Everyone is talking about Mountain.
Mountain is a game where you see a 3d mountain. It can be turned. You can play some notes on the keyboard. The mountain does things on its own. Trees grow, clouds, etc. It “says” things. Stuff falls from the sky. It’s pretty.
There is nothing you can do to affect the mountain, at least not that anyone has discovered.
Now, obviously this is the sort of thing that would get called “not a game.” And in fact, while praising it, some get perilously close to saying exactly that, in academic lingo:
Just to be clear: Mountain is not a text. It shouldn’t be treated as one. Mountain is best understood as an exercise in form — it’s a small, contained work that depicts and explores a mountain as an object.
At Critical Proximity I pointed out that the avant-garde/art/whatever games would have been called “formalist” in any other medium, so I like this observation.
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.
First, let’s look at a dictionary definition of interactivity:
interactive (ˌɪntərˈæktɪv) — adj 1. allowing or relating to continuous two-way transfer of information between a user and the central point of a communication system, such as a computer or television 2. (of two or more persons, forces, etc) acting upon or in close relation with each other; interacting
Let me hasten to point out that this is far from the only definition out there; I am picking this one in particular just because of two phrases contained therein:
- “two-way transfer”
- “in close relation”
This is where we see people on the one side discussing feedback, mechanics, and other words with the same clinical detached tone as “two-way transfer.” And two-way is such a binary simple thing, absolutist and firm: if it’s two-way it’s one thing, if it’s one-way it’s another. Nice bright line.
And on the other side we see people fetishizing the word “immersion,” talking primarily from the point of view of the player’s perception, eschewing essentialism like the above. It’s about mental constructs, Kieron Gillan saying things like
This makes us Travel Journalists to Imaginary places. Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist outside of the gamer’s head — the gamer, not the game, remember. Go to a place, report on its cultures, foibles, distractions and bring it back to entertain your readers.
Let me suggest that we can think of these as two different preoccupations.
- An interest in the inner life of subject A (the object)
- An interest in the inner life of subject B (the player)
There is a third actor in the mix, at a minimum: the creator of the object. But let’s leave that dynamic aside for a moment.
What is “life?” Ah. It’s basically autonomous movement, in this conception. It is the turning over of ideas and tumblers, the movement of muscles and theses. Everything has it, in this sense, but it grows increasingly alien as we move farther away from our own subjective experiences. And it also does come in degrees; some things and some people simply don’t engage in this turning over, this tumbling. Some are quiescent. I am quiescent, when I watch, say, Suits on USA, or Bring It On. Under varying circumstances, we (or anything) are excitated by signal, by story, or not.
It is very hard to perceive the inner life of a rock, and those who do are (ironically) deeply “formalist” and “essentialist” and all those other nasty words, because they’re scientists who have gone and learned geology and therefore understand the rock on its own terms. But sometimes maybe there’s a story told to us that includes some of the point of view of a rock, and then we can start to build a mental model. Think of these explainers and storytellers as Travel Journalists to a Real Place, perhaps.
Some things give you high signal views of their inner lives. Some give you low signal. (That you can perceive, anyway; we aren’t equipped to see many of the signals given by a rock). Similarly, since this is a binary relationship, there are signals we are giving off to the rock. It’s very hard to tell if the rock cares, though we may perhaps notice that it warms up when we sit on it.
Critics who want to use the term interactivity to focus on the subjective experiences of players, who see interactivity in every cognitive interaction with a text, who want to write games criticism that is personal, are all focused on the inner life of the player. This is a very important thing to focus on; the much-maligned allegedly formalist game grammarian would tell you that the canvas of a game is the human mind.
Critics who are interested in game grammar, though, are interested in the inner life of the object. They get a lot less interested when the object doesn’t have much of an inner life, when it’s not turning over ideas in its head, when it’s not evolving, when it does not react.
Simulation versus stagecraft
People who are interested in the inner life of the player are going to tend to prioritize signal that excitates the player. People who are interested in the inner life of the object are going to be interested in signal about excitation within the object. We have terms for these.
- When a game object is ticking over, turning, tumbling, moving, living, it’s called “simulation.”
- When a player is ticking over, turning, tumbling, moving, living, we usually call it “thinking” or “reacting” or “cognitive processes.”
- When a game object is not actually exhibiting much of an inner life, but the player is getting a signal anyway, intended to provoke a player’s inner life, we call it “stagecraft.”
Critics and thinkers who are interested in the inner lives of the game are often disdainful of stagecraft. It’s “faking it.” You’re talking to the dead, after all. Now, nothing is entirely “dead” in that sense (everything has some amount of inner life) but there’s a threshold there where they see themselves betrayed. They can tell at a glance that the apparently static output of a Mandelbrot set has a rich inner life, and that Conway’s Game of Life does too, and that a Hardy Boys novel has less.
On the other hand, designers who are more interested in simulation are often accused of “ant farming,” of non-commercial work. They frequently fall into the trap of making games with rich inner lives are are opaque to the player:
It has to be visible and responsive to players. This includes exposing causality. Otherwise, it might as well be random.
Because of this, it is usually considered best practice to make sure to have the right amount of stagecraft present to get across the inner life of the object.
People interested in the inner life of the player don’t really care whether the signal from the object is actually reflective of what is going on inside the object. Otherwise, they wouldn’t love Final Fantasy games. Their core preoccupation is what goes on inside themselves. After all, the signal they are getting from stagecraft may prove just as, if not more intriguing than the actual inner life of the object.
In point of fact, it is almost certainly far more digestible than the actually alien things that are going on inside the object. It will be presented in familiar media, in familiar “language” in order to communicate and bridge the gap. In effect, stagecraft is prepackaged provocations for an inner life. Stagecraft is usually designed very intentionally to create a specific inner life in the player, to shape them in specific ways. We design stories in order to excite only these neurons, not those. It’s far more predictable than the excitation provided by the actual inner life of an object, which might provoke reactions we don’t want.
And people interested in the inner life of the player then say things like
when people say games need objectives in order to be ‘games’, i wonder why ‘better understanding another human’ isn’t a valid ‘objective’
games need ‘challenges’ and ‘rules’, isn’t ‘empathy’ a challenge, aren’t preconceptions of normativity a ‘rule’
– Leigh Alexander on Twitter, quoted in “A Letter to Leigh”
Back to the mountain
Mountain has an inner life. We think. There is a fair amount of stagecraft there presenting it. Trees, clouds, etc. Gosh, say the signals. There’s something going on this mountain.
The player playing it also has an inner life. They wondering about this mountain, which is giving off all these signals. It’s looking at this mountain, much like it might look at one in real life. You could move around a real mountain. You could stand there and watch trees grow on it, or clouds shadow it, or seasons change. You could even play chimes at a real mountain.
The bridge between the two is very tenuous, though. Both lives are alone together. They aren’t really communicating with one another, they are just throwing off errant signals. The player has no way to direct these signals towards the mountain with intentionality. We don’t know if the mountain can hear them anyway. There is a glass wall separating these two lives.
When most people — not high-falutin’ critics, not erudite scholars — say the word “interactivity” they mean reaching through that wall. There’s another word for that process…
Mountain is in some ways a direct challenge to those who see interactivity as about the player’s inner life. It doesn’t provide a lot of support for it. In in fact tries pretty hard to give you just about the same sort of support you get from going outside. To people who are used to being spoonfed crafted signal, this is a big leap.
To people interested in the inner life of the object, though, it also lacks enough signal. There’s an inner life in there, there’s a machine or a beating heart. Stuff wouldn’t change on the outside if not. We just can’t tell if it’s a set of sine waves or something more complex. How alive it is, or whether it’s actually pretty dead. (The natural next impulse of someone interested in the inner life of the mountain will be to decompile it and dissect it on a stainless steel table.)
Mountain leaves you with your inner life, facing actual alien phenomenology. In other words, Mountain is a challenge to your empathy.