I've spent the last hour staring at a crudely rendered hunk of rock floating in mid-air. Apparently the hunk of rock is a mountain, or at least I’m inclined to believe it is, because this game is called Mountain. When I started playing some text informed me that I’m a mountain and a God. I use my mouse to rotate the camera and zoom in and out. After zooming out a bit, it becomes clear that the mountain is encapsulated in an orb of light and floating in space. The rest of the universe around my mountain is empty (as the universe tends to be).
I don’t feel like much of a God. I don’t know how much control I have over this game right now. There’s an option menu where I can toggle a few display settings. Next to word the “Controls” the game bluntly displays the word “Nothing.” I can’t control my controls. My mountain isn't much of a mountain in the traditional sense either. It’s more of a pointy hill, but pointy hill isn't a very catchy title for a video game.
After playing for some time, I notice the game has variable weather conditions and a day-night cycle. The former doesn't seem to have any noticeable effects on my mountain, while the latter offers me cryptic messages at the top of the screen when the in-game world reaches dawn.
At one point my mountain asks, “What’s it all about?”
I absentmindedly bump my computer keyboard and discover that it now doubles as a musical instrument. The bottom two rows of keys are now a toy piano. I bang out rough renditions of Frère Jacques, Ode to Joy and Three Blind Mice/Hot Crossed Buns (a two for one!).
And that’s it. That’s Mountain.
Mountain has no fail state, no winning conditions and no objectives. This is a game that more or less operates itself and asks the player to observe. Maybe your actions have some effect on your mountain. Maybe they don’t. Either way, the experience is both soothing and oddly compelling. Mountain is also, unsurprisingly, the least game-like video game I've ever played. Really, it’s unlike anything I've played before.
Is played the right word?
A quick glance at the comment section on Mountain’s Steam Store page reveals that quite a few people aren't as enamored with Mountain as I am. In fact, they seem pretty upset about it.
The commenters are content to beat the same dead horse en masse—MOUNTAIN IS NOT A VIDEO GAME!
What the hell is a video game?
Most catch-all definitions of what a video game is begin with action or, more specifically, interaction between hardware, software and player. Interaction in the form of power and control forms the basis of a relationship between the player and the game. The ability to interact with and control a video game is what, in theory, makes it a video game. So for instance, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within is a terrible movie because you’re simply watching a horrible, contrived story play out on a screen. Final Fantasy XIII is a terrible video game because you control characters and interact with an environment as a horrible, contrived story plays out on a screen.
Some players aren't content with the minimal interaction and control offered by games like Mountain. They crave objectives that lead to winning or losing. They want power. They want video games to be, for lack of a better term, more game-like.
There’s one problem—Video games aren't always games
Developer Bennett Foddy sums this up in 140 characters:
You can call Gone Home interactive fiction. It’s still a video game. You can call Dear Esther a walking simulator. It’s still a video game. You can call Mountain an interactive screen saver. It’s still a video game.
It’s easy to understand why someone might disagree with Foddy. Even if not all video games are games, most of the ones you've played probably are. 50 years ago Tennis for Two, Spacewar! and Pong created the basic foundation for what a video game often takes the form of—a competitive interactive experience modeled after a traditional game and/or a competitive interactive experience where you shoot things. A quick glance at the top selling video games from any given month will reveal that not much has changed. Players might clamor for their medium to innovate and move forward, but once a developer starts to remove familiarity and favors story or non-gameplay over interaction you can bet the self-professed ‘gamers’ will start to squirm and lash out.
Why should what defines something as part of a medium hinge on its ability to mimic existing works which cater specifically to a shrinking young, male, consumer base?
Why does the mere existence of different video games draw so much vitriol from the same core consumer base?
I don’t have an answer for either of those questions.
The angry comment sections of Steam, Kotaku, Polygon, Destructoid et al do have one good point: The term video game just isn't cutting it anymore. Until the rise of Atari as a home console maker and arcade juggernaut in the late 1970’s, video games were commonly referred to as TV Games. I think we’re long past due for another name change, but the term is so culturally embedded it seems unlikely that we’ll ever see one. Until then we’ll just have to remember that more control doesn't make for a better experience, and power fantasies which heavily feature game-like play aren't the be-all-end-all of video game design.
So what the hell is a video game anyway?
I’m not sure, but we should probably stop worrying about it so much.