Making ‘Mountain,’ An Anti-Game About A God That Ends Suddenly

July 10, 2014 | Michael Rougeau

ANIMAL’s feature Game Plan asks video game developers to share a bit about their process and some working images from the creation of a recent game. This week, we spoke with David OReilly about Mountain, a game in which you watch nature express itself.

If god exists, he or she doesn’t give a shit about you or anything else. At the very best, god enjoys observing us through our triumphs and failures alike, like a clockmaker watching the gears tick back and forth. Or like a mountain as the seasons change, as it were.

That’s one way to look at Mountain, the first commercial game from Irish artist and animator David OReilly. Now based in LA, OReilly’s CV includes projects ranging from award-winning short films like The External World to the fictional game Joaquin Phoenix plays in Her. He’s even developed an experience for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Failed Mountain

Unlike other game makers, OReilly is hesitant to give away too many details about Mountain. “There are many aspects of the game I am not discussing publicly,” he told ANIMAL over email. Those aspects include most details about the game’s development, which he considers “trivial.”

Failed Mountain

“I will say it was programmed by a handsome man named Damien Di Fede who is based in Austin Texas,” OReilly wrote. An LA Weekly article says OReilly worked on Mountain in secret for months. Apparently he intends to maintain that secrecy.

“It took a long time and was a lot of work,” he says. And that’s all he’s going to say on the subject.

Mountain begins by asking players to illustrate three concepts, which vary by user. Loss, death, triumph, the past — can you reduce these into touchscreen line drawings? It probably doesn’t matter, since the drawings appear to be more of a thought exercise than anything else. Your mountain — you — is generated, and nature begins to take its course.

Failed Mountain

As the little mountain-world spins and the seasons blink in and out, as trees and sailboats begin to pepper the mountain’s slopes, as rain falls and clouds form only to disperse again, all you can do is watch. Tapping around on your touchscreen or mashing on your keyboard produces musical notes that may or may not have any effect. Periodically your mountain’s accidental thoughts — “I can’t say a bad word about this windy autumn day” — disrupt the game’s uneventful tranquility, and then just barely.

Mountain mobile gameplay

So what does Mountain, which begins by telling players “you are god” and then strips them of the ability to influence events in any way, say about the artist’s perceptions of god? Was it designed to say that god simply observes, taking note of this or that with a sigh and a poetic quip? Or that god is a moot concept to begin with? “I can’t talk about this specifically,” OReilly wrote. “Mountain will be different for everyone who plays it.”

Maybe you’ll be content to leave the window open throughout the day, checking in on your mountain between memos and coffee breaks. Or maybe you’ll play it for five minutes on your iPad before you go back to Candy Crush because Mountain is not really a “game” at all. The creator doesn’t really seem to care.

But more than just lacking in features, Mountain is something of an anti-game. Its official feature list is comprised of tongue-in-cheeks like “no controls” and “audio on/off switch,” and in truth it has little of what you’d expect from an actual video game. That’s a big part of its charm; isn’t it nice to not be first-person-shooting something for once?

OReilly admitted that he doesn’t play many video games. He even insisted that past projects like the aforementioned The External World, in which a man produces coins by hitting the underside of a floating block while making Mario sounds, weren’t inspired by video games at all. His refusal to talk about Mountain conceptually might be simply for fear of ruining the joke.

“The way the game is presented publicly allows for it to be more of a discovery for people,” OReilly told ANIMAL. “It’s like that because I don’t want to oversell the game or create some expectation which may not be met in the eye of the player. The press has tended to focus on what the game’s website says rather than actually play the game.

That website, by the way, says that Mountain is both “an ambient procedural mountain simulator” and “Mountain Simulator, Relax em’ up, Art Horror etc.” Kill Screen calls Mountain “a self-described ‘god simulator,'” though it’s unclear where exactly the game describes itself this way.

Whatever the truth, Mountain, like everything else, won’t go on forever. Unless it does. “The game does end, or it can go on forever,” OReilly explained. “Most cycles will last around 50 hours.”

What happens when it does end? Everything dies – what else? As illuminated by Touch Arcade, ultimately “you are ruined by a passing giant sun.” Now what does that say about god? Once again, it seems, the creator doesn’t care.

Mountain is available now for $.99 for iOS, Mac, PC, and Linux from mountain-game.com.