thoughts on why I am unable to appreciate Mountain
I thought I would really enjoy Mountain. I had this idea for an essay I would pitch to somewhere, probably Overland, that I thought Mountain would fit perfectly for. I love small, minimalist games that challenge our notion of what it means to engage with a videogame. We have such reductive, causal ideas of what interaction is. You press a button and a thing happens. That’s it. And we lose so much nuance in the bodily engagements we have with videogames beyond simply ‘choosing’ an ‘action’ when we think about things this we. We end up with absurd terms like “non-gameplay element” as though any part of the videogame is not an element I am engaging with when I am playing a videogame. We put aside menus and cutscenes and the time spent just watching our train chug along to London in Pocket Trains as gaps ‘between’ gameplay and we don’t have ways to talk about them because “no gameplay is actually happening” in those moments, as Galloway says of standing on a streetcorner and watching the sun set in Shenmue. It’s absurd as saying “no movie is actually happening” in a film scene that might be pitch black with dialog playing.
So I love games that challenge this. I love how Dear Esther and its ilk have the minimal ‘amount’ of ‘interactivity’ (as though you can even have an ‘amount’ of interactivity, christ) and make us realise how much more we are engaged with videogame works beyond ‘just’ acting. Proteus's use of the spacebar to sit down instead of jump is exemplary of this. You just press spacebar on a hillside, sit down, and just look at your laptop's monitor as the owl slowly drifts from one tree to another beneath the asteroids. At what point did looking and hearing stop being actions—interactions with a thing—in and of themselves?
So I thought Mountain would be great for this. I thought I would write a piece about how it makes a point of nothing-ness in a really interesting way. In its menu, where it explains the controls, both ‘keys’ and ‘mouse’ are said to do “NOTHING” despite this being clearly false (keys play musical notes and the mouse rotates and tilts the mountain). It seemed like an explicit commentary on videogames and nothingness, and I thought that would be cool.
But I found it so boring. I would bang out some notes. Sometimes the mountain would repeat a phrase it probably heard from a fortune cookie. Eventually, after I left it running for enough hours while watching television in another room, a wooden crate appeared. Instead of being about nothingness it just seemed to be… nothing. No substance whatsoever.
I started hating it in all the uncritical ways I roll my eyes at when people hate a game without thinking why. It was too pretentious. I didn’t get it. It’s just some arty bullshit. My mind even flirted, briefly, with the notion that it wasn’t even really a game at all. Mountain was turning me into the kind of videogame player I hate, and I loathed it all the more for it.
So some people wrote some good, positive things about it that I think have helped me unpack why I don’t appreciate Mountain. Or, more specifically, why I am unable to appreciate Mountain. Cameron Kunzelman wrote a review that works hard to show that you should appreciate Mountain for simply being what it is, not for some profound ‘meaning’. Mountain is Mountain and it is very good at being Mountain.
But it was Push Me Pull You developer Michael McMaster’s essay on Mountain and videogame formalism this morning that I think helped me get why I don’t get it (or, that ‘getting it’ is the wrong way to even think about it). He notes that Mountain is a purely formal experience, and is content to be so.
Okay I am going to go sideways here and come back to this train of thought.
Earlier this year I was travelling around Europe. After a month of looking at old churches and palaces and the most amazing artworks and architecture of the Western world, we went to the Tate Modern at London. I had such a viscerally bad reaction to so much of the artwork, much as I did to Mountain, and I knew it was the wrong, sophist opinion to have of modern art. You know the kind. The kind that manifests in utterances like “I could’ve done that.”
After a month of seeing the ceilings of churches lifted off by cherubs in rolling, complex mosaics and narratives of saints and symbolism and metaphors in the most intricately painted artworks that go to such lengths to disappear their form, to appear as extensions of the architecture, a sheet of canvas with four parallel blue lines of paint meant to symbolise time or some shit just seemed ridiculous. Or a mirror glued to a canvas to represent that art is in the eye of the beholder I guess. My reactions were wrong in so far as I was approaching these artworks in the wrong way, looking for content that was never there. It’s like complaining that Toy Story isn’t scary enough or that Sleepless in Seattle doesn’t have enough dragons. I was looking for ‘content’ that wasn’t there in this predominately formal exercises of art. They were significant in how and why they were made in the time and fashion they were made (as I was rightly chided by art historian friends on twitter). But all I could see is a lack of content.
(This is getting back to Mountain I promise.)
So I’ve found myself in the last twelve months or so really interested in form as it relates to videogames. This is largely out of reading Susan Sontag. I’ve written both academically and non-academically about this. Ultimately, videogame criticism does not have a vocabulary to account for form. Two interrelated reasons for this:
1) Videogames have been traditionally measured in quality in terms of their ability to make the player feel ‘immersed’ in a virtual/fictional world. In terms of how well they let the player forget about their ‘real’ body and ‘real’ loungeroom and step into this virtual world. Like a holodeck in Star Trek (see Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck). The way we have traditionally, narrowly appreciated the pleasures afforded by videogames has been not unlike those paintings on the European church ceilings that blew me away: their ability to provide an immediate and intimate access to the ‘content’ of the paintings in an immersive fashion that lets me see past the ‘form’ of the paintings/videogame apparatus. So videogames (or, more accurately, how we have long valued videogames) have reinscribed the time-old dichotomy of wanting an immediate engagement with content while seeing past the gritty, material form of the videogame as a ‘thing’. (see Sontag’s essays “Against Interpretation” and “On Style”. We struggle to appreciate form in videogames.
2) When videogame criticism has approached ‘formalism’ it has been in its conservative, out-dated mode of those creators and authors who have a too-rigid idea of what videogames should be, not what they are. What I think most videogame critics see as ‘formalist’ would be exactly the train of thought that dismisses the likes of Mountain as not a game at all because it doesn’t have choices or agency or rules or some other boring, backwards notion of what a game must be. So we (and I indite myself intentionally) have found ourselves reactionary to discussions of form, I think, because it evokes the spectre of dudes who want to tell you that these new forms of videogames made by those who fall outside the narrow slither of people who until now were the only people making videogames are not videogames at all.
So there, I think are two reasons why, if Mountain is a “purely formal experience” (which, I think McMaster is right and it is) then I do not have the facilities to appreciate a purely formal experience of a videogame. Growing up on media and works that fall into that form/content dichotomy (videogames, action films, fantasy novels, all concerned with an ‘escapism’ into content) and having no real training in appreciating art beyond these popular forms, I do not have the capacities to appreciate what a game like Mountain is doing. That is, being a purely formal experience where it is just content to be what it is.
So I guess I appreciate why McMaster finds it an exciting game, because potentially it does point towards other games that are content to be “purely formal experiences”. To just be things in and of themselves. I can see how that is a cool thing.
So now that I’ve worked through all that, perhaps I can finally unpack why I still find Mountain disinteresting even after I can appreciate that it is a purely formal experience. I guess, probably, I don’t see it as an interesting instantiation of videogame form. I find it too irresponsive. For me, perhaps, a videogame form is focused on the flow between bodies (and those bodies), between player and hardware. I don’t mean a return back to GAMES ARE ACTION RAHR! but I sense that I am bodily caught up in the form of this thing. When I walk through the woods in Proteus or sit on the hillside I feel connected to it as part of the form that is Proteus, my eyes are ears incorporated into the sights and sounds that are the phenomenon of playing Proteus. In Mountain I don’t feel that connection. I tap away at some piano notes just to entertain myself before something falls from the sky. I walk away, decoupling myself from the game, not even remembering it is running until I can hear my Macbook’s fan from the other room. I draw some things and get no sense of how they respond to the shape of my mountain, if at all.
To stress, I am not making the complaint that Mountain is “not interactive enough”. Rather, if this is a purely formal experience, then I feel like that the two main elements of that form (the player, the game) are detached like oil sitting on water. It’s so content to be itself that I am unable to incorporate it and complete the player-and-game form. But now that is getting back to a prescriptive notion of “what is a videogame in the first place”. I guess I can see how formalism tips into, uh, formalistism.
Anyway. Seven out of Ten.