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.