When Joaquin Phoenix's character in Her isn't wooing his smartphone's operating system, he spends much of his time playing a video game. Called Alien Child, the game is essentially a glimpse at what would happen if Kinect actually worked as promised — it's controlled entirely through hand gestures and voice commands, and Phoenix is able to carry on real conversations with the rude little space kid. They swear at each other and the alien even reacts to other voices in the room.
It's an impressive and imaginative concept for a game, dreamed up by artist and animator David OReilly, who has decided to follow up that project with his first real video game. But whereas Alien Child represents a possible future for the medium, Mountain is barely a game at all. "Both projects are opposites in a lot of ways," he admits.
Billed as a simulator, the game gives you a unique mountain to watch over, and that's really all you’re able to do. You can zoom in and out, and change the camera angle, but Mountain isn't really an interactive experience. Under the settings menu there's a section to tweak the controls, but the only option is "nothing." Instead, you simply sit and watch as the seasons pass and your rocky pet slowly changes over time. It's a surreally relaxing experience that sits somewhere between a screensaver and a traditional video game. "I don’t think Mountain needs to be explained," says OReilly. "It’s going to mean different things to different people, and I can’t get in the way of that."
"I don’t think Mountain needs to be explained."
The most interactive moment of the experience comes at the very beginning. You're asked a series of questions, like "What does love look like?" and you then draw your answer on the screen. The game uses this information somehow to generate a mountain unique to you. After that, all you can do is watch. I found myself booting up Mountain first thing in the morning and would just let it run in the background as I went about my work day. It was surprisingly engaging to just stop for a minute or two to inspect the mountain and check in on the weather. The beautiful visuals provided a welcome distraction from the stress of word counts and deadlines.
Every so often Mountain lets out a musical cue, which would immediately make me pull up the game to check in to see the mountain thinking out loud. "I'm all about this overcast day," it might say, or "I lost myself inside this beautiful day." The mountain also changes in the strangest ways, with objects sticking to its surface seemingly at random. Watching it unfold felt like playing a passive Katamari game. Mountain became a part of my routine, and when it ended — the game does indeed have a distressingly sad ending — I felt a strange sense of loss. It may not seem like Mountain gives you all that much to do, but I missed it anyways.
OReilly had previously dabbled in game making as a hobby, but it wasn't until after he built the fictional Alien Child game for Her that he decided the time was right to design something more serious. He managed to get the job working with Jonze after some friends recommended him to the director, and his career has included everything from directing an episode of Adventure Time to creating concert graphics for MIA.
"Everything is also a game, including this sentence."
Unsurprisingly, creating a real game and animating scenes about a fake game for a movie proved to be very different experiences. "You can keep adding and changing in ways you can’t in animation," OReilly says of game design, "so it’s harder to know when to finish. I have a lot of ideas I want to add to Mountain, but where it is now is what I set out to make, so they might have to wait for an update down the line."
Mountain may not be interactive, but OReilly still believes that players have an impact on the experience — though his reasoning is a bit out there. "Everything interacts with itself and everything around it throughout time and space," he explains. "Everything is also a game, including this sentence, where I can make your eye move left to right, and make sense of these abstract shapes we’ve agreed upon. You’re rendering these shapes into thought on my behalf, it only feels like you’re in control, and you are for the most part, but I’m guiding you, and I want you to keep going, even though you can quit at any time."
Perhaps it's that outsider perspective that makes Mountain feel so unique and refreshing as a game; it's definitely the only experience that has ever made me feel sad about a geological phenomenon. I truly felt attached to my mountain, but it's more than likely that others won't feel the same thing. If you think of Mountain as a regular game that requires all of your attention, you're bound to get bored. But those dueling perspectives are exactly the point — everyone will take something different away from the experience.
"At the very least, Mountain is a thing you can experience and find beauty in," says OReilly. "It doesn’t require intellectualizing or mental effort. It can just be. Anything people discover beyond that is wonderful."
Mountain is available today for iOS, Windows, and Mac.