Time and Timelessness: ‘Mountain’ and ‘Durations’
Cameron Kunzelman is right to say that:
‘there’s a desire to see Mountain as profound. It wants to cultivate that, with its poetry, with its random objects, with its sometimes-soaring spouts of music. I’ll come out and say it: There’s nothing special about this mountain. It is like every other mountain, and if we wanted, we could try to mine that normality for profundity.’
It’s definitely a game that both invites reading whilst resisting interpretation at the same time. No matter how much we try and explore Mountain, either by zooming out into space or by flipping the mountain to see its underside, it always calls us back to that view of the rotating giant, turning endlessly through the day and weather cycles; no matter how hard we try and find something meaningful within the game that answers some unasked question, we are unanswered. Sure, we can zoom out into space if we really want to, but what does the space mean? What does it tell us about the mountain? Nothing, of course. Its purpose is to decontextualise; it’s seriously just a mountain floating in space. So we abandon the search for profundity. The game’s musical flourishes and occasional pieces of on-screen text are fleeting and transient, but the mountain itself is constant.
We can, of course, save the game and turn it off, but that doesn’t make the mountain go away. It is still there, in the save file, waiting to be revisited. We gain no progress towards any kind of reward, so when we save the game, what progress exactly are we supposed to be preserving? I think Kunzelman answers this neatly also:
‘The mountain becomes about how I relate to that mountain and what it does to me, and most importantly, how long I can stand to witness it. It becomes a game of endurance. How much Mountain can you take before you close it in boredom?’
A game of endurance, yes, but I think moreso a game of time. Creator David O’Reilly states that ‘[w]e as humans feel all big because we build great things but the fact is that mountains dwarf us.’ Not just spatially but temporally; they have outlasted and will continue to outlast almost everything else on Earth. And yet Mountain has an endpoint, supposedly after 50 hours of gameplay. This means it can be conquered, but not in the way that we are used to. ‘Beating’ Mountain requires no action on the part of the player. All that it asks of the player is time. In most games the movement of the player towards some kind of conclusion is predicated on interaction with the game world, and this comes to define the relationship between the player and that world - beat the final boss, complete the story, reach the highscore. Mountain, however does not define this relationship, and it falls to the player to come up with it, that is if the player decides that there is, should be, can be one at all.
Pippin Barr’s Durations is also a game of time, comprising of a series of minigames which last for a set amount of time before they terminate and return the player to the game selection screen. Their lengths are stated in their titles: One Second Typing Tutor, One Minute Speed Date, One Hour to Write a Novella, One Day Exergame, One Week Stake-Out, One Month Maze, One Year Finite Runner, One Decade at the Slot Machine, One Hundred Years of Solitude and One Millenium Avant-Garde Band.
Like Mountain, time changes the relationship that the player has with the game. In the first few games, One Second Typing Tutor, One Minute Speed Date and One Hour to Write a Novella, their short timespan encourages the player to rush their actions to get as far into the game as possible, to experience as much of it as they are allowed to before they are thrown out. Then, there are the longer games, which last from a day to a thousand years. At this point, the player will probably have explored as much of the games as they can within the first few moments of play, so what fills the rest of the allotted time? These, I think, are more games of endurance than Mountain is, on two levels. First is the endurance of the player to keep playing the game for as long as they are given - sure, you can physically last a year playing the Finite Runner on and off, but who wants to try? The second is something that Barr himself points out on his blog:
'On the other hand, another way of thinking about this is that the game may well be able to last for 100 years, say, conceptually, but that doesn’t mean that that would be easy to put into practice. Say I run it on my laptop – well what about battery life? System updates? Power outages? Hardware failure? Software failure? The number of things that could disrupt the game before it even came close to ending is large. If you really wanted to see that game through you’d have to take prodigious steps to do so, essentially treating your computer as a kind of archival object immediately and so on.'
This reaches its logical conclusion in the final game, One Millenium Avant Garde Band, a game that will outlast any person that plays it and any machine that runs it. As Barr says, ‘when you start the game you’re at the beginning of something you can’t really figure on seeing the end of’. The timer that forces the game to end after one thousand years is a piece of code that will never be activated, ever, but when you begin the game it lies there in wait for the moment that it will be needed. The concept of this piece of programming, always present and yet necessarily neglected, is profound because it suggests that the game can both outlast us and end. It feels like it could be ‘beaten’ - in the sense that it could be seen through to the finish - but only, as Barr says, conceptually. It poses an impossible challenge, and from that impossibility comes a question: if one cannot see the end of the game, what point is there in the beginning?
Two quotes on Mountain. The first, from David O’Reilly:
‘It’s going to mean different things to different people, and I can’t get in the way of that.’
The second, from my friend Dan McKenney:
‘Mountain is a virtual desk toy, and that’s okay.’