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There is nothing to 'do' in OReilly's Mountain - and that's a good thing

Artist David OReilly's Mountain feels like a rebellion against everything that's been bothering me.

Leigh Alexander, Contributor

July 8, 2014

8 Min Read

Last week a colleague was being systemically and hatefully harassed on the internet about video game websites or something, and that was when I decided to get a Mountain. David OReilly's new "ambient procedural mountain simulator", called Mountain, is simple. There is nothing to "play"; your mountain exists, sunlight and dark play over its green craggy face, weather happens to it. Occasionally a few words appear on the screen: The mountain has thoughts or feelings about the weather or the night. It's annoyingly simple, one of those things where you assume someone either "thinks they are so deep" or is making fun of you. But listen: I love my mountain. I want to keep it. Let's back up. So, I'm having an increasingly stressful time on the internet. When we were younger, world wide web was a magical phrase, conjuring the idea of a second reality in cyberspace. An information superhighway, for us all to speed down in Blade Runner hovercars. The weird thing, though, is that the modern internet doesn't actually behave like a 'highway': It's one of those mad, physics-defying wormholes from science fiction. In the vortex, we choose our individual reality -- the images of ourselves we offer, the issues we publicly identify with, the narrative we construct of our lives. And then, we self-select what we consume to enforce that reality. Articles written to be 'shared if you agree'. "Likes" are not just instantaneous avenues of approval and reinforcement -- we actually tend to use them as measures of how much things matter. Something I did got more RTs than something else you did, so it must be better and more important. Maybe the number of Twitter followers you have is a real metric of how popular you are, like you can map yourself on a graph relative to others and gain a mathematical measure of just how "liked" you are. This is an extreme thought exercise. And I know already I'm going to get website commenters, Tweets and things from complete strangers who'll want to let me know that they themselves don't use or think about the internet this way. They will want me to know that they use the internet in a different or better way. And I will decline to read the comments -- "don't read the comments" is a well-trod, even celebrated sanity strategy, and yet people keep leaving comments. I will block the Tweets.

mountain.gifWhen you're on Twitter, you only have to listen to people if you like what they think and say. You choose and curate a community that behaves in accordance with your beliefs, and within your community tiny issues loom large, warp and devour the world. In that twisted little info-tube that each of us siphons, we forget that these curated realities, with tidal waves of static and noise constantly rattling, are not real. This entire conversation, this entire line of thought (the stress of social media?!) is absurd, irrelevant, can bear little resemblance to how issues affect people (or how people affect issues) in the rest of the world. But our online lives are a simulation chamber -- we map these distorted landscapes, we test and adjust based on false data about ourselves and others, and we feel as visible as we want to, and as if we can control things. It's a deeply addicting fiction. You pull and pop for one more refresh of this and that, in case it's your moment. You can compose the perfect reply, you can win an argument, you can see a notification, a hovering number letting you know that maybe someone you admire has become a little bit more endeared to you. When Charlie Brooker's "How Videogames Changed the World" special last year declared that the number one "most influential" game ever was "Twitter", I scoffed -- it was like when Time Magazine put a mirror on its cover and said the Person of the Year was "You", I thought. But social media works in the same way as video games do -- in both cases, you're enjoying a closed system with a logic you can memorize and master. You get your pleasure from the fact that you can learn perfect control over your environment, a steady upward arc of mechanical, numeric gains and prolific fictions. In the social media game, "enemies" are obnoxious: People who want to assert their power by trying to take yours away. It's destructive. It's disassociative and consuming. So when someone I knew was fielding hate speech from internet forum gamer dudes with flamin' badass cartoon avatars because she had an opinion about the internet forum -- these completely irrelevant little-boy issues, bloating like black balloons and creating what I imagine must be profound stress and upset for her -- I finally started playing Mountain. I had heard there wasn't much to do in Mountain. When you look at "Controls" in the game menu, it says "NOTHING." It asked me to draw a few pictures of feelings, at the beginning (the only one I remember is "FEAR", and I made an abstract squiggle), but I couldn't tell what it did.

"Weather is considered small talk, boring, empty conversation -- but it’s an interesting thing to think about."

My mountain promptly began to gather snow, which made me angry, because I hate snow. I found at one point I jerked the mouse around futilely, as if I could get rid of the snow. This steadfast, disobedient, silent object resisted responding. My Twitter feed was blowing up with angry internet men because I lost my temper about what was happening to my colleagues. You can read conversation threads to find out what kind of people they are. You can find out what's happening to someone or what they think by following the conversations. Any event can be traced to a logical origin, even if the circumstance has abscessed beyond help and beyond reason. But I couldn't understand why a plane had crashed into the side of my mountain. No matter how I spun it round and stared at it and listened to it, there was no way to know how it got there when I wasn't looking. And I couldn't get rid of it either. As I went through my Twitter replies feed systematically blocking people I didn't like in succession, the mountain chimed softly at me. "The starlight is almost too beautiful to look at," said my mountain. It took almost an entire day of looking at my mountain, watching it turn slowly in its suspended space, its little desktop window, before I was ready to let go of the idea that there was actually no reason for the mountain's behavior, and nothing I could do about it. "There is nothing to do" is such a villainous thought to video game people. It's cool but there's not enough to do. It's not a game because you can't do things. We live in a world where people would rather receive an electric shock than do nothing but be alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. I bet for video game people the threshold is even lower. For some reason Mountain became exactly what I needed. I resisted the urge to hate it when it sprouted a gigantic umbrella at its base, like a wart, and when a bowling pin erupted unceremoniously from its flank. I didn't want an umbrella or a bowling pin on my mountain, and I wanted it to stop snowing and I wanted it to always know when I needed help and talk about starlight, not just sometimes by accident. But I could accept that I would not be able to have those things, and there was suddenly a sense of peace in my own powerlessness. I also stopped wondering whether my Mountain experience was like anyone else's. Like, if it's dark on my mountain is it dark on anyone else's mountain? Does anyone else have a bowling pin? How come Marina has a horse in hers and I don't? What did she draw at the beginning, and what effect did it have? I embraced the idea that the answers to these questions did not matter. My mountain is uniquely mine. I am not having a "communal experience." I am not networked. There is no multiplayer, and nothing to show or "share." Mountain felt like a rebellion against everything that had been bothering me. I wrote to David OReilly about it. The artist and designer says that Mountain is about a mountain instead of any other object, because mountains "defy objectification because they can't be owned or put in a museum." Mountain's landmasses don't feel a particular urgency to prove anything: They chat about the weather, mostly. They are so into the weather, all about it. "Weather is considered small talk, boring, empty conversation -- but it’s an interesting thing to think about," says OReilly. "It’s common because its the one thing that binds us, it reveals our deepest rooted relationship with our environment, its something we can’t disagree on and it’s always changing." "Talking about the weather is our brain dealing with the subject of now," the creator adds. There is something deeply beautiful about little cone-shaped trees, a rough-hewn 3D object, this mountain of mine, and the tiny fireflies that sometimes wink amid its forests during the night. Its vocabulary is still game-like, it has the kind of pleasant foreignness that attracts me to imaginary places, but none of the task lists, none of the dangling promise that I can conquer, map and own everything I see. It lives in my desktop window, but for the time I spend with Mountain it feels slightly more real to me than anything else inside my computer. "Mountain is a kind of visual silence," says OReilly. "You can control parts of it, but it’s more about letting go of control."

About the Author(s)

Leigh Alexander


Leigh Alexander is Editor At Large for Gamasutra and the site's former News Director. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Variety, Slate, Paste, Kill Screen, GamePro and numerous other publications. She also blogs regularly about gaming and internet culture at her Sexy Videogameland site. [NOTE: Edited 10/02/2014, this feature-linked bio was outdated.]

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