GOD MODE ENABLED: A review of David O’Reilly’s Mountain

Gaming has always been about providing the player with situations and positions of power. Fight back against oppression. Build an empire. Destroy your opponents. Become god-like.

These are the Old Testament, vengeful takes on god, filled with retribution, employed via God Modes that provide you with invulnerability and every armament possible. On the other hand, we also have God Games, which empower the player with the ability to create, destroy, and provide for your flock’s every need.

But whether it’s God Mode or God Games, in every one of these instances, the idea of god is one of power, of might, of compassion. 

David O’Reilly’s Mountain, a self-described “god simulator,” provides an approach more in line with deism—the belief that, while there is a god, he’s probably not too interested in us. After the creation of the universe, deists argue that god simply allows life to exist and does not intervene in earthly affairs. That makes us the inhabitants of a theological snowglobe, if you will.

During a quick introduction, you are prompted to respond to a series of questions or statements with a simple sketch, such as “What is sadness?” or “Your mother.” What relationship there is between your new hunk of rock and the scribbles you just made is unclear, but after this, your “body”—the mountain—is generated.

And there you sit. Watching. observing.

And that’s it.

Your mountain swirls on the screen while weather patterns come and go, trees sprout, wither and die, and days turn to night and back. You can zoom in to take in the details of a snow-covered peak, or all the way out to see your self-contained floating island in an inky universe.

Periodic statements float along the top of the window, giving you a glimpse into the inner monologue of a giant rock in space: “I’m reminded of my childhood on this turbulent night.” Or, “I feel great serenity in this magnificent day.” “I don’t really know what I am. Is that weird?”

Ostensibly, you could generate a world and never return to it, leaving the universe you created to exist without you; a world without rule. As you watch your mountain continue to spin quietly, suspended in space, randomly generated trees grow and die on the island, though I had a biplane and sailboat appear lodged in the side of my mountain. Apparently there’s more out there in space than just trees.

O’Reilly’s work dances around the intersection between the quiet, meditative moments of life and the broader technological world always encroaching on that serenity, but he’s never been afraid to throw out a curveball every once in awhile. In his first foray into gaming, he’s turned to arguably one of the deepest realms of human choice possible: when given absolute control, what do we do with it?

That’s not to say this is some po-faced meditation on the reality of god. O’Reilly refers to the game as a “relax-em-up,” and the controls page lets you know that the mouse and keyboard are for “NOTHING.” While that’s not not entirely true—typing on the keyboard translates into sullen piano tones that can speed up time—this is primarily an experience to leave up in a window and check in with periodically. It’s like the least-demanding Tamagotchi ever made.

But, as with all minimalist art, you get out of Mountain as much as you put into it, like a digital Rorshach Test. Is it a metaphor for our relationship to god? Is it a joke making fun of the very idea of the “anti-game”? Why is there a sailboat sticking out of the side of my mountain?

We ask, but Mountain says little back.