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Interactive Mountain
by Raph Koster on 07/10/14 07:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Everyone is talking about Mountain.A screenshot of 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.

Here’s Brendan Keogh reacting negatively to Mountain:

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.

Interactivity again

In the last few days I have been writing on and debating “interactivity.” So let me offer up an alternate formulation here that ditches the word altogether.

First, let’s look at a dictionary definition of interactivity:

interactive  (ˌɪntərˈæktɪv)
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”

These two pretty much encapsulate the debate over “strong” and “weak” interactivity, or “exploratory” versus “ontological,” or “gamey” and “not a game” or whatever.

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.

Inner lives

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.

- UO’s Resource System, part 3

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.

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TC Weidner
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I can stare at a wall, and then philosophize about all the atoms interaction, and the incredible quantum mechanics going on, and whether the wall is even there of just created by our minds, and whether higher dimensions exist so that in reality the wall is not solid at all, etc etc etc.. but still, lets face it. You really think "the wall" is really a "game". Really? If so I have 4 games to sell you. Come on over. Its F2P, although if you want the walls colors to change, well thats a small fee.

You guys want to talk about genius in game design, lets talk No Man's Land shall we. Those guys may just change how game world are made forever.

Christian Nutt
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The raft of cynicism Mountain generates is an interesting phenomenon in and of itself.

TC Weidner
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and thats an interesting point...and with the amount of conversations and debates this has created, does that make it art even if it didnt start out that way?
It all reminds me of something that happened to me years ago in a gallery in old philly on a first friday. There was people standing around a white cube display stand you commonly see in galleries, on this one was a half eaten bagel ( i kid you not). Now the whole heated debate taking place was people were trying to figure out, if this was an art display, or if indeed it was just one lazy persons trash.

It did lead to some really interesting discussions, some pretty good stuff coming from both sides about art. After awhile, people started agreeing that even if the bagel started out as trash, it may have indeed morphed itself into art, even without a knowing artist, for the debate it created was intriguing, much more intriguing than most "art". Art can be sneaky.. While I still think of this mountain as a screensaver, perhaps it is making the leap to art..

oh and by the way, the bagel, did indeed just start out as trash.. the gallery owner left it there for the night, and got rid of it the next day, but it was ironic that gallery trash" had more effect on people and conversation than anything I ever saw in that gallery.

Kaze Kai
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I always simplify this debate with "I play games to specifically be an agent in the universe that does effect things. I watch netflix or read books to be an observer." That's my one mandate for games - I have to be in control of something. An avatar, a civilization, the world's formation, something must give me the sense of agency that I am effecting what happens on the screen, some feedback that my actions have reactions.

I guess pressing a key and hearing a note play technically counts.

But it's not satisfying to do so. If the primary interest is watching (read "watching, not "determining" or "effecting") a landscape take form, it's a movie. If the music effects how the landscape takes shape somehow, it's a video game. Incidentally, I cannot seem to figure out if the latter is true at all. In that case it's still a video game, albeit one with shoddy mechanics, although that might have been the intent. If it was the intent to experiment with people's perceptions of things, it's not the kind of thing I think people should have to pay for, because adding real money into anything invokes responsibility on the person asking for it to provide something that meets the expectations of a consumer - you don't fuck around with other peoples' money by trying to make an artistic or social statement and this is not acceptable in other art mediums, why is it acceptable in this one? If you want to run an experiment in art, or express a view, you put it up on display where everyone can see it. You don't charge an entrance fee.

Heng Yoeung
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you don't fuck around with other peoples' money by trying to make an artistic or social statement and this is not acceptable in other art mediums,

That's not actually true. And you know it. Humility isn't a bad teacher, you know. That said, I hate feeling like a jackass. Best to be true, though.

Raph Koster
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Funny, usually I get accused of being the game conservative. ;)

Christian Nutt
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But not the game cynic! There's a difference.

Kyle Owens
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Certainly, Mountain is an exploration of the boundaries of the definition of a game, but it's akin to minimalist paintings where a 5x8' canvas is painted solid orange and called "Melancholy". It feels like an unfinished prototype or some asset or foundation to be built upon--perhaps just something to tick away in the background that you can check in on out of bored curiosity. Yet, like much of minimalist art, it's only interesting the first time and it gets old very fast.

Perhaps it would be more excusable if the input you put in at the beginning had a more noticeable effect on the generated landscape.

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Well the interaction between the inner life of the objects and the one of the player is what makes game interesting, contents is mechanics like mechanics it's about effecting an inner life in one direction . The way the mountain is still a game is that it explicitly point to its control (aka nothing).

That's important because the only things that separate non game to game is only how we "frame" it, that's the difference between activities as "works" and the same as "games" aka the inner life and how this inner life dispose us toward that activities. By pointing to control and framing it itself as a game, the mountain make the player disposition toward the art filled with expectation therefore reflect on any deviation from it's own take on the frame, forcing him to reconsider it.

Had it been call a screensaver it would have been an entirely different experience that would have call for different reflexivity from the player. As such the framing (a game about a mountain that is slightly different and mysterious to player) is indeed a mechanics used to "interact" with the player own reflexivity setting a goal, a challenge, to redefine the artwork (the game the mountain) in a way that diminish its dissonance ...

The catch here is that is the object itself is the set of representation? or the physical artefact that support and run it? I mean the set of representation is still distinct from the player and has a finite life on its own, that's why we can describe it to each over beyond the suggestive judgment we pass on it (it's a game or it's not). That's why "contents" is mechanics, it plays, orient, modify and influence the dynamics between the object and the player.

Heng Yoeung
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Mountain leaves you with your inner life, facing actual alien phenomenology. In other words, Mountain is a challenge to your empathy.

Empathy is not a bad conclusion. What you sow is what you reap. Sow empathy, empathy returns to you in the harvest. Sow silence, reap peace. The man who knows least, says most; the man who says most, knows least; the man who knows all, says nothing. And so, some monks take a vow of silence. Trappists. Which, Thomas Merton, was one. Might want to read "Seven Storey Mountain". The poem at the end is so moving, I had a difficult time finishing reading it, even though it's only about a page long. Really beautiful.

Vasily Yourchenko
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I guess games truly are art now because just as everything is art everything is a game.
If Mountain is a game, why isn't a painting a game? At this point, what utility does the word "game" offers that "art" does not? Are they not synonyms? I do not mind if "game" takes on this meaning, but I'm going to need a new word that conveys the traditional meaning of "game".

Raph Koster
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I have been using "ludic artifact." My logic on it is here:

Vasily Yourchenko
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You present a very interesting take on the subject. Looking through this lens I can definitely see where you are coming from.