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The Madness of David O'Reilly's Mountain

It's just a mountain. Or is it? Welcome to an existential nightmare, one that doesn't gain much clarity from Mountain's own creator.


Right now, my mountain features some trees, a cone, bananas, an egg, clouds, a plate, what appears to be a penny, dead trees, an enormous pickaxe, part of a light bulb, and falling snow.

This mountain is actually from Mountain, a new video game from artist David O'Reilly, whose work you'd be most recently familiar with from Spike Jonze's movie Her. O'Reilly was the animation supervisor for the film's video game sequences. But Mountain is O'Reilly's first game, though I suspect much of the commentary below will focus on whether or not we can call it that.

I consider it a game, but Mountain challenges you, and not liking it is fine. It's personal, an experience that provokes strong reactions.

Here's what you do in Mountain: look at a mountain, then look at it some more. It's a little more complicated than that, but not by much. You can rotate around the mountain, zoom in and out, and interact with a simple piano at the bottom of the screen. Every once and a while, an object, such as a banana, will come flying towards the mountain. More objects show up, the world cycles through day and night, and the seasons change every once in a while. That's really it.

There's is no goal in Mountain, no win state, no explicit progression. Heck, even the controls are listed as "nothing," which is patently false. But there's truth in the bluntness of Mountain's glib answer because the controls don't matter. You're allowed to rotate this mass of polygons resembling a mountain, but you have zero impact on its digital mass. The mountain exists, and you're there to observe. It's as frustrating as it is inspiring, and I'm not surprised it has led to all sorts of head scratching about what to make of it.

We expect games, even artful ones like Journey, to explain themselves, and convey a reason for existing. Mountain doesn't. It's possible there's more to Mountain, but maybe not. Maybe it's just an art piece--a mountain is a mountain is a mountain--or maybe something happens if I tap the right musical combination. I. Don't. Know. Mountain has just enough interactivity to suggest the player can be part of the Mountain experience beyond the singular act of watching stuff occasionally happen to a mountain.

To that end, it's easy to think of Mountain as a commentary on gaming, a reaction to the handhold-y nature of modern games, experiences deeply afraid of players not having a good time or moving forward. If the defining part of a video game is interactivity, Mountain is certainly a game, as Mountain is interactive. But does it have meaning? And what happens when its creator won't even fill in the blanks? Are we only screaming into the void? Fuck. It's possible the obliqueness of Mountain is what prompts me to project these feelings, as I try to graft form, function, and meaning onto an object with so very little.


Imagine observing clouds float by on a sunny day. Something very big is happening right in front of you--the transition of the day, rotation of the Earth, the movement of time--but you have no control. You can observe, learn, and respect what's unfolding, but that's it. What little impact one person can have seems terrifying, but in the same measure, a source of relief. Mountain is equal parts stressful and pleasing.

For the last few days, my iPad has been mounted on my desk, its ability to dim its screen after a few minutes turned off, and my mountain turns and turns and turns and turns. It's a little distracting at first, but eventually, much like the instrumental music pumping through my speakers, it becomes part of my desk. Sometimes it changes, sometimes it doesn't. It doesn't really care about me, but out of curiosity, I care about it.

As I write this, the words "I'm a Total Babe" just scrolled across the screen. Why? Beats me.

To try and learn more--try being the important word here--I emailed some questions about Mountain to the man behind it, David O'Reilly. If you've been following his Twitter account, you know he's been taking some joy in the response to the game, especially when it comes to several angry iTunes reviews.

There's clearly a performative aspect to Mountain and the way O'Reilly talks about it, so keep that in mind when reading his answers. He actually apologized to me for not wanting to say too much.

In any case, here's our conversation.


Giant Bomb: When you think of a mountain, what comes to mind?

David O'Reilly: A mountain.

GB: OK, but seriously, have you ever climbed a mountain?

O'Reilly: Yes.

GB: If Activision came up to you and said "hey, kid, explain Mountain to me," what would you say?

O'Reilly: Go away.

GB: So many video games ask the player what they want to do. Mountain just exists. Stuff happens. Do you consider Mountain to be commentary?

O'Reilly: I don’t say anything about what it is or isn’t. Some people see it as a commentary, others don’t.

If you're lucky, you'll notice weird objects in space. It's a glitch, but a good one.

GB: The items that end up on your mountain are...random. Shovels. Bananas. Eggs. Were you just flipping through Flickr albums?

O'Reilly: No.

GB: People seem to love or hate the game. I adore the mindlessness. My iPad is set next to my computer, and I check in on my "creation" every so often. What do you make of the response?

O'Reilly: It is larger than I expected. I am neither happy nor sad about any of it. I just care about making things.

GB: You've been tweeting about the response to the game, especially the iTunes reviews upset there's not more to do. To them, Mountain seems like trolling. Do you see it that way?

O'Reilly: There’s nothing in any official description of the game that up-sells what it does. If people are upset because they’re expecting Flappy Blade Of Duty it’s not something I worry about.

GB: When I first turned on Mountain, I was waiting for the moment of revelation, when it would click. The equivalent of a head shot. "Ah, yes." But it never comes. That point seems intentional, no?

O'Reilly: I can’t talk about my intentions of the game. Some people will find meaning and others won't. There is no right or wrong interpretation.

GB: Given your contribution to Her and Mountain, you're clearly a fan of games. What drew you to them in the first place? Do you feel differently about them now, in 2014?

O'Reilly: I’m not particularly a fan of games at large, the ones I have really enjoyed are few and far between. I do find the medium fascinating, particularly what’s happening with indie games, I’m just more interested in making than playing.

145 Comments
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Posted by DrifterInGreen

So some guy created a digital snow globe, which even then that is giving it too much credit because you can at least shake a snow globe. Patrick thinks there's more to it so he contacts the creator who then responds with variations of meh and go away.

Edited by csl316

Venetian Blinds 2014

Posted by OtterChaos

I guess Patrick and I have vastly different outlooks on life, he sees clouds going by and is terrified that he can't change or control things. I see clouds going by and I think "I think I want a Gyro for lunch today". Thus he sees Mountain as some sort of artistic take on games and I see it as a screensaver as mentioned earlier in the comments. I also have no idea why there has to be commentary on games, they exist and people play the games that they like so why do I have to find deeper meaning in that?

Posted by GorillaMoPena
Posted by paulunga

I think you're overthinking things. Also, this thing is getting more attention than it deserves. Kinda like modern art, which I think it is.

Edited by RayRayzr

DaDa the Video Game...m'kay. Marcel Duchamp and his Pink Urinals hanging on the wall as "Art"...and this duder with his "Mountain...The Game" I guess that each in its own way has managed to elicit an emotion...and that technically makes them art-ish...even if most of the time the emotions are contempt, astonishment or abject anger.

Posted by tbk

@video_game_king: I just leave this debate to the English native speakers then @.@

Posted by MEATBALL

This made me laugh really hard.

Posted by MiniPato

Mountain is a virtual toy. There, end of debate. In fact, let's get rid of the term "game" and just call everything "toys."

Edited by RE_Player1

He comes across as one of those artists who have contempt for the people interested in what their doing.

Edited by CornBREDX

I don't think it's up to interpretation. A video game is not defined by interactivity alone. It doesn't sound like mountain is a game in any context.

That being said, it isn't any less art or an interesting study on human nature (as I find the reaction to it more fascinating than the piece itself).

Online
Posted by Levius

If this is a game, surely any interactive art instillation around the world with a computerised component is also a video game, which pretty shaky ground. Just because it's on the iPad and is couched in a few peripheral trappings of video games, does not necessarily make it a video game, you need to look past the medium to the actual work. There are probably a bunch of art instillations which better fit the description of video game (and are probably more interesting than Mountain), yet will never get close to being covered by sites like this. I just think it's weird where the line is drawn in the industry in cases like this.

Posted by Ghost_Cat

"There's clearly a performative aspect to Mountain and the way O'Reilly talks about it, so keep that in mind when reading his answers. He actually apologized to me for not wanting to say too much."

I feel like those who identified him as pretentious after reading the interview may have ignored this part. To me, I think he is simply having fun in mirroring the bare-bones simplicity of his creation, and really doesn't want to reveal what his intentions were in making Mountain. I think it's funny, and I am fine with O'Reilly being tight-lip about the whole thing.

Posted by Makayu

I really enjoyed this article. it gave me background into the argument and Patrick provided his own perspective which I thought was also pretty interesting and cool.

The thing that really interested me though is how the article drew the reactions Patrick was discussing. Its cool being able to see people's reactions to the game in a concentrated fashion like this, it makes the article feel really on point. that's why I think this article is so cool, because not only did it inform me on the topic but it also engendered conversation about the game itself which is why I think articles like this are written. To get people talking. Please do more stuff like this in the future Patrick, I think it's really cool.

Edited by OtterChaos

Now I find myself wondering if the interview responses might have been different if it was not Patrick Klepek noted video game journalist but instead Patrick Klepek noted art critic for Klip Klop High Art magazine. In other words is this "game" made for art buffs vice gamers and would the "artist" have more interest in explaining the meaning of the object to those of that ilk.

Posted by Reisz

Don't for a second kid yourself by thinking David O'reilly's response to this is honest or somehow indicative of his true nature. This sort of response is as much a part of the piece as the actual mountain, he's performing.

The secret behind art is that no act of creation is ever built on apathy. He had to lovingly work on The Mountain in order for it to exist, the work is always important to the creator otherwise you'd never see it, so with that in mind what does his performance mean? It could be as simple as a way to hide his insecurity, a carefully planned out meta-commentary on what making a game is dealing with how the internet responds to creators when they only know their work, or anything in between.

If it's not a game it was certainly built with games in mind, for my money it's definitely a game. Just not one worth playing.

Edited by Sydlanel

@ghost_cat said:

"There's clearly a performative aspect to Mountain and the way O'Reilly talks about it, so keep that in mind when reading his answers. He actually apologized to me for not wanting to say too much."

I feel like those who identified him as pretentious after reading the interview may have ignored this part. To me, I think he is simply having fun in mirroring the bare-bones simplicity of his creation, and really doesn't want to reveal what his intentions were in making Mountain. I think it's funny, and I am fine with O'Reilly being tight-lip about the whole thing.

I read that quite clearly, and while I didn't accuse him of being pretentious, I don't think knowing that he is being needlessly dismissive and a bit of a snob, relieves him of being exactly that. Maybe it's an act that he puts for this performance, but the fact remains.

There are friendly - respectful ways of not saying too much, and there is dismissal. I'm not saying it is wrong to be dismissive either, but if you are, then you have to understand what it means for the people interested in the subject.

To me, a few single digit wordcount answers can be funny, but when the whole interview reeks of aloofness and lack of care, then the joke wears thin. I appreciate Mountain as a humorous anecdotal app in the vein of "I'm Rich" but the person behind it can be a very different story.

Posted by Crippl3

I've cracked this case wide open! The true meaning and deep intention behind Mountain?

It's secretly mining bitcoins for him on every machine it's running on.

Edited by joshwent

@ghost_cat said:

"There's clearly a performative aspect to Mountain and the way O'Reilly talks about it, so keep that in mind when reading his answers. He actually apologized to me for not wanting to say too much."

I feel like those who identified him as pretentious after reading the interview may have ignored this part. To me, I think he is simply having fun in mirroring the bare-bones simplicity of his creation, and really doesn't want to reveal what his intentions were in making Mountain. I think it's funny, and I am fine with O'Reilly being tight-lip about the whole thing.

An artist being tight-lipped about their creation is fine, and I'd say, preferred. The creator isn't the one to tell their audience how to react, they're just there to provide the material to react to. Of course, they could actually just directly say that rather than maybe vaguely implying it.

But it's not those sentiments that I found off-putting. Rather, it's statements like this:

If people are upset because they’re expecting Flappy Blade Of Duty it’s not something I worry about.

Theres a growing mass of people on all sides engendering and relishing in the false divide between "core" and "indie" games. I am someone who generally prefers a more cerebral game than a visceral one, but when promoting one type of experience relies on belittling the other, I think it's destructive for the medium as a whole.

A player, if they're so inclined, can have as much of an artistic reaction to CoD, as they can to Mountain, or any other game that folks would feel more comfortable calling "Art".

If an artist has the right to remain vague and allow the viewer to take what they will, they should also encourage that reaction wherever it might be found. Not only in the games that the masses deem to be worthy of deeper analysis and respect.

(note: this is more a reaction to the typical media coverage of these kind of games that I find distasteful, and less a complaint of O'Reilly responses specifically. Judging a dude's attitude from a few kurt non-answers is ultimately unfair.)

Posted by Catlicker

Now I find myself wondering if the interview responses might have been different if it was not Patrick Klepek noted video game journalist but instead Patrick Klepek noted art critic for Klip Klop High Art magazine.

I am copyrighting this shit right now.

Posted by rulerofeden

The fact that everyone is getting so riled up over Mountain says to me that this guy made something great, at least as an art piece.

And since everyone is getting all angry over this article, I'd say you did not waste your time writing it, Patrick.

Posted by Zeeman155

I don't really care what Mountain "tries" to do. I like it for what it is as a visual artistic piece. He's obviously not making it to please any one and that's perfectly reasonable. He's just doing it for the joy of making something. I can respect that.

Edited by Mento

All right, just so we're all clear going forward: Our cardinal rule of "Don't be a jerk" applies to posts referring to other users, staff and guests/interviewees of the site equally. I'm specifically talking about the insults. Anyone with reservations about the game or this interview is still free to express them, however.

Moderator
Posted by thefriend

@tennmuerti: That's totally a video game. amirite. lol

Posted by Quipido

I bought The Mountain before I read about it on the internet and I regret nothing! It has no point, but that's refreshing, for me in this specific point in time and space. A dollar well spent if you ask me.

Posted by Sparky_Buzzsaw

To add to what Mento stated, while constructive criticism is welcome, out and out negativity or vitriol towards users, staff, or their guests will not be tolerated.

Moderator
Edited by AlexanderSheen

@meatball said:

This made me laugh really hard.

Posted by spraynardtatum

Her is such a great movie.

I just love typing that because of how incorrect it looks.

I don't know what the fuck this Mountain thing is. I don't think a computer or iPad is really a fulfilling place for something like this. I'd be totally into it if I could hang it up on my wall. It being an app makes it seem uninspired.

Edited by ViciousBearMauling

O'Reilly seems like the exact type of guy that would make this game... I won't say anything rude, but I'll say that.

Posted by Tharrington

@actito said:

While it seems interesting, it appears to me that this guy has a lot of contempt for gamers or people that just want a little more insight into his creation. What a jerk.

I don't see this at all. This is something that has bothered me about the art world for awhile. Most people try to interpret an artist's work and understand what they were trying to say with it. Most of the time this doesn't matter though because what the viewer sees will be completely different depending on their life experiences and what they bring with them when viewing the piece. I've dealt with this a lot with critiques in college.

A lot of people also don't understand that not everyone makes something to tell a story or get an idea across. Some people, like myself, just like the process of creating something and what it is doesn't really matter in the long run. This seems to me, to be where O'Reilly is coming from.

Posted by Sweep

Huh. It's a weird way to respond to an interview. We're so used to hearing from developers who love to talk about their games, and are visibly frustrated by NDA's and contracts that prevent them from being open, that to see someone who has that freedom deliberately decide not to take advantage of it, is pretty jarring. Makes me wonder why he agreed to talk to anyone about it in the first place.

I think this kind of response is weird in the context of videogame journalism because we're not used to it. If you consider the same questions put to a director, for example, it would seem endearingly non-conformist. Here, though, it makes him sound arrogant and uncooperative. I'd be interested to know if this is just a result of the lack of inflection, or if he genuinely wasn't interested in talking about his game.

Moderator
Posted by VibratingDonkey

My interpretation is that Mountain is an interactive screen saver that costs $1. If others want to think there's more to it then that's fine, but I'm not gonna bother trying to understand why.

Edited by Murdoc_

"O'Reilly: I can’t talk about my intentions of the game. Some people will find meaning and others won't. There is no right or wrong interpretation."

That really does not bode well for anything. You may be able to bluff your way through art school with that line, but when it comes to making deliberate, technologically adept commercial products, you better have something better than that.

With that said, I haven't played Mountain and am more than curious to see what it is. I like the visuals going on there.

Posted by whitegreyblack

@murdoc_: He's likely sold a metric shit-ton of the app based on the art-school non answers and mystery surrounding the product, so I guess the joke's on us.

That said, I bought it the day it came out. A buck - why not. I just like (SPOILER? I don't know!) playing notes in a quick clockwise or counter-clockwise direction to see mountain's rotation and seasons change in fast-speed. I'm a bit bummed out by the erosion my mountain seems to be undergoing as the years pass.

Edited by BeyondStrange

You... uh... you... you.... you can't make a mountain out of a molehill?

I'm sorry.

Posted by SleepyDoughnut

Seems to me that Patrick cares about this more than even the maker does. Seems interesting, but not really worth writing a story about. If something like Noby Noby Boy explained itself even less, should we somehow care more because it's more intriguing? I don't really think so.

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