Braydon Beaulieu is a doctoral candidate studying creative writing, poetics, science fiction, and digital games at the University of Calgary. His critical work appears on Medium Difficulty and in FreeFall Magazine. He volunteers as a community manager for the safe(r)-space gaming community Feminist War Cult.
On July 01, 2014, Irish artist and filmmaker David OReilly released a video game called Mountain. In this game, there are two roles: “God,” who looks at (and sometimes looks out for) Mountain, and “Mountain” who talks to its God and endures whatever comes its way. Mountain, a mountain ripped up from its roots, hangs within its own atmosphere (weather included) suspended in space. It rotates slowly upon its axis. There are almost no controls. You begin the game by sketching pictures as responses to prompts (such as “Birth” or “Logic”) that purportedly generate (or “seed”) your unique mountain. The keys in the player’s ASDF and ZXCV rows play chimes that can speed up time. You can zoom in and out in order to view Mountain up close or see it as a kind of lonely asteroid against the backdrop of the galaxy. You can rotate Mountain and view it from above or below. You can save, but if you don’t, the game will just do so automatically, anyway. That’s it for you—at least that’s all there seems to be. The game specifies no objective.
As Mountain rotates, the seasons change, grass and trees grow and die on its slopes, and Mountain finds itself in the path of a mishmash of large objects: strange man-made meteors, some of them the detritus and furniture of everyday life such as park benches and bowling pins, and others, like floating brains, the creatures of fiction and fantasy. These objects collide with Mountain and stick to its surface. Played long enough, Mountain can end up looking like a trash heap. If you’re lucky, you’ll actually be looking at the screen when the cataclysms occur, but they have a nasty habit of happening during your trips to the fridge or the washroom. When dawn breaks, a chorus sings. Occasionally, a note will chime, and Mountain will speak such wisdoms as: “I can’t say a bad word about this peaceful summer night,” or: “Where did I come from?” or: “Boopeedoopeedoop” (Mountain).
Set against the expectations of first-person shooters and multiplayer battle arenas, Mountain sounds intensely boring. But somehow OReilly’s game has not only captured the attention of gaming communities but has also sparked fierce debates about the nature of the video game as a cultural medium. On his website, OReilly describes Mountain as a “Mountain Simulator, Relax em’ up, Art Horror etc [sic]” (OReilly n. pag.). In doing so, he kicks the stone that starts an avalanche of discourse about what, exactly, Mountain is, and what its existence means for video game studies. This discourse attempts to categorize Mountain within several ludic traditions, but I want to argue here that we might better understand this game by placing it in the tradition of Conceptualist art—art that challenges, or plays with, what art itself is. Like a Conceptualist piece, Mountain is, in many ways, a non-expressive product, by which I mean that it works in relation to standard video games (that define play in terms of winning or losing within the frame of competition and goals) the way such things as authorless texts work relative to novels and poems that involve readers in the game of understanding what the author has said.
On the day of Mountain’s release, gaming mega-site Kotaku published its overview of the game, entitled, “A Tiny Talking Mountain Is Actually Making My Life Better.” Nathan Grayson opens this article with the wonderful lines, “The mountain with a horse for a head sighed, ‘I’ll never forget this snowy day.’ And then it got hit by a flying truck, right in the umbrella” (original emphasis). Grayson’s review of Mountain places the game in two generic traditions, calling the game a “[low-impact interactive] toy/virtual pet hybrid,” like the digital world’s answer to the Pet Rock: it does almost nothing and requires no care.
While I was typing that last sentence, a keyboard crashed into the summit of my mountain. I missed it.
Instead of reviewing the game, Rock, Paper, Shotgun published play-by-play commentary as their editors interacted with their respective mountains, posting screenshots of their texts and tweets. Andrew Webster of The Verge published his impressions as a report. A couple days after release, Ben Kuchera of Polygon published his impressions as an opinion piece. This unusual variety of article types suggests confusion in critical and journalistic media about how, exactly, to respond to a game like Mountain. In his scored review of the game (80/100), Davis Cox of Kill Screen describes Mountain as “minimalist art […] like a digital Rorschach Test,” asking, “Is it a metaphor for our relationship to god? Is it a joke making fun of the very idea of the ‘anti-game’? Why is there a sailboat sticking out of the side of my mountain?” This rhetoric pervades discourse about Mountain, this concept of it being an “anti-game”—in fact, many detractors argue that it isn’t a game at all but instead is a sort of mildly interactive film or screen-saver. Except, I argue, it is a game.
And like any mysterious game, Mountain has generated a community of players that observe the game and collate information in an attempt to discover how it works. Kill Screen published another article, entitled “I Died On My Mountain,” in which Jamin Warren writes about his mountain’s death at the hands of a figure named “Fluffy.” In response to Warren’s article, “London-based illustrator Adam Walker has also encountered the apocalyptic Fluffy and defended his mountain by ‘mashing the keyboard and building a shield’” (Warren). Warren’s response was the same as every other Mountain player: “I was unaware that was even an option.” It’s not an option you’re told you have; it’s one you discover, just as you discover that this game, which seems to be about nothing but stasis, clearly has parameters for loss. It may even have parameters for survival—the question is whether those parameters are as randomized and arbitrary as the game’s beginning, when it asks you to seed your mountain with drawings prompted by “Privacy” or “Health” as opposed to “Birth” and “Logic”. As Kaitlin Tremblay points out in her essay “It Takes Time”—an examination of Mountain’s relationship to depression—“Mountain’s like a Tamagotchi. Except you’re powerless to actually save it” (47). And even if Tremblay’s latter assertion is wrong, and (maybe some of) you can save Mountain from Fluffy or whatever other cataclysm, you might not be able to do so because the game works for dozens of hours to lure its players into a passive, detached relationship with their mountain.
In the course of this essay so far I have characterized others’ attempts to place this game in the following genres: simulator, virtual pet, interactive toy, anti-game, etc. But despite the wealth of writing available on Mountain, no one has yet drawn the link between Mountain and the Conceptual movement in art and writing. Avant-garde artists test the limits of formal categorization by either removing the dominant discursive modes from a given form, or dialing up some of those discursive modes to such a degree that any others fall away. For example, Jonathan Ball’s Ex Machina is a work of science fiction without plot, characters, or setting. We might alternatively imagine a video game like Cecily Carver’s Feed the Ducks, in which the play element (in Carver’s own words, “a simple interaction”) supersedes narrative and exposition. Conceptualism functions according to these rules of avant-gardism, but it goes further to destabilize the relationship between author and audience. The result is a sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes giddy unsettling of the usual: a text is openly plagiarized, sometimes a word for word copy of some other, often banal piece of writing. Or a work is composed by procedure, such as a poem made up of words taken in the prime number positions in the Oxford English Dictionary. A piece might be computer-generated, or it might be illegible. Conceptualism is non-expressive, standing in contrast to (but not in opposition to) typically expressive modes like lyricism, rhapsody, or meditation; in encountering such pieces, the reader is, among other things, brought face to face with the way they understand their own personal interpretation. The art is meaningless in order to draw the consumer’s attention to their own making of meaning.
It is in the tradition of illegible conceptual writing that I recognize something in Mountain. The works of Michael Jacobson, derek beaulieu, Shloka Shankar, and Anatol Knotek demonstrate an aesthetic practice in literature that Mountain effectively applies to the medium of the video game: the inability of the user to interact with the medium in the expected, hegemonic way. If a work of conceptual writing might forbid the reader from reading, as Marjorie Perloff says, “to challenge us to read it” (164), then a work of conceptual video gaming might forbid the player from playing, precisely to challenge us to play it. Of course, the reader of such a work still does read the text—just not according to customary and comforting (read: culturally dominant) reading practices. The reader must invent or reinvent a system of reading that allows them to access and interpret the text. This is what happens when a player “plays” Mountain: they invent a form of play to access and interpret a game that resists traditional forms of gameplay in order to confront and consider “game/play” itself.
My mountain now hosts a keyboard, a Frisbee, a tennis ball, an arrow, a bottle containing what I think is a message on rolled-up parchment, a coffee mug, a baseball, two kitchen chairs, a steel beam, a pylon, a black sedan, an airplane, a working lamppost, what appears to be a meteor with a lava core, and (of course) a giant human brain.
This is what’s missing from the discourse surrounding Mountain: a discussion of Conceptualism, bringing the artistic aesthetic to bear upon the medium as a mode of understanding games outside their particular genres or hardware platforms. Mountain is a simulator, virtual pet, interactive toy, anti-game, etc., but it is also a work informed by the tradition of Conceptual art. This is a game that steals conventions liberally from the genres of game to which it aspires, but refuses to stitch those conventions into an immersive experience. And it’s not as though nothing happens in Mountain, as Ian Bogost suggests in The Atlantic. Rather, as Kaitlin Tremblay suggests in Five Out of Ten, what happens means only what you read into it. I can quite easily imagine rewriting Craig Dworkin’s introduction to the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing, replacing all references to poetry with references to video gaming. It would describe Mountain perfectly:
What would a non-expressive video game look like? A video game of intellect rather than emotion? One in which the substitutions at the heart of metaphor and image were replaced by the direct presentation of Game itself, with ‘spontaneous overflow’ supplanted by meticulous procedure and exhaustively logical process? In which the self-regard of the dev’s ego were turned back onto the self-reflexive processes of the video game itself?
This seems to be the function of Mountain: to cause doubt for its players that they understand the conventions, processes, and procedures of video games at all. If, as Vanessa Place and Rob Fitterman argue, “Conceptual writing mediates between the written object … and the meaning of the object by framing the writing as a figural object to be narrated [so that] conceptual writing creates an object that creates its own disobjectification” (15–16), then Mountain as a conceptual video game serves a similar function. Because the game interrogates its own gameness—Mountain once actually said to me, “Is this some sort of game?”—it presents itself as the subject of narrative, rather than the content of the game. The running joke in conceptual writing is that you don’t need to read a book like Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters if you simply understand its governing rules because the text is what it says it is. The same seems to apply to Mountain: if I were simply to say to you, “It’s a mountain spinning in space that things happen to,” you really wouldn’t need to play the game to understand its surface-level performance.
But much like works of conceptual writing, Mountain functions as a much deeper reflection upon the nature of cultural productions/products and their relationship to consumers/users. We might return to Perloff’s argument that conceptual writing “is a poetry that conceives of the poem as meaning-making machine and takes its motive from what Adorno termed resistance: the resistance of the individual poem to the larger cultural field of capitalist commodification where language has become merely instrumental” (9, original emphasis). In Mountain, OReilly is really playing a wry joke on gaming consumers: you spend $1 on a game that you can’t play (at least not in the way you might expect to), and as a result, he throws into relief the commoditized nature of the video game: that games are not only art, but products, and that a consumer’s relationship to a work of art is largely influenced by its existence as property, once purchased. Questions appropriate to conceptual publications—“Why did I buy this book that is a transcription of an issue of The New York Times?” and “Why did I buy this book that I can’t read?”—become, playing Mountain: “Why did I buy this game where I can’t do anything?” and as a result, OReilly calls attention to the medium itself: this is not a game about a mountain. It is a game about gaming.
Providentially, as I finished writing that last paragraph, Mountain made a sound I’d never heard it make before. I flipped to the screen on which the game was running, and I saw Mountain, small across the expanse of space. And on the screen, hurtling toward Mountain, was a green meteor. The music was ripped directly from 2001: A Space Odyssey. I already knew I could mash my chime keys in an attempt to build a protective shield. But I didn’t. I watched as the meteor breached the atmosphere of Mountain, as the screen flashed red, as Mountain was obliterated. My screen went white, and informed me, “You have been granted death by the Sun of Infinite Darkness.” And then, in that death—wracked with guilt and sadness that my three-day-straight companion had perished—I understood Mountain: Below the message about the cause of Mountain’s demise, a button appeared. It said, “Retry.”
Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader. Ed. Simon During. London: Routledge, 1993. 90–103. Print.
Mountain. Dev. David OReilly. Pub. Double Fine. 2014. Mac.
Perloff, Marjorie. Unoriginal Genius: Poetry by Other Means in the New Century. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2012. Print.
Place, Vanessa, and Robert Fitterman. Notes on Conceptualisms. Brooklyn: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013. Print.
Tremblay, Kaitlin. “It Takes Time.” Five out of Ten 9 (2014): 44–50. Web. 24 May 2015.