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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.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
142 Comments
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Posted by K4g4m1

"Flappy Blade Of Duty" - 10/10, would play.

Posted by SL33TBL1ND

An interesting read. I'm still mostly blank on the whole Mountain thing. I'm glad it exists, but I don't know that I care about it all that much. Also this was funny to read with the Autocard Anywhere Firefox extension. Magic cards everywhere.

Edited by thefriend

O'Reily sure isn't very talkative. I see this game as more of an evolving painting. I wouldn't call it interactive, because of how limited interaction is.

So I suppose the meaning you get from this "game" is what you would from a work of art.

Posted by von_wemberg

The guy who made "The External World" is responsible for this? I'm interested,

Edited by BowlofSnakes

I would love to hear this guys take on pizza chains! I got $5 that he's a P'zone man

Posted by Corvak

He made it. He doesn't like us. He doesn't like video games.

....why did he agree to an interview?

Edited by DannyHibiki

The anti-Tamagotchi. Cool.

Edited by cloudymusic

This article and other reactions like it remind me a bit of the people who claimed Flappy Bird was a "masterwork of game design that defies you to enjoy it." In this case, the author's brusque personality only adds to the perceived mystique.

Edited by russman588

O'Reilly should release an update that changes the title to add the word Dew under the word Mountain and instead of a mountain, you rotate around a Mountain Dew can. I'd buy that.

Posted by mmgreenmms

When I first saw this game I thought it was frog fractions 2.

Posted by danlongman

I really enjoyed the conversation Patrick, has there been any word of it coming to Android?

Posted by gouldgonewild

First, there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.

Posted by dkraytsberg

It feels like the emperors new clothes, except the emperor knows whats up. Happy it exists, and if it gets people thinking about games, that's good.

However, if all it does is make people talk about categorizing games, that is silly. Its a pretty thing made with technology, why must it be dragged apart for having meaning by having no meaning? Just enjoy it, and maybe make your own

Posted by TurboMan

I'll be sure to check it out.

Edited by patrickklepek

O'Reilly should release an update that changes the title to add the word Dew under the word Mountain and instead of a mountain, you rotate around a Mountain Dew can. I'd buy that.

Staff
Edited by aCTito

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.

Posted by TheHumanDove

How stimulating

Posted by Sgtpierceface

Definitely a weird one. It would have been nice if you asked David what games in particular he liked but I suppose it wasn't necessary.

Edited by EuanDewar

A proper At the Mountains of Madness game developed by someone along the lines of The Chinese Room would for sure interest me.

This doesn't, unfortunately. All seems a bit like the emperor is nude and running around flinging his nouvelle vagues in everyone's faces.

There are no winners here.

Posted by Video_Game_King

Could it be that you have created meaning for this game by projecting the facade of meaninglessness upon it?

Posted by russman588

@patrickklepek: You're a Total Babe and you can stay that way by drinking the delicious, zero calorie Diet Dew™.

Edited by Brodehouse

In my interpretation, Mountain is a poem about rill erosion.

Posted by MrCaptain

Yes yes, this seems really artsy, avant garde and all that but when is Flappy Blade Of Duty coming out?

Edited by Sydlanel

So I'm all for experimental artworks and games exploring more than flappy bird of dutyness. But as I said before, I think mountain is a screen saver, I'm not trying to demean it, I think screen savers are rad, and they can be art and they can have meaning, but they do not require some form of input to evolve.

To me, Dear Esther ( and gone home, and Journey and everyday the same dream Etc...) are all games, they make a point of their mechanic limitations to express something through this comparatively limited interaction. Mountain does not.

On a technical aspect, I find Mountain very lacking though, the art is unpolished and lacking in detail in a non stylized way, it is simply not coherent on an art style or showing aesthetic refinement. I know it seems unimportant, but I think that if it looked better, I'd be more into it. Given that there is little more to do than look at it, I feel the least we can expect is for it to look better.

In any case, do I think mountain is cool though? yeah cool, but more in a funny-jokey-parks and recreation sort of way.

However, David O'Reilly comes off a bit standoffish and snobbish. Maybe he is not, and maybe he is the nicest guy around, but reading his response seems unnecessarily dismissive. It all works in the character of "artist" but it seems slightly disingenuous.

Edited by Tennmuerti

The first thing that comes to mind is this:

And the word: Autoeroticism.

/shrug

Posted by Loafsmooch

This guy just doesn't give a shit about what anyone thinks about his work. Very refreshing...

Edited by joshwent

Uuug. That kind of ego fluffed attitude is why I left art school.

Shame, because I think most of O'Reilly's animation work is fantastic. It's just really off putting when an artist's fascinatingly obtuse style seeps into their actual personality. Further support of my modern axiom, "I'd rather not know about the person behind the thing."

Posted by Nardak

What is next...a game called the lake, a tree or a cake...?

Posted by BigD145

Frog Fractions 2!

Edited by FreedomTown

Why would Patrick say this is frustrating? It is only frustrating if you think this is some sort of game, which it isn't.

Honestly, this really shouldn't even be on a video-game site. The whole exchange came off as horrible because we have someone making this out to be more then it is, asking questions which the creator doesn't want to answer.

Even the creator is kinda like, "look man this isn't even a video game, why are you asking me these questions"

Edited by patrickklepek

@freedomtown said:

Why would Patrick say this is frustrating? It is only frustrating if you think this is some sort of game, which it isn't.

Honestly, this really shouldn't even be on a video-game site. The whole exchange came off as horrible because we have someone making this out to be more then it is, asking questions which the creator doesn't want to answer.

Even the creator is kinda like, "look man this isn't even a video game, why are you asking me these questions"

I don't think that's fair at all. He announced Mountain at a video game press conference called Horizon, and Double Fine helped release Mountain.

Staff
Edited by Mysterysheep

Wow, I had no idea this existed. I've really liked the animations David O'Reilly has put up on his vimeo channel, so I'll give this one a look.

Posted by Video_Game_King

This dude just doesn't buy into the "indie art game" hype, I don't see how that makes him stuck-up or pretentious. IMO that's literally the complete opposite, he just made a cool thing and doesn't ascribe any real significance to it.

In that case, he's just an Alfred Jarry-esque rabblerouser, making art (or art-like products; whatever) as a sort of "go fuck yourself."

Posted by tbk

@freedomtown said:

Why would Patrick say this is frustrating? It is only frustrating if you think this is some sort of game, which it isn't.

Honestly, this really shouldn't even be on a video-game site. The whole exchange came off as horrible because we have someone making this out to be more then it is, asking questions which the creator doesn't want to answer.

Even the creator is kinda like, "look man this isn't even a video game, why are you asking me these questions"

I don't think that's fair at all. He announced Horizon at a video game press conference called Horizon, and Double Fine helped release Mountain.

I guess you meant that he announced Mountain at the video game conference called Horizon?

If so I would like to state the following counter argument: just because something was announced during a video game press conference and published by a video game developer / publisher(?) doesn't imply it is a video game.

One might guess if the whole point of Mountain is to incite this sort of thought process ("What is a game and what is not a game") or not.

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.

Posted by avantegardener

Is this just setting bait for a short film? Seem quite Joaquin Phoenix meets Peter Molyneux.

Posted by Asiwassaying

It's art, but not a game.

Posted by Brodehouse

It's art, but not a game.

Art is like a religion for me man and Mountain is the shit!

Posted by Xymox

This kind of reminds me of that Macintosh(?) island creator (don't remember what it was called)... you'd like tweak different numbers and create a mountain with water around it, could change the color of the sky etc.

I feel I would be more into the whole "is it a game" debate if I had a better philosophical understanding of the question "what is art" but I don't. Mountain is what it is. What ideas and concepts you apply to it does not change what it is. If it's a "game" or "screensaver" those are your own constructions.

But there was a good point raised earlier in the comments. Just because something is announced at a video game conference and released by a video game publisher doesn't necessarily make it a video game. I mean, if Activision announces and releases a lawn mower, it's still a lawn mower.

Edited by HerbieBug

So it's a digital vivarium. I dunno whether i consider that much of a commentary on video games. This is more something I would like to have on my desktop constantly running, provided it didn't cause my computer to chug.

I would also enjoy a Mountain expansion pack that makes it a breast instead of a mountain. With weather effects. I want my living boob to have snow and rain and sun and wind. With wildlife. And vegetation.

Posted by Video_Game_King

@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.

Posted by Abendlaender

Next up, an interview with the guys that made Rock Simulator 2014

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