Before my first look at Deep Silver Vienna's Cursed Mountain, I always thought of Buddhism as an optimistic celebrity religion where you didn't go to Hell. Now I think it's the second-scariest religion ever.
That's not to say that developer Deep Silver has misrepresented Buddhism as an angry, savage religion that turns unwary mountaineers into zombies. The creative team went way out of their way to research the Tibetan roots of the Buddhist religion and portray some its harsh truths as means for driving the plot of their game.
In Cursed Mountain, you play a Scottish mountaineer out to rescue his younger brother from the peak of a treacherous Himalayan mountain called Chomolonzo somewhere in Tibet. The game is set in the 1980s (to preclude problem-solving technology like GPS trackers and stuff), but the ancient religious traditions of the monasteries and villages that dot the mountain are preserved. So our hero, Eric Simmons, finds himself grappling with Buddhist lore and Tibetan rituals to free the trapped souls of ghosts and appease the angry, cursed mountain.
For my first look at the game, I witnessed a boss fight from later in the game that Deep Silver developer relations manager Martin Filipp was demoing for a couple of other games journalists. I had no idea what was going on in the story, but I saw Eric round a narrow, snowy pass high up on the mountain and come upon the ruins what looked like a temple. In front of the temple, on a flat patch of permafrost, there were three bird-shaped statues that Eric could choose to investigate by pressing A. Doing so activated the statues so that they gave off orange electricity and suddenly a giant, winged black shadow swooped down from the mountain to attack Eric.
Combat in Cursed Mountain is one part melee, one part waggle-fest. I think of it as "Buddhist Flailing" and it works like this: Eric will melee-attack ghosts and bosses with his pick-axe and then use special Buddhist artifacts to perform a ritual on them. First, you must melee ghosts enough times to get a glowing red emblem to appear on their bodies. Pointing at the emblem and clicking A triggers a set of motion control instructions to appear onscreen, telling the player to do things like brandish the Wii Remote or swing the Nunchuck diagonally. Filipp says this is the ritual needed to release the ghost. If you don't perform each action in the ritual correctly, the ritual fails and you have to start over. If you get it right, though, you get a small amount of health back—in addition to not having an angry ghost to deal with anymore.
While battling the winged thingy, Filipp explained that though the game relies on Buddhism to construct the plot -– like why the mountain is cursed and why all these ghosts of dead mountaineers keep attacking Eric -– the developer made their own enemies and strove to be respectful of the religion. So don't expect a throw down with Buddha or the Dalai Lama or anything.
However, do expect to see some pretty alarming things you didn't know about Buddhism from listening to actor Richard Gere rave about it. For example, there's the Bardo state of Buddhism where souls are held before going on to Nirvana or reincarnation. Eric is able to trigger a "Bardo" vision where he can attack ghosts and see hidden things like doors or clues. In this view, the icy white paths of Chomolonzo look grey and black particles move across the screen like snow flurries. It might not be what Buddhists had in mind when describing Bardo in their religious texts, but unless you're prepared to die and go there to find out, just accept the developer's interpretation.
Next up, there's the Tibetan ritual of "sky burial." I had never heard of this before, but the developer stumbled across it in their research for the project and decided to include it in the game at a crucial point. At the risk of spoilers, I won't get into details -– but let's just say, the nature of it suits the creepy, alarming atmosphere of Cursed Mountain very well.
Finally, there's another ritual of appeasing the mountain. In Buddhism, Filipp explained, mountains are seen as living gods and to keep said gods from, say, falling on you, a potential climber has to make some sort of sacrifice to make them happy. In real life, I've heard of people offering money to a shrine or lighting incense, but in the game, things get a little more… physical. Again, no spoilers, but let me just say that Cursed Mountain is rated M for good reason. Sexy good reason.
Filipp wrapped up with the other two games journalists and gave me a quick rundown of a few other levels. Cursed Mountain is a linear game spanning 13 levels, but it's kind of neat how you can see the whole world of the game –- the mountain -– for pretty much every level. Unlike other survival horror games that rely on claustrophobic indoor settings, this game creates a sense of oppressive agoraphobia where you feel like the mountain is bearing down on you all the time and the ground beneath you opens up to a yawning sky-filled oblivion. There was one level I saw that took place in an ice crevice and by comparison, it seemed a lot less scary than the open-air levels.
Speaking from the experience of climbing Mount Fuji, I say the mental strain created by the Cursed Mountain's setting definitely felt like the real thing. You walk and you climb and you walk, but the peak always seems impossibly far away – and so does the safety of the ground below you. Add ghosts and an angry goddess to that and it's no wonder Eric has to keep muttering to himself throughout the game to stay sane.
One final point Filipp made before ending our appointment was that Cursed Mountain is physically unlike any other horror game out there. In other console horror games -– if they're really good and immersive -– you hunch over instinctively to protect yourself as the game gets scarier and scarier. Cursed Mountain forces you away from that with its motion controls and Filipp says this adds to the fear factor.
I guess I'll find that out for myself soon enough. Deep Silver was kind enough to send me home with a preview build of Cursed Mountain. I plan on cracking it open in a dark room with a Hello Kitty plushie next to me to stave off heebie-jeebies.
Hello Kitty. That's my religion. After Judaism, anyway.