Mountains have long gripped our imagination. Their peaks call to us with a primal urgency, creating a sense of awe and wonder when we finally reach their top. What are video gaming’s greatest mountains, and how do they have such a similar allure to real ones?
A climb can be symbolic, a rising or powering up that leads to the highest point and to victory — think of Mario’s defining climb in the original Donkey Kong. As well as this, mountains are often used as a staging ground for the final battle or a hide for the darkest and most dangerous dungeon. The Legend of Zelda introduced the appropriately named “Death Mountain”, a treacherous high-point that clings to the most northern edge of the map.
Zelda’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto was influenced by his childhood memories of his home in Kyoto. It was these formative wanderings and explorations of real natural and rural landscapes that led to the creation of a pocket-world like “Hyrule”.
With the onset of 3D, games were given a renewed sense of scale and verticality. Once again Zelda had you clambering up “Death Mountain Trail” in Ocarina of Time, whilst simultaneously Mario 64 took gaming to new platforming heights.
Whilst there have been many games set in mountainous locations with painted backdrops looming ominously but always out of reach, it was only as games began exploring more “open worlds” that mountains could take on geometric forms truer to the wild reality.
Rockstar Games’ megahit Grand Theft Auto had been doing wonders for open-world metropolises, but it was only with 2004’s San Andreas that the studio begun experimenting with more natural landscapes. Although primitive today, San Andreas’ singular still appears prominent as it juts out from an otherwise flat landmass.
Rockstar would go on make good on its mountainous promise in Grand Theft Auto V, resplendently recreating Mount Chiliad. Not only is the mountain more lively with hiking trails, a cable car line and an observation deck, but — flanked by other prominent mountains and hillsides — is much less lonely.
Early Grand Theft Auto games were so dominant in the open-world genre that for a time it seemed developers were only interested in exploring urban spaces. Even Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed seemed more interested in having players climb ceaseless amounts of towers than explore the great outdoors. It was another Ubisoft game, Far Cry 2, that really began to explore wilder landscapes.
Rockstar capitalised on the rural success of San Andreas with its “Wild West” game Red Dead Redemption. At the northern edge of its map lay the “Redemption Mountains”, roughly synonymous to America’s real Rocky Mountains. Wide open landscapes and looming mountains play an important part in the Western genre, and although the Redemption Mountains lay at the boundary of the game’s playable area and weren’t ’t fully explorable, the game proved there is a desire for more naturalistic settings.
It has taken many years and a lot of technical development for games to be able to start representing the vast scale of mountains. As a general setting they have always been tapped for the dark, obscure and mysterious mood they bring — but there’s greater potential in terms of exploration and spatial navigation.
A different perspective
Two recent Ubisoft games, Ghost Recon: Wildlands and Far Cry 5 have begun to move away from using mountains as simple “edge of map” tools, instead making them larger centerpieces for you to hike and climb. Not only do these mountains offer wondrous panoramas, but getting to them can be enjoyable in itself. Mastering environments is prime in so many games, and reaching a peak or pinnacle can pose a real challenge that feels gratifying to overcome.
The Witcher 3 is a massive fantasy RPG with incredibly beautiful (and often somber) landscapes. The mountains and hills of “Ard Skellig” are filled with secrets and areas of interest, whilst — beyond great views — the highest point offers the opportunity to surf hundreds of meters back down the ridge — an animation reminiscent of Mario’s slide in his 3D debut on the N64. In The Witcher’s expansion, Blood and Wine, the colossal “Mount Gorgon” hovers over you as you go about your business in the bright lowlands below. This mountain, although conventionally unconquerable, can be accessed using cheats and is a true testament to the series’ attention to detail.
At their best, mountains play a role in how players physically navigate and explore worlds — they can be means to better understand the geography below and to plot future destinations and journeys. Zelda: Breath of the Wild does this better than most.
Of course, Death Mountain returns as a giant lava-spewing volcano that is as fierce and perilous as any virtual summit has been — but there is also “Hebra Mountains” and “Mt. Lanayru” at either side of the map, a far-flung range and a cold and monumental peak to rival the fiery slopes of Death Mountain. This variation is just one of the reasons Breath of the Wild stands out. A mountainous legacy spanning thirty-two years — the intrepid spirit and sense of wonder of The Legend of Zelda now more fully-realised.