Originally published at The Atlantic

Near the start of his relationship with a computer operating system in Spike Jonze’s Academy Award-winning film Her, Samantha the OS (Scarlett Johansson) helps Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) play a videogame. Called “Alien Child” by the filmmakers, the game seems familiar enough to be plausible to viewers, yet foreign enough to induce estrangement. The same could be said of the film’s high-waisted trouser fashions, improbable high rises and mass transit in future Los Angeles, and Theodore’s job as an outsourced personal correspondence writer. This is not our world, but it might be.

The viewer sees the game’s uncanniness most clearly when Theodore controls the helmeted creature in its holographic world. In a burlesque of recent “natural” physical interfaces like Microsoft’s Kinect, Theodore moves the game character by walking the fingers of his own downturned hands to operate the character’s feet. The act is ridiculous; it looks like dog paddling, or rifling through paper files, or prancing like a show horse.

Theodore plays David OReilly's mock-up of a video game in Her (Warner Bros.)

The effect defamiliarizes the game even as it casts Theodore as a washout. His cumbersome inner life is expressed through his awkward interface with a computer game. At the same time, the film juxtaposes that ungainly interface with the natural, seductive draw of Samantha. Why would one dog-paddle a computer when instead one can flirt with Scarlett Johansson to operate one?

The game itself was not real, but an animated film made to look the part—a video game as a set or a prop. The animator David OReilly was selected to direct the “Alien Child” game sequences after Jonze had seen and appreciated OReilly’s aggressively unusual, award-winning 3D animated shorts. On first blush Jonze’s futurist chic and OReilly’s jackass glitch seem like unlikely stylistic bedfellows. But once you’ve watched them, it becomes clear that the little asshole of an alien would not be out of place in any of OReilly’s often NSFW films.

In fact, OReilly’s animation has always been jealous of video games. The main difference between 3D animated filmmaking and 3D computer games is that the latter must present scenes in real-time, because they have to respond to changes in state from the game’s logic and from the user’s input. In an essay about his own technique, OReilly explains that he adopts a low-polygon, aliased style largely to speed up the filmmaking process. Pixar-style computer graphics films require time-consuming and computationally expensive rendering procedures that churn out the detail, lighting, and softening we’ve come to associate with high-gloss, big budget computer animation. Instead, OReilly uses simple, preview renders—the rough cut the a computer animator would normally use to check work-in-progress—as his final product.

It was thus no surprise that OReilly would eventually try his hand at making a real video game. The result is Mountain, a $1 game that seems to bend the very idea of a game to the breaking point. OReilly’s website describes the game as “Mountain Simulator, Relax em’ up, Art Horror etc.” Among its selling points: “no controls, time moves forward, nature expresses itself.”

When you load mountain, it first poses a series of prompts. Loss, or Sickness, or Your First Memory, or Logic, or Your Soul or Birth, for example, although many others are possible. The player must respond to these prompts by drawing a picture on a blank canvas. Presumably, the data from these drawings seed the random number generators in the algorithms that terraform your mountain and supply events during the course of play. Then, as the mountain generates, the game displays a message:


You sure don’t feel like God, though. The mountain appears, disembodied, as if extracted from a terrestrial home like a daisy plucked from a meadow. It floats in an atmosphere, where clouds and weather and the light of dawn and dusk and the cycle of the seasons proceed at an accelerated pace. The mountain changes subtly over time, on its surface at least. Plants and trees die and grow anew. Snow falls and melts. Cloud cover aggregates and disperses.

Although the game’s menu cheekily advises that the mouse and keyboard controls do “nothing,” in fact the mouse can be used to rotate and zoom the view around the mountain. The keyboard produces soft piano music, with which the player can tap out calming tunes while in the presence of his or her mountain. Zoom back far enough and you enter the starry galaxy in which it is inexplicably suspended.

* * *

Things become stranger over time. As Mountain sits there in its window and you get back to writing or tweeting or whatever it is you do with your computer, occasional impacts can be heard. Sometimes meteorites hit its surface, glowing red or blue with the unknown, anonymous matter of space. But more often, worldly objects collide with and embed themselves in the Mountain. A pie. A sailboat. A clock. A streetlamp. A padlock. A horse, a chair, a slice of cake, a skull, a tooth, trashcans, dice. Once lodged in the soft earth of a mountain, these objects remain there forever, immovable. The mountain doesn’t seem to mind. Forgetting myself, I click on a message in a bottle upon noticing its arrival after a lunch or a coffee break, as if Mountain might betray itself and present the object for me to handle or open and read. Nothing happens, of course. Mountain just soldiers on.

Occasionally, as night shifts to day or vice versa, a note echoes and the Mountain offers a line of feedback at screen top. “I’m reminded of my childhood on this bright day,” it might say, or “I can’t get enough of this melancholy night.” The clever player will discover that depressing the period key will force one of these koans to appear, making it possible to poll it for feedback as often as one wishes, an ever patient oracle as the mountain rather than on it.

Sometimes, Mountain’s messages read more like existentialist prophecy rather than self-report. “I feel like something is about to happen,” one emotes. Is it a signal of some impending disaster? Will a new object soon collide with it, adding to the pile of unexplained rubble?

After one such notice, I resolved to pay greater attention, zooming out to watch my mountain’s celestial neighborhood more closely. To my surprise, in addition to the meteors I’d seen previously, whole objects sometimes appear in the vacuum of space as well. In a dramatic moment, an aircraft hurtles silently toward my mountain’s atmosphere. Knowing that an identical craft had already lodged itself in the structure’s side in mimicry or mockery of earthly disaster, I track it closely. It glows red hot as it meet my mountain’s atmosphere, but it survives re-entry, only to pass by the mountain entirely, exiting out the other side and gliding into space. Mountain is unfazed.

A mountain, unconcerned at the aircraft that nearly collides with it.

Once one has witnessed events such as this in Mountain, its messages become ever more urgent and disorienting. “I cannot tell if my life is going in circles or if I am making any progress,” it tells me one morning. Later, as I’ve zoomed out into space amidst a snowstorm, it laments, “Why am I alone?” During a ruddy, overcast dusk it opines, “If I ever see another thing like me, will it like me?”

As time wears on, I get the sense that my mountain’s existential angst is intensifying. “How long have I been here?” it asks. Or, “I can do whatever I want!” it declares. Or “Things are coming together,” it opines. And forebodingly, as dawn’s rosy fingers break yet again, “Here is another day. How many days do I have?”

These interjections seem too anthropocentric to make sense for a game in which “you are mountain.” If a mountain could talk, would it express existential doubt and dread? Would it play the Woody Allen neurotic, the Prufrock twerp content to let earthly waste accumulate upon it without objection? At this stage, the player has a choice: to dismiss Mountain as a curious, boring conceit, or to treat it as something more serious.

* * *

Just as I begin to toy with the question of what it means to “be” mountain, Mountain beats me to it: “What is a mountain, exactly?” it asks. I take it up on the invitation to ponder an answer.

Almost always, to play a video game is to take on a role. Games often put you in control, but more than that they give you an alter-ego. You are the space marine, pro footballer, farmer, mayor, race car driver, Italian plumber. Her’s “Alien Child” game is no different—Theodore “is” the helmeted, adventuring explorer. Even when games don’t appear to have a clear role to play, as in puzzle games like Tetris or Hundreds, the implied role is you, yourself: can you solve the puzzle, can you beat the clock. Games are about playing roles, and games are about folding those roles over on one’s sense of self. I am not a World Cup athlete, but here’s a caricature of what it feels like to be one. I am not the mushroom-eating plumber duo of Japanese fantasy, but I enjoy pretending to be for a spell.

Mountain breaks this mold. Some would argue that it does so by removing the conventions of challenge, action, and interactivity that video games so often insist separate them from the stodgy changelessness of novels, films, even the plastic arts. In recent years, a series of low-interaction, low challenge, 3D games have become quite popular. Some focus on narrative, like Dear Esther and Gone Home; others on environment, like Proteus and The Graveyard. But these games—sometimes called “non-games” by supporters and detractors alike—still don’t erase the player’s role as much as OReilly’s Mountain does.

Stills from environmental storytelling games Dear Esther (left) and Gone Home (right)

Others have compared Mountain to a screensaver, but this analogy also breaks down. For one, the screensaver as form is vestigial. Functionally, modern LCD displays can’t burn-in like old CRTs could, making screensavers aesthetic curiosities. But even more so, most of us use tablets and phones and laptops these days, devices that sleep when they are not in use rather than displaying eye candy to distract or entertain those nearby an idle machine. And even as an ambient post-screensaver experience, Mountain’s 3D constant rendering spins up the processor fans even on a relatively powerful machine. Like its namesake, Mountain is hardly unobtrusive.

Mountain breaks the mold of video games not by subverting its conventions through inactivity, but by offering an entirely different kind of roleplay action as its subject. It presents neither the role of the mountain, nor the role of you the player-as-master, nor the absence of either role. In their place, Mountain invites you to experience the chasm between your own subjectivity and the unfathomable experience of something else, something whose “experience” is so unfamiliar as to be unimaginable. What is a mountain, exactly? It is a stand-in for the intractability of ever understanding what it’s like to be something else. Mountain offers a video game version of a philosophical practice I call alien phenomenology—a sustained and deliberate invitation to speculate on what it’s like to be a thing.

The careful player will begin to see signs of Mountain’s rejection of mere representation early on. The sun rises and sets to fashion day and night for the mountain, but no star can be found in its immediate vicinity; the light seems to emanate from within the atmosphere itself. OReilly called Mountain a “mountain simulator,” but it doesn’t simulate any of the geological processes one would ordinarily associate with mountain simulation—erosion and plate tectonics and volcanic accretion and igneous intrusion and so forth. Rather, the mountain just is, its surface changes so subtle as to become irrelevant.

Things start to come together with M. Night Shyamalan, hit-yourself-in-the-forehead obviousness. The “you” in “you are mountain” doesn’t refer to the terraformed 3D game object, at all. Instead, it describes the game itself. You are not mountain; rather, you are Mountain. You play as the abyss between the human and the alpine.

What about the koans? The “I” that speaks is not the mountain’s voice, at all. Rather, it’s that of the game, as heard from a disembodied interface that overlays text atop the mountain’s universe. A mountain can’t speak, after all, any more than it can slough off the horses and airplanes that might litter its surface. How selfish of us to think that the messages the game presents represent the mountain talking to us. How churlish and oblivious we must be to think that a mountain would communicate with us on our terms, in our language, prattling about its delight at the weather or its angst at the pointlessness of existence!

Instead, these koans are just prompts, prompts that invite you the player to ponder the nature of your separation from a mountain—or for that matter, anything that might embed itself in the slope of one. Think of them as little exercises, invitations the game extends to you to help you think through the impassible valley between your own experience and the unknowable experience of an entity like a mountain. “I sense overwhelming calm in this enigmatic night” or “This just feels like a colossal waste of time” are not clues about the 3D mountain’s internal state, but an invitation to speculate on a mountain’s version of such emotional or intellectual orientations. When Mountain declares “There is something missing,” or “I can do whatever I want!” it ventriloquizes the player rather than addressing him or her.

But then what? You can sit there before the alien presence that is the mountain, or if you find it too boring, you can opt out. Just quit the game and walk away, if you’d like. Delete it. It only cost a dollar, after all; that’s less than you’d spend on a coffee brewed from the beans that grow on the side of some mountain indifferent to them. Or keep it running instead to remind yourself what the valley between you and a mountain feels like. Just don’t expect the mountain to care one way or another. This is what realism looks like when it toes the line between sentimentality and nihilism.

* * *

OReilly was interested in the metaphysics of other beings long before he contributed to Jonze’s film about coming to terms with an unfamiliar intelligence. His 2010 animated short The External World opens with a title card reminiscent of Mountain’s atmospheric orb floating in the isolating nothingness of space. This time, the external world of the film’s title is not a singular, monumental object, but any object, with which we might choose to commune differently if only we gave the matter further thought.

The short breaks down into even shorter scenes, often revisiting the same scenarios. In a threatening retirement home from the future, a character reminiscent of Felix the Cat or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit frames a pie with a paper cutout, then devours the paper as a stand-in. In so doing, his gaze, depicted literally with a Looney Tunes-style dotted line of sight, becomes material and pierces another resident, severing him in two. Later, a bird that squawks like a modem communes with a fax machine (who rejects its advances with a fax machine’s version of an obscene gesture). A weeping girl pulls tissues from a box, which screams in pain every time a leaf of flesh is violently torn from it. A teacher’s disciplinary hand persists as phantom even after its owner is annihilated.

The External World offers a kind of horror very different from that term’s usual meaning as a marker of genre. OReilly suggests the genre “art horror” for Mountain, but both the game and the short might be better thought of as ontological horror. Unlike H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories focus on the cosmic unknown, OReilly’s ponders the cosmic quotidian. Mountains and pies and tissue boxes; ordinary rather than extraordinary beings.

The “Alien Child” video game scene serves a specific narrative purpose in Her: It demonstrates a halfway point between the impersonal, voice-operated interfaces that pervade its handheld devices and work terminals, and the empathetic artificial intelligences exemplified by cybernetic OS1 individuals like Samantha. The alien child not only possesses enough of a personality to ridicule Theodore, but also it can respond to the environment—insulting his prospective blind date, or calling the incorporeal Samantha “fat.”

But despite this slow and steady ramp from familiar to unfamiliar forms of computer intelligence, Her never really challenges the viewer to imagine what it would be like to enter into a relationship with a computer operating system—whether a platonic or a romantic one. At the end of the day, Samantha is just a cipher for Scarlett Johansson—an actress whose voice is so characteristic that no reasonable viewer could possible dissociate one her from the other. When Samantha starts worrying about incorporeality, it’s nearly impossible for the viewer to take her seriously. Samantha’s vocal reality is so strongly affixed to the rest of her famous body that the film ultimately fails to invite the viewer to ponder what it would be like to fall in love with an operating system. Instead, all we can do is ponder falling in love with a woman we’ve never seen. That’s hardly science fiction.

Her is not really a film about a hypothetical future in which humans accept artificial intelligence as companions. Rather, it’s a film about whether and how a culture might come to terms with an alien intelligence. But it turns out that the culture most challenged to do so is not our human one, but the society of OS1 beings themselves. And at the end of the day, the incorporeal, computer intelligences turn out to be the reluctant ones rather than the humans. We don’t abandon the OSes on account of their bodilessness, but rather they leave us on account of our languor.

Fifty hours in, the last thing Mountain urges me to ponder is “I just felt God in this enigmatic night.” I tap the period key to force another koan out of it. “Where are the answers?” it offers.

Here’s one: Mountain does what Her attempts, but better. If you’ve stuck with a mountain long enough, eventually it walks away from you rather than you from it. But unlike Samantha, the mountain doesn’t leave on account of any of your failings. At the end of the day, Mountain is no more concerned for you than you are for facial tissues, or than the Indian Ocean is for a lost jetliner.

Hollywood needs a love story. It’s hard to imagine a film like Her without one. But love stories assume not only that direct, sensual connections between beings is possible, but that such relations are our ultimate goal. Mountain imagines Her as if the film been titled It instead. It offers a subtler version of what a life attached to unfamiliar things might feel like. Not comfort or intimacy, but estrangement and confusion, mixed with curiosity and wonder. But most of all, while Her depicts a future on an alternate timeline we must struggle to believe, Mountain reminds us that we need not wait to commune with things. They’re everywhere, overwhelming us, sticking to us, piling up around us. And they are here not to save you, nor to destroy you. They are just here. What if that were enough?

published July 17, 2014