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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.

No Caption Provided

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.
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.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
145 CommentsRefresh
Avatar image for haggywaggy
Posted By HaggyWaggy

People used to be terrified of mountains. The enormous, empty mass. The often impassable, craggy dead zone of a landscape on which one would struggle to survive.

Now we have visitor centres, paths, cafes, maps, phones, helicopters. Back then they were just a big nothing that one could make no sense of. That's my interpretation, but David O'Reilly would be like "eh. whatever you say."

Avatar image for dan2
Posted By Dan2

if the article didn't mention the piano then I would be inclined to argue that this was not interactive - the ability to rotate / change perspective on something that does not react does not fulfil that criteria for me. However as the piano pieces must produce a sound when acted upon they react and therefore I can accept that the work is interactive. I would like to know whether this is the purpose of their inclusion.

Avatar image for dorkymohr
Edited By DorkyMohr

I like mountain. For what it is, I often see a lot of words directed at the question of "BUT WHAT IS IT?" I hope more experience based things like this come out to shake off the notion that all games need to answer that question.

David OReilly is a fascinating dude, if you haven't checked out his animation work, please do. External world is a great place to start: nsfw

Avatar image for wrathofgod
Posted By WrathOfGod

Mountain is a video game. I just ended the debate. So there.

Avatar image for spraynardtatum
Edited By spraynardtatum

@darek006 said:

Mountain is a video game. I just ended the debate. So there.

Mountain is a program. There, I continued it. ;)

Avatar image for ninjasquirrel
Posted By NinjaSquirrel

I want to play Flappy Blade of Duty

Avatar image for f0ulre3k
Posted By f0ulre3k

I think O'Reilly just wanted to make experiment. I sense some frustration in the short interview. Most likely from all the "IS THE A GAME!?" stuff.

Looks interesting...but not worth much time.

Avatar image for masterbrief
Posted By MasterBrief

Don't really get it but the guy doesn't come across as someone I'd like, dodging questions to make a point that it is pointless. I'm just upset it doesn't have anything to do with Mountains of Madness, would love a simulator for that. On the same topic I was thinking, it would be cool to have a sort of interactive screensaver or I guess just something like this that had some depth, kind of like the Sims where people would go about their lives, have wars and all kinds of stuff and just watch that. Would be kind of neat just building stuff or the world but then having no control over the inhabitants.

Avatar image for hashbrowns
Posted By Hashbrowns

You know, I really enjoyed nvidia's grass demo from the GeForce 256 days. You could control your path of flight through pretty blades of grass while soothing music lulled you into a relaxed state of mind, it was almost Flower before there was Flower. I never called it a game, though.

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Avatar image for singing_pigs
Posted By singing_pigs

I know this sounds super pretentious and arty and weird, but honestly I think it's the opposite: David OReilly made something kinda cool and people are trying to read arty and pretentious weirdness into it. Check out this collection of shorts and these t-shirts to get a better idea of what this guy's work is like.

Avatar image for warmachine
Posted By Warmachine


This is exactly what I was wondering. He seemed downright confrontational. I can understand not wanting to color people's experience of the game by expressing your intentions but being short and blunt comes off as pretentious.

Avatar image for noblenerf
Posted By Noblenerf

Mountain Simulator 2014.

Thank goodness there was no traditional gameplay included so it could be properly seen as art. Gameplay would drag down the deeply personal mechanics at play in this piece of art, and it would only encourage people to judge it as a game instead of the art that it is.

The creator doesn't want to say anything about the game or define it in any way because that's all it is - nothing. And yet people can find so much to talk about regarding it; what an amazing commentary about modern society, eh?

Avatar image for manothebard
Posted By ManotheBard

What disappointed (I don't know if disappointed is the correct word) me about Mountain was that I walked away with no opinion on it. I played it for a little over 30 minutes and said "huh." It seems the overwhelming majority of players had an opinion on it, which I would say is a success in itself for any piece of art.

There's something to not wanting to explain your art in order to allow others to have an untainted opinion. Like O'Reilly said, "There is no right or wrong interpretation."

Avatar image for spraynardtatum
Edited By spraynardtatum

This is kind of how I view Mountain:

No Caption Provided

Just without all the death and despair. And that's not a bad thing.

Avatar image for nickhead
Posted By nickhead

This makes me think of Noby Noby Boy. I know that game had some weird community-driven progression, but "playing" the game itself was a whole lot of nothing. It was more just to see what would happen next or what the next generated world would look like. Even if it isn't a game, it's still fun to see things like this.

Avatar image for kindgineer
Posted By kindgineer

Went out and bought it after reading this article. It's neat. I think its one of those kinds of pieces that you have to be able to be patient, and have appreciation for things that build over time. I check mine whenever I get the chance (generally every hour+).

Really cool, and worth the $1 just for the experience.

Avatar image for dan_citi
Posted By Dan_CiTi

Mountain's OK, I'm glad that exists as a little thing, and it is vaguely charming, but that's about it. I hope his career continues in games, we need more people like him making "artware".

Avatar image for dr_mantas
Posted By dr_mantas

It's kind of interesting, in an experimental way. At least the guy isn't trying to make it something it's not.

Like a lake. It's definitely not a lake. It's a mountain.

Avatar image for blunt
Posted By Blunt

Great interview.

Think I'll keep my dollar.

Avatar image for logan3
Posted By logan3

Thank-you for the interesting article Patrick. Keep it up :)

Avatar image for jazz_lafayette
Posted By Jazz_Lafayette

I feel like there's a way to answer those questions more meaningfully without having to prescribe meaning to the piece, but I have no idea how I'd do it.

So. His responses are functional.

Avatar image for corvak
Edited By Corvak

@tbk said:

I honestly don't know as I haven't looked at it. I am a bit curious as to why people say "Yeah this is a game". Answering that question interest me more than whether Mountain is a game or not.

It's because we've abused the term "game" to hell and back, lacing it with pejoratives and dragging the original meaning along with us and never quite letting it go.

I tend to understand the 'this is not a game' end of that argument, because it's often indie devs and more often their fans, wanting to get across that the experience is different from say, a typical mass market video game. Similar to how more artistic filmmakers prefer to distance themselves from Hollywood blockbusters. They know the audience that will like their work is not the audience that will like a typical summer action movie, and the same is true with games. I don't think the average Call of Duty player will be at all interested in The Mountain.

With video games, often the artistically designed indie games and mass market games inhabit the same space, where the less popular independent films are often relegated to limited release in select cities and theatres instead of your neighborhood cinema.

This is very much a case of the creator as an artist using video games as a medium, instead of a full time game developer using them as a means of plying their trade as a means to make a living. He has presented The Mountain to the world without context, because like most art, you have to make up your own decision about what it is. I suppose i'm mostly surprised that he chose to speak to Giant Bomb and the video game community, instead of the animation or art community.

Avatar image for tbk
Posted By tbk

@corvak: Interesting, thanks for the reply.

Avatar image for theht
Edited By TheHT

This looks great.

Thanks for posting this.

Actually the interview seemed pretty bad. If it's not a performance, it's just rude. If it is it's less bad, but still a sour note to leave on.

The game itself seems intriguing, but the sort of thing you'd look at briefly and just as quickly move on from. I suppose much like you might look at an unaffecting painting or a clever phrase. Memorable maybe for being generally unmemorable? Or memorable because of something tangentially related to it, as will likely be the case for me.

In any case, the distinction between it being a game or not seems generally useless. It strikes me as an interesting interactive art piece (like an evolving 3D model you can rotate) rather than something interactive enough to be considered a "game". Regardless, it's a thing, though perhaps moreso than any of the other things people have lately contested as being games or not.

Extrapolating a commentary on the handhold-y nature of modern video games seems silly. I think that interpretation speaks more to expectations rather than what's actually present. In that regard, the interpretation could be seen as a commentary in and of itself.

An immediate connection I made when reading this article was to a bit from Family Guy where Peter ruminates on the meaning of a garbage bag flowing in the wind, which as I recall is copied from some other movie that just now I can't remember for the life of me. Anyways, it smacks of looking at something and expecting something more. Expecting there to be some rhyme or reason to it. Why is there a mountain? Why does it look the way it does? Why can I only control the camera? Why do the words "I'm a Total Babe" fly across the screen? What purpose is there to it all?

Well, it's because this and that.

Why? It's just a mountain. How'd you go from that to whatever interpretation you got? More importantly, why did you look at it and try to find some commentary, some ideological point?

That seems like either an interesting or completely vacuous discussion, maybe both. Granted it's a discussion that can quite literally happen by observing and questioning virtually anything, because it's not about what you're looking at, it's about what you want to see.

I don't think this article effectively conveyed that, if it's at all what you were going for. There are shades of it around the part where you brought up the void, but before it can fester and grow into something more, we move on to the interview. Then after that the article just ends.

The interview could've been interesting as a supporting element, but as the grand finale it leaves things feeling... unfinished. What you're left with is an immediate frustration that is not guided by a follow-up, hence the responses here (mine included). The follow-up wouldn't necessarily have to steer the reader towards any particular interpretation, but a reflection on the interview we could have empathized with and possibly something to get us thinking about the actual message the interview speaks to (open interpretation), would have done well to dissipate that immediate frustration.

Avatar image for wrathofgod
Posted By WrathOfGod

@darek006 said:

Mountain is a video game. I just ended the debate. So there.

Mountain is a program. There, I continued it. ;)


Avatar image for shodan2020
Edited By shodan2020

Is this the dude behind all those computer coding books with different animals on them?

Avatar image for babayaga
Posted By Babayaga

This interview reminds me of the NPR interview with Sigur Ros in some strange way.

Avatar image for flashflood_29
Posted By FlashFlood_29

Is this more of a screen saver than art? Maybe. But do I enjoy that it may invoke others to explore using interactive mediums for a new form of art? Absolutely!

This may not be a great example of art but it shows that art can be interactive without being a video game.

Avatar image for likeassur
Edited By LikeaSsur

And here we see Patrick pulling a Patrick and inserting way too much meaning into a glorified screen saver, and the creator being wishy washy and generally super off-putting at best, passive aggressive at worst.

Avatar image for bunny_fire
Posted By Bunny_Fire

All mountain boils down to is just a pretty animated screensaver call it a game if you must but it is just a screensaver. Calling it a game is a great sales gimmick

Avatar image for jamesconsidine
Edited By jamesconsidine

I kinda like the mountain. Its charming and pretty relaxing

Avatar image for zaphoduk
Edited By zaphoduk

Irrespective of whether or not this is a game, a tech demo, a screen saver, a piece of art or whatever. The guy didn't do himself any favours with his responses to Patrick's questions.

Avatar image for sbaitso
Posted By Sbaitso

@zaphoduk: I guess I agree with you somewhat but at the same time that's his prerogative, isn't it? He doesn't owe anybody anything.

Avatar image for pop
Posted By Pop

I think that might be the greatest interview I've ever read.

Avatar image for peterdotorg
Posted By peterdotorg

I look forward to future 100% speed runs of Mountain.

Avatar image for krevee
Edited By Krevee

His answers to Patrick's question were boring and evasive in the most grating sort of fashion. Just reading his response makes me not want to check out his "game".