Big Opinions, Very Little Game

The movie Her was controversial in its own right, what with its heavy criticism of electronic companionship and data addiction, but featured within it was a fictional game designed by artist, animator, and developer David O’Reilly. In July, O’Reilly marketed and released a real game by the name of Mountain, and now it’s got everyone arguing whether or not it’s actually a real game. Even more than that, it’s got people debating whether O’Reilly is a sensitive genius, malicious confidence man, or just an imbecile. Although it’s been out for a while, it was only just released on Steam, and has become thrust into the spotlight that it never held beyond a curiosity ran by reviewers.

In Mountain, you are little more than a camera orbiting a large mountain floating in space. Interactivity is very low. The game advertises itself as having no controls, and in the options menu the section labeled controls has only one option: nothing. Yet that’s somewhat misleading, as the game holds little secrets like a button that has the mountain tell you what its thinking, and keys that play piano notes and unlock secrets all their own. The real appeal is not in the direct influence, however, but rather in the passive intake of the game, the lonely mountain and its sometimes silly, sometimes faux-zen thoughts, the weather and the objects that your mountain dumbly collides with in space. The lack of input yet definitive growth places Mountain somewhere between a complex screensaver and a tamagotchi.

After playing the game and reviewing its community page on Steam, I’m less interested in the game itself as I am by the furor surrounding it. With its newfound attention, Mountain has become the subject of a debate familiar in the world of art: “is this really anything?” The same was said about abstract art when it became new, and indeed, the same is often said by non-believers of video games with aspirations of seriousness. Many spit that Mountain is not a game, only a screensaver, but a screensaver can’t save its progress and unlock secrets. Others call it a work of art that requires a deep seated soulfulness. It has been called “uplifting,” “sad,” “more real… than anything else in my computer,” and “an existential nightmare.” Of his own creation, O’Reilly said “It can just be. Anything people discover beyond that is wonderful.”

Some find the game nothing less than hurtful, a figurehead of a bad trend of useless and vapid games devoid of challenge and spare of mechanics. That it was greenlighted and widely released on Steam, is, to the naysayers, the showing symptom of frivolous stupidity and braindead pretentiousness. For me, the game is somewhere in between: a light and lilting little game that tries to capture emotional experience but mostly just lives like a desktop pet with a habit for existentialism. I don’t know if I’m playing into O’Reilly’s hands or inspiring him or what, because his intentions are impossible to know.

Whether it dreams of being a unique piece of art, a money-grubbing scam, or a satire of what will pass for a game, it’s 99 cents and a unique little creature.

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