right.

G Irish
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Ok, exactly how much time must someone put into a piece of art before it's called "art"? If someone comes up with something more beautiful and complex in less time is it not "art"? Is there a standard amount of detail that must exist in a piece of art before it's called "art"? How do you define detail? Did Picasso become less of an artist when he began his Cubism phase than he was when he was doing more classically-styled art? After all, his Cubist paintings have far less "detail".

Maybe the Mountain is not to your liking or you would do it differently but it doesn't mean it 'wasn't done right' or even that the developer didn't put any time into it.

TC Weidner
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it aint a cake if it isnt baked all the way through. You can call it what you want, but dont expect people to eat it.

adam anthony
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I agree TC. As an artist, i get offended that the term 'art' gets thrown around so loosely. Just because something is expressive does not automatically make it art. Its just expressive.

David Bettencourt
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I agree to a certain extent. I don't get offended at how loosely the term art is used but more disappointed that I sit in the middle of the spectrum. Not skilled enough to be fascinating to art enthusiasts and not unskilled enough to be fascinating to art hipsters.

When people use the term "art" to describe terrible polaroid photos or black and white coffee shop pen doodles or low-poly mountains you can watch, it really is just the "expressiveness" of the basics that make it so.

Matt Boudreaux
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This article is making a mountain out of a molehill.

Larry Carney
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Agreed. When I came across this:

"And I will decline to read the comments -- "don't read the comments" is a well-trod, even celebrated sanity strategy, and yet people keep leaving comments."

My first thought was, "Maybe because it isn't about you? Perhaps the community enjoys engaging with each other?"

Which then led me to believe why the author is so enamored of the simulator: there is no "game" there, there is no substance to it outside that which the author decides to project onto it.

And so in the glossy monitor or smartphone screen, the author catches a glimpse of her own reflection:

And she says to herself, I have beheld a great and mighty wonder. On this mountain, in this universe, there is only me and mine glory and no other Being.

Gern Blanston
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Great article, and a very interesting game. I just purchased it for $.99 at the Humble Store, well worth it.

Theresa Catalano
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At what point will we start calling screensavers "games"? Just wondering...

Katy Smith
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I am almost ashamed to admit the amout of time I watched flying toasters back in the day :) sometimes just watching feels good.

Dave Hoskins
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Cue fish-tank simulator...

Heng Yoeung
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Ah, a voyeur. kinky.

James Margaris
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I used to play the hell out of Lunatic Fringe, which was a "screensaver" in After Dark.

Leonardo Ferreira
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Wheter the game is brilliant or forgettable, that was a fascinating reflection. I think about daily how these technologies of information are changing the architecture of our own minds, and our relations with each other. In an age in which we can shut down anything that bothers us, we effectively can't be provoked, and build fortress out of misplaced buzzwords.

It's funny that there is an article just here in Gama saying that Twitter is "the best thing that happened to game developers". I can't stand it. It feels like peeking into places of peoples mind I don't wanna see, except that is the required action in that space; to sell an impression of yourself that can be commodified, a showcase of superegos. And that's more due to structure of Twitter than the people in it.

Perhaps our informational society, with its buttons and pleasure-levers and infinite scrollings, that force us to demand meaning and agency into everything; and, of course, we start to believe that this project self is what we really are. And we blame the games industry, the angry internet man, the oh-so-easy amalgation of human dross that these very media tools deliver straight to our homes. And we take arms in our holy crusade against the Others Who Are Wrong, retwitting, reblogging, supporting Patreons, paying people with cyberlove and money to hear exaclty what we wanna hear.

And so, we are immovable; like virtual mountains in a screen, that we, the true we, passively watch change.

Bart Stewart
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I've been running Mountain for several days now. I find it enjoyable, but then I'm one of those people who longs for the chance to get 15 minutes in a quiet room with no interruptions. (Note to researchers: most people are not introverts. This is surprising to them?)

I don't like the accumulation of junk items on my mountain. Is this a deliberate attempt by the developer to annoy me?

Mountain goes beyond "walking simulators." Walking is still about doing. Mountain is a "being simulator."

Games may be about doing things. But play > game. There are more ways to be playful than just following rules toward a win state. How is enjoying the changes of a being simulator not a valid kind of play?

If you have any curiosity about what a game is, what does it hurt to explore examples of what a game isn't?

Is there room for people who enjoy different forms of play, or not?

Larry Carney
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In a broad sense, you are entirely accurate: even watching a film, or reading a book, is a form of play.

When it comes to quantifying whether a form of play is categorically in the realm of video gaming play, however, then the limits of what variable forms of play are capable within video gaming will determine whether or not the form of play in question is specifically a form of play that is achievable through video gaming.

In other words, there may or may not be room for people who enjoy different forms of play, depending on whether or not they are forms of play that video games are able to provide.

The usual school of thought is to broaden the meaning of video gaming to include other forms of play, but I don't see value in that: so often video games are derided (rightfully so, usually) for wanting to be movies or other forms of entertainment, so why should these other forms of non-video game play try to be shoved into being what a video game is?

Larry Carney
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I am not sure what to make of this piece, except to say I thought Ian Bogost had the monopoly on wonderfully troll-y articles looking at games, gamers, and gaming culture?

adam anthony
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Doesn't look like my cup of tea...I stare at models of terrain all the time. But this was still a well written article.

Heng Yoeung
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The man who knows most, speaks least; the man who knows least, speaks most. I said some stupid things here. Sorry to hear that you had to retreat to the mountain to regain sanity. God is up there somewhere, in that solitude. That's where Moses met Him. Which, by the way, there was eleven commandments. One of them broke as he came down the mountain. You know what it said? "Don't break this tablet." Hope your day gets better. And I do think you write beautifully.

Szechuan Sage
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I have enjoyed your articles, as I do many of the articles on Gamasutra. Do I think this is a game? No. Do I think it is art? Yes. I paid my dollar for it (or rather AUD 1.11). As a programmer, I do have one question: why does Mountain seem to be taking up 20% of my computer's CPU when it runs? Everything else is considerably slowed. The question has been sent to David O'Reilly and I am waiting for a response. In the mean time, is anyone else experiencing a similar issue?

Heng Yoeung
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aren't you supposed to be a sage? kidding.

Heng Yoeung
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Is Kung Pao chicken worth the money, or should I forget about the whole thing? Still kidding.

Heng Yoeung
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There is a Zen saying which goes: Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. What is the difference? The difference is that once you've reached enlightenment, you have overcome your ignorance of what suffering is about. The usual reaction to suffering is that you don't want to experience it, immediately get rid of it. But, sometimes, there is no escape and you are to live with it for the rest of your life. Some forms of cancers are like that So, what are you to do here? One thing you could do is bitch and moan about it. That isn't particularly productive, though, because on top of the original suffering, you have added another suffering, namely, worries and anxieties and other stresses. The other thing you could do and ,the most sensible thing, is to embrace it, own up to it. Don't view it as a burden. View it as an opportunity to address your psychology. Or, more specifically, to understand this idea of compassion. Compassion means "to suffer with", com + passion. What compassion does to your heart is to open you up from selfishness and other kinds of egos. Science makes it abundantly clear that we humans are not at the center of the universe. Consequently, the suffering exerts not as much weight as it might have had you disown it. Some people think they are entitled to be free from suffering. This is way too arrogant. and presumptuous. Why? Because the underlying thought is that there is a God, and because He is good, there shouldn't be any suffering. But, have you considered that God never made promises of a rose garden for you? The Christian view on suffering, in fact, affirms that there should be suffering. God is indeed good. But, Man made his choice within his garden of paradise to disobey Him. How is God to respond to this? His response is to carry out His warning that "once you've eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, you will surely die". And so, Man fell from paradise and this is where we are at. Suffering is medicine for the sickness in Man. And because it came from God, it surely is good. This is the reason the Christian embraces suffering.

I think the idea of Mountain being appealing is that it opens your horizons a bit, much like suffering does. Perched on top, you get a glimpse of a vista you could not have seen before. The solitude. The tranquility. It is on the Mountain. No static, no noise here. Just you and God, sharing a love of the world which (again, Christian) Jesus loved to death. Death, of course, through Man's wickedness.

But, to view snow or warts on the Mountain as something that shouldn't be there and to be disliked, is to not see the vista you should be seeing. Did you know that every individual snowflake that falls is distinctly unique? Is that not a miracle? Is it not beautiful? Is it not to be awed. Say "yes" to the world and embrace it with love as God has loved you to the point of death.

Ian Custer
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Can anyone fill me in on what exactly happened in the gaming press last week? I was out of the country for a week (and off the grid), and I come back and read this article as well as a pretty serious letter from the editor on Giant Bomb about community members being caustic to people yet again. What happened?

Curtiss Murphy
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It's the slow, summer months :).

Heng Yoeung
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Life, love, hope. New Boston album of late 2013.

Bannister Nicholas
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Toys = Play, you can zoom, you can spin, you can play Therefore a Toy.

Games require rules, choices, you can indeed assign your own rules of play, to make your own game, yet without inbuilt choices or rules.. it is not a game.


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