by Jed Pressgrove
Mountain has received a lot of attention and analysis due to the perception that it isn’t like other games. This hype underlines “mountain simulator” strangeness and only represents a half-truth. Like many video games, Mountain immodestly asks for hours and hours of the player’s time. Without that time, you might not “get it,” you might not properly enjoy it, you might miss something. In contrast, Temporality, a recent game by James Earl Cox III, takes a few minutes to play, and there’s nothing “to get” besides the game’s reflection on the complementary joy and fragility of human existence.
Mountain tends to inspire a mixture of irrelevant reactions. Some describe Mountain as a screensaver, others speculate about the meaning of a polygonal mountain getting struck by random objects after hours and hours, and still others, like Jim Sterling, refuse to criticize the game seriously. The positive/negative hype and guesswork surrounding the game serve no purpose. My review of Mountain also fails to put the game in a meaningful historical context (though I hold that the grandeur of real mountains trump Mountain’s smart-assed messages.)
Mountain’s weirdness and connection to Hollywood — developer David OReilly worked on the Spike Jonze film Her — encourage people to see it as an anomaly worth studying. Tying Mountain to OReilly’s past work, Ian Bogost shares the most articulate interpretation of the game:
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.
Of course, this articulation is part of a pitch for Bogost’s book, “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” For Bogost’s review to register as positive criticism, one must enjoy speculation about the theoretical experiences of things. Even with this academic interest, Mountain offers little universal insight into “mountain experience” with its remarks and objects. The game involves what random thought you have in reaction to a random thing, and for a lot of people, that random thought isn’t going to be “oh, alien phenomenology.” Regardless, like a campaign from a “AAA” game, Mountain can provide hours and hours of fantasy, this time about “Mountain experience” rather than what cool sword you might come across. (Mountain is even vaguer than Dark Souls, but at least the difficulty in conquering the latter can be defined by anyone.)
Cox’s Temporality defies the video game traditions of vague commentary and fantasy content. The game concerns the life and death of a soldier. The lives of soldiers have been explored often in fiction, so Temporality is not wholly original. Nonetheless, Cox’s delivery of this concept carries an appreciation of time that goes beyond platitudes like “Life is short.”
Like Mountain, Temporality doesn’t have the expected things of video games like talking, collecting, shooting, managing, buying, selling, investigating, sneaking, jumping … the list of traditional game actions goes on and on. Instead, Cox uses a combination of music, pixels, and time manipulation to inspire consideration of a soldier’s sacrifice. Temporality only offers two actions for the player: the ability to move time forward and the ability to move time backward. If the player doesn’t hold down a key to perform either action, the game freezes allowing one to contemplate the gravity of life and death as defined by time and memory.
As you move events forward or in reverse in Temporality, the game depicts life as a series of parallel occurrences in time. Cox’s intention isn’t to show a soldier at death’s door having flashbacks to happier, less dangerous experiences. The game avoids this banality through a cyclical presentation of pivotal moments in the soldier’s life, suggesting that our experiences move together and play off each other, like the individual instruments of a song. Cox’s intellectual understanding of life and time is not forced; it gives the game an emotional, universal power that is amplified by Jon Hopkins’ song “Immunity” (the affecting piano in “Immunity” exposes Mountain’s insulting offering of keyboard notes to the player).
Temporality displays unique beauty that encourages interpretation, whereas OReilly’s floating mountains look like jokes compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes in Brothers: A Tale of Sons (Mountain’s zooming and spinning are backhanded features, not perspectives). While Cox uses primitive pixels in Temporality, the game’s side-scrolling soldiers recall the tracking shots in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — not as homage but to establish definable emotional stakes. The game’s limited use of color heightens the stakes when the soldier, as a young boy, runs in a bright blue rain. Cox’s child-like appreciation of the past is genuine.
For hours upon hours, you can let Mountain hang in the background of your computer activities. Perhaps the game chimes to signal another (hopefully) revealing message about “what it’s like to be a thing,” or maybe the whole thing is trivial fun. In any case, many point out Mountain only costs $1. So what? Temporality, free, has an indisputable statement to make and doesn’t need text to do it. Mountain is time wasted. Temporality is time considered.