Notes on The Secret of Dank Mountain: Ironic Climbing Simulator

The Secret of Dank Mountain by adamgryu is a game best played stoned. A PC Gamer blurb about the game is quoted in bold at the very top of its page as reading, “I don’t get what’s so dank about this pleasant mountain range.”  Ah, I’ve solved your problem.

Dank Mountain resides in the center of the horizon, across the range. The secret resides at the summit, illuminated by a beam of light that reaches into the sky, and the only way to get to it is by foot. This is a 3D, first-person game made in Unity, where the object is to run and climb a long distance, eventually scaling the mountain face one painfully turbulent landing at a time. Anyone prone to motion sickness may want to get high before playing for those reasons alone, but they may also find that doing so enhances this simple experience in another way altogether.

The golden, cursive title card for The Secret of Dank Mountain overlaid against the dreamy, pastel-hued  landscape gives off the impression of a cheap romance novel. The gentle music that grows richer while the player is running is paired perfectly with a forest valley environment. There’s something very self-consciously “Bob Ross” about the whole presentation–it’s sort of a campy, ironic version of any number of early 2010s’ era walking simulators. (This, along with games like Jon Remedios’s Gone Vroom and Jon Bois’s Bill Belichik Offseason Simulator, might indicate a growing trend of piss-taking in indie games. I, for one, am for it.)

That said, I do think The Secret of Dank Mountain is legitimately beautiful and engaging in its own way. A playthrough can be completed in a matter of minutes, but it’s the kind of thing that can be replayed multiple times. The entire game appears to be predicated on the climbing mechanic from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, represented as a green disk in the bottom left-hand corner of the screen that measures the player’s energy. The player can move with WASD and run or climb by holding down the spacebar if they are using a keyboard, like I did. Energy runs out quickly, the disk patly disappearing down to a red sliver, followed by a short cooldown period. 

At first, the player only really needs to find a path to the base of the illuminated mountain from their starting point. Once the climb begins, it’s less like the wall-scaling mechanic in Breath of the Wild, and more like a really fast, Sonic the Hedgehog-style sprint up parabolas of varying steepness and size. I think this choice derives from a need to compensate for the difference in perspective (BoTW is third-person) and the limitations of the engine, but the way it’s executed is pretty inspired: it forces the player to pay attention to their energy meter, where they are relative to the next landing, the size and shape of it, and so on, and chart an efficient path up the mountain. It’s a simple piece of game design that does wonders to inspire focused engagement with the architecture of the mountain itself.

In each playthrough, the path upwards will vary slightly. Different starting positions will encourage encounters with the mountain from different angles. Some parts of the paths will be long, vertical sprints upwards while others will be a helpfully low set of “naturally-occurring” stairs. The player may encounter trees, otherworldly stalks of pink flowers, a few caverns and burrows. Spots will seem like safe shrines, rest areas, dips and elevations, and challenges to one’s life. Nothing bad can ever come of falling, however, except for maybe a slight loss of progress. It’s a safe indulgence for an intoxicated brain. It’s like running around in a screensaver.

The Secret of Dank Mountain isn’t as graphically intense as Breath of the Wild, but it’s nonetheless eye-catching. The palette is rustic and pacifying, greens and blues set against purple, pink and brown. The air is dotted with the yellow glimmers of fireflies.  At times it will be lovely to stop, take a break, and look out at the horizon before setting back on the journey upward. It seems like a shame to give this away, but reaching the peak of the mountain reveals that the “secret” is actually a hang-glider that the player can use to fly above the mountain range, taking everything in at a high-speed god’s eye view. The player can then press Enter to drop anywhere, sending them hurtling and tumbling (indicated by the flailing of arms) back into the valley, where they are free to run up the mountain again and go for another ride. (Once I decided to land outside the boundary of the game’s environment and couldn’t figure a way back in. The whole of the area was white and glowing and I could barely tell one peak from another, nor judge the height of any one of them. I’m not sure if I was meant to do this, but at the time it was transcendent to me.)

The Secret of Dank Mountain strips down a notably-tedious mechanic from a mainstream game (especially without speed buffs), extracts what’s actually fun about it, and uses it to create what might be the first ironic climbing simulator. It’s the perfect thing for the discerning gamer who is high enough to play a videogame, but not high enough to really commit. For a couple bucks (or whatever you want to pay), The Secret of Dank Mountain is a clever and pleasant way to kill 10 minutes. I don’t even regret the motion sickness.