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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Let 'Lonely Mountains: Downhill' Take Your Breath Away

Lonely Mountains: Downhill opens not with the screech of rubber but a jangling Alpen cowbell. A mountain-biking avatar dressed in blue stands at the top of a trail clutching their handlebars. The landscape around them is serene: Butterflies hover, and clouds skirt across grass. Then, as they set off, the wind rattles and the chain whirs. Their descent is marked by trees that grow thicker and bushier, and wildlife more audible. At the finish line, there’s no cheering crowd or champagne-soaked podium; instead an orange tent, a sleeping bag, and the fading light of the mountainside itself.

Until Lonely Mountains: Downhill, extreme sports games had always seemed a brash affair, lavish in their attention to detail for the adrenaline-pumping and energy-drink-swilling culture that accompanies them. Soundtracks would blare as players carved violently through courses emblazoned with prominent branding. Developer Megagon Industries imagines extreme sports differently; solitude, as the title of its game implies, is key, and the starting point for an experience that conveys the sensual and emotional appeal of hurtling through wilderness. Here, the sport’s fundamentals center on the relationship between person and place, machine and mountain; it asks players to pay utmost attention to the contours of its intricate digital terrain—to get intimate with the massif.

Released for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One in 2019, and Nintendo Switch in 2020, the game has never been more accessible or well supported. The Eldfjall Island downloadable content arrived at the tail end of last year and amped up the spectacle; its developer continues to provide daily challenges that pit players against one another on global leaderboards. I’ve been playing it on Game Pass, Microsoft’s subscription service, for what’s nearing a month of increasing obsession. In a way, it epitomizes the arcade-esque “sticky” title that seems to do well on the platform; there’s always another time to beat on courses that remain fresh thanks to subtle tweaks. I make an effort to return to the game each day, incorporating its trials into my own interior rhythm.

Biking and Hiking Through Virtual Nature

If there were a gamer’s mantra, it would be “one more go,” which surfaces below each exasperated breath. Lonely Mountains: Downhill fosters this response in abundance but manages to feel as fresh as a cold-water stream. What’s striking is the elegance of its aesthetics; take a look at screenshots of the game and you'll see a style low in close-up detail but rich in mood, filled with earthy greens, blues, reds, and browns. In motion, it’s even more evocative, partly because of the pristine sound design. There’s no music: All we hear are the sounds of passing nature, muddy tires, and clinking bike machinery.

Playing the game is simple enough; squeeze the right trigger and the bike moves forward; the left causes it to brake, and there’s another button to accelerate. The trick is knowing when to do nothing and simply let momentum take control. In a way, I’m reminded less of its most obvious forebear, the Trials series, than I am of Hideo Kojima’s 2019 hiking adventure Death Stranding, which offered a similarly pristine-looking natural world for players to move through. Each of these games presents landscape as a site of friction rather than seamless fluidity. In Kojima’s, it’s all about scanning the terrain for potential hazards as you trudge forward; in Lonely Mountains: Downhill, you read the environment quicker and more instinctively. With a psychedelic jolt, I’ve occasionally found the game’s presentation and physics so convincing that my mind is tricked into thinking it can feel each loose stone the bike skids over.

Another magic trick, this time resulting from the focus each trail demands and the game’s inky, watercolor-esque graphics: During slower moments, I can pick out sparse details in the foreground such as beautiful and brightly colored flowers. But as I increase my speed even just a little, the space I’m in becomes a blur. So does my avatar, who seems to become subsumed within the soft-focus landscape. So many titles make the player the ever-conspicuous center of attention—easily locatable in whatever visual cacophony is occurring—but Lonely Mountains: Downhill seems to be content with letting my onscreen double dissolve into the environment; they become part of its fabric.

A Living Mountain

If this all sounds vaguely philosophical, that’s because I think it is. I’m reminded of a book written in the 1940s, Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, which chronicled the author’s relationship with the Cairngorms mountain range in Scotland. Her crystalline prose was indebted to Buddhist thinking and attempted to situate the author more deeply within the landscape she loved. She wrote of “gullible eyes” and their susceptibility to illusions; in one brilliantly perceptive section, how our “habitual vision of things is not necessarily right” and the way glimpsing unfamiliar sights “unmakes us, but steadies us again.” I find Lonely Mountains: Downhill to be full of visual moments like this—epiphanies if you like—that momentarily offer a different way of looking at the world.

The game seems to lean into precisely this point. Rather than implementing a camera fixed behind the back of the avatar like many extreme sports titles, it winds fluently according to the curves of the mountain. At finickity sections, the perspective will zoom in, helping me navigate individual rocks and trees, but then as the trail opens up and the speed quickens, the camera pulls back, and I whoosh through the environment. These passages are executed most dramatically on Eldfjall Island, whose courses are styled on the volcanic landscapes of Iceland; often, the cyclist feels like a speck in these surroundings. As the camera weaves and rambles through rock, earth, ravines, and ridges, it feels like I’m moving in, out, and through the massif. I can almost sense Shepherd’s most famous sentence: “A mountain has an inside.”

Occasionally I’m able to peer directly into the game’s virtual topography. With the right bike, I slowly brake my way down their sheer faces, stumbling upon the polygonal abstractions that often exist at the edge, or perhaps the center, of video game worlds. Many would call this breaking the game, that I’m deliberately seeking out glitches, but to me, this feels wholly in keeping with its adventurous and exploratory spirit. During the pandemic, video games have been touted as a temporary replacement for the great outdoors, but Lonely Mountains: Downhill makes me wonder if they could ever be more permanent—what if these digital environments are actually all we need?

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