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.
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.
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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.
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?”