Upward and Forever Upward
Miguel Penabella scales the mountain to glimpse the horizon.
Subsuming the natural world into the visual arts frequently yields vivid, revelatory works that stir in audiences a feeling that 18th and 19th century philosophers, particularly those during the Romantic period, would consider sublime. I’m thinking of works like Caspar David Friedrich’s recognizable 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog or J. M. W. Turner’s 1817 watercolor Eruption of Vesuvius. In both cases, the artists isolate human beings and roughly center them, posing them amidst an intense display of nature with a mountain towering in the distance. A philosopher like Immanuel Kant would tell us that sublime spectacles such as these convey the “irresistibility of [nature’s] might, while making us recognise our own [physical] impotence, considered as beings of nature.” These scenes turn individuals inward, exciting a sense of greatness and inquisitiveness within the strictures of their imagination. Amidst the presence of that which is sublime, human beings are roused with the endless potential for personal enlightenment and emotional ecstasy.
I am broadly summarizing here for the ease of simplifying the philosophical contexts because videogames supply fresh insight into these concepts, evoking sublime imagery. In particular, artist David O’Reilly’s Mountain and thatgamecompany’s Journey centralize the quest for understanding and enlightenment in the presence of expressive, natural landscapes. These games are about uncovering meaning for oneself by engaging with the natural world. Within these worlds, one becomes a wanderer, striving to find personal clarity given the mysterious circumstances and vistas offered.
Of further interest to works that engage with sublimity is what filmmaker Werner Herzog considers the “ecstatic truth;” a sense of reality beyond absolutes in which the arts can engage with the world and sharpen our vision. Essentially, the ecstatic truth refers to an enlightened state of mind produced when individuals encounter things that are sublime, typically in the arts, nature, or both. The arts produce an elevated state that reaches a “deeper stratum of truth—a poetic, ecstatic truth, which is mysterious and can only be grasped with effort… we also gain our ability to have ecstatic experiences of truth through the Sublime, through which we are able to elevate ourselves over nature.” The ecstatic truth materializes in the arts when audiences consider the images provided by artists and actively assemble something totally new within their thoughts: something approaching enlightenment.
This kind of inward withdrawal and assemblage takes primary importance in Mountain and Journey, a pair of games that investigate our relationship with nature and how art can lead to the disclosure of ecstatic truths. Mountain, released in 2014 by O’Reilly, is a game about its own means of articulation. Much has been written about its form but less about its effect; perhaps writers are simply hesitant to read into a game that resists interpretation. I’ll roll the dice: Mountain suggests the endless inscrutability of nature and art by simply being, floating, and enduring, regardless of the game’s reluctance to provide straightforward answers. We interact with it yet lack immediate identification or familiarity with its mechanics. Any understanding to be found in this game must be found through a perspective beyond our role as mere players, and in this sense Mountain reveals videogames’ ultimate role as an empathetic art form. The game quietly goads players to step outside the limitations of a solipsistic, self-contained kind of play and consider the wealth of disparate experiences that other players have. Each mountain is different with new playthroughs, and one must ponder their mountain in relation to the other. Thrown against the relief of the cosmos, Mountain eases us into thinking about videogames through a wide range of experiences and contexts beyond our immediate, individualistic play.
A kindred spirit can be found in the flaxen sands of Journey, the 2012 game by thatgamecompany similarly underlining an indomitable mountain at the heart of its experience. Concerned with a voiceless, robed figure undertaking a pilgrimage through a sparse landscape, Journey investigates its titular journey for enlightenment and truth through our experience with the sublimity of the natural world. Minimal cutscenes lend some context to the central character’s pilgrimage, but it mystifies as much as it reveals. Like Mountain, Journey revels in its withholding of direct, easy truths. If a pilgrimage towards nirvana lies at the crux of this game, then our role as players mirrors Journey’s protagonist. To understand videogames, we strive towards illumination; we must find the truth ourselves.
Both games centralize a lonely mountain as the key to unlocking their secrets. The monumental landscape evokes a sense of sublimity that has the power to awe through its magnitude. David O’Reilly unconsciously appeals to this philosophical angle when speaking on his game, noting, “We as humans feel all big because we build great things but the fact is that mountains dwarf us.” The sheer sight of mountains provokes our fascination with things beyond our scope of understanding. A mountain’s immensity, the “irresistibility of its might,” and nature’s power over human beings carries a divine aura. We turn to the mountain because its sheer sight instills within us a sense of gravity and wonder that hints at things we cannot fully comprehend. Mountains were the home of gods; it gestures towards a domain outside our limited comprehension. Consequently, it shouldn’t be surprising that both games link the image of a mountain with the drive for enlightenment and, in Journey’s case, a literal pilgrimage that bridges the unknowable qualities of nature and the celestial.
What’s important in Mountain is how this landscape conveys a sense of ecstatic truth and what this means to our relationship to videogames. In his review for Paste, writer Cameron Kunzelman suggests, “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.” The game demands a participatory mindset to make meaning, and in that way, asks more from the player than most other games. The sheer act of player interpretation figures into its minimalist gameplay process in lieu of traditional, cause-and-effect button presses. By creating for ourselves any sense of meaning given what little narrative and mechanical framework the game provides us, we enrich the experience of playing in a more conceptual, abstract mode. Its frustration of typical game mechanics and its refusal to readily communicate meaning through exposition or familiar videogame conventions encourages players to work harder to interpret and derive explanation. Like the Enlightenment thinkers of the 19th century, players closely scrutinize images of the natural world in search of answers. Mountain provides little physical interaction with keyboard and mouse, but it reframes how we interact with videogames and evokes these ideas of individual enlightenment and sublimity. O’Reilly goads us into partaking in the interpretation and mental engagement with a kind of art that refuses to speak back.
There are few rules in Mountain, only the endless potential for personal meaning when faced with the sublimity of nature. Because the game rebuffs easy interpretation in its unspeaking, unmoving, unresponsive mountain, the player must glean from this sole image what significance it potentially holds within. Uncovering the substance and message of the work is intrinsic to experiencing art. This active engagement in “uncovering” meaning evokes the concept of Alêtheia from classical Greek philosophy and its participatory, interactive mindset in line with the world of videogames. Alêtheia, from Greek, means not only truth but also disclosure. The word is derived from lêthos, signifying “hidden,” and so a-lêtheia can be understood as its opposite: that which is no longer hidden but made plain. For those theorists in classical Greek philosophy, truth is that which is revealed. Mountain, for all its abstruse, sometimes affected qualities, demands that players uncover their own explanations and values on their own terms. Through this lens, the foundation for truth is already there; we must engage with the work to reveal it.
Working along similar terms of hiding and revealing, Journey follows a clearer narrative of personal enlightenment through its silent pilgrim’s passage through sunlit slopes and panoramas the color of strawberry ice cream. The single moment I often reflect on in Journey occurs as our protagonist glides down shimmering, watery sands through the ruins of an ancient city. We approach a corridor of some marvelous edifice, and the game takes brief hold of our third person perspective, turning it sideways to reveal a fleeting, luminous sunset behind the mountain through the passing columns. The massive sun behind the mountain exhibits a halo-like glow, further cementing the spiritual, sublime characteristics of this mythic landscape. This moment stands out as Journey’s most graceful gesture of sublimity and ecstatic truth. Though no definite, concrete explanations emerge from this scene to develop the setting or background of our character, the game actively marks this moment as worthy of our attention. That camera turn towards the mountain reveals the landscape again after its concealment behind imposing ruins and ravines, expressing a sense of awe and rekindled wonder. What once was hidden is now made plain. By noticeably manipulating the player’s sightline with that camera turn, the game underscores the mountain as its pilgrim’s singular goal. It’s a reminder that here, atop its lofty summit, meaning can be found.
The skyward summits of Journey’s mountain inch past the cloud cover and reach towards the heavens. Thatgamecompany makes sure to habitually reframe our line of sight to emphasize the mountain’s sheer size and the adversities faced in mastering it. Many people who write about mountaineering often romanticize this pursuit as a drive to understand that which is sublime or beyond immediate understanding. Surrealist novelist René Daumal, writing in his 1952 novel Mount Analogue: A Novel of Symbolically Authentic Non-Euclidean Adventures in Mountain Climbing, traverses topics in alpine mountaineering, nature, truth, and the human experience. His words echo the efforts of personal enlightenment in Mountain and Journey. He muses, “One cannot stay on the summit forever. One has to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this. What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above. One climbs, one sees. One descends and sees no longer, but one has seen!” To me, it sounds like a description of Journey and its central pilgrimage. Like the pilgrim, each player accumulates more insight into its cryptic world the higher they climb the game’s picturesque landscapes. The peak of Journey’s mountain is an allegory for a transcendent, Olympus-like heaven. One has seen all there is to see in this world, and it’s time to move on to the next.
In 1922, mountaineer George Leigh Mallory said of climbing Mount Everest, “The struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward.” Regardless of whatever dilemmas we face, whether scaling the precipice or drawing meaning from the digital landscapes of games, we struggle to grasp at something greater. The sense of the sublime in nature can also exist in art, and the task of directly experiencing and making sense of it can often be a confounding act. Oftentimes, I witness players unable to see the point in Mountain, yet new YouTube videos will appear daily. Without understanding, these players will continue to join the robed pilgrim on the journey. At times, the journey slows to a sluggish trudge as players struggle to understand why they continue, and the pilgrim labors through snow banks, yet they both soldier on, forever upward. The adamant push towards the promise of ecstatic truth reveals such spectacles’ allure, its “irresistibility of its might.” When asked the question again in a 1923 interview for The New York Times on why he wanted to climb Mount Everest after having already climbed it twice, Mallory returned with a concise, thoughtful answer: “Because it’s there.” To adopt his mindset: the very existence of mountains themselves are a challenge. Though we are dwarfed by their sublime grandeur, we ascend anyway, aspiring to reach a sense of ecstatic truth at its summit.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. His written offerings can be found on PopMatters, First Person Scholar, and Unwinnable, and he blogs on Invalid Memory.