When I was a kid – and for a good chunk of my early twenties – there was a prevailing sense that the holy grail of videogames was the all-game, a full on simulation of the world, with all the complex social dynamics and chaotic, overlapping, and unpredictable rule sets of reality. A fresh world written anew, giving the player another crack at the whip of life. Many games have tried to get there – and lauded themselves in their pre-release marketing as barely containing untapped and limitless possibility. Black and White, Spore, No Man’s Sky, and, of course, Second Life – all have made that shot for the moon, only to underwhelm audiences as the inevitable, mealy-mouthed reality of videogame compromise became apparent. You know the drill.
Everything is the new game from ground-breaking 3D artist David O’Reilly. It’s a game that proudly claims in its marketing copy that you can be any object in a universe of objects. Well, we’ve heard that one before – but if you’re already familiar with O’Reilly’s work, you’ll know there must be more to this than there seems. O’Reilly directed the cynically-minded videogame sequences in the movie Her, created an award-winning one-off episode of Adventure Time in which compression glitches in video file formats are used to great effect, and his last game, Mountain, has no controls and doesn’t let you do anything besides look at a mountain.
So it’s no surprise that there is a punch line to Everything. Yes, you can indeed become any object in a vast universe of objects – creatures, trees, buildings, continents, cells, bacteria, Higgs Boson particles, galaxies – all can be effortlessly hopped between, and your perspective shrinks and grows to match. You zoom down to the cellular level to occupy a tardigrade, or take a step back to see the solar system from a planet’s perspective. But here’s the thing: all these objects feel fundamentally the same. You can be everything, sure, but making the scope of the design so large creates the conditions whereby the general properties of each entity are generalised to the extent of becoming identical. In fact, it’s unavoidable – the only way to achieve the design goal of “you can be everything” in your game is to make the rules which govern each entity indistinct.
“You zoom down to the cellular level to occupy a tardigrade, or take a step back to see the solar system from a planet’s perspective.”
So there’s an extent to which this game is a beautiful aping of the lofty claims made by procedural, rule-driven games. By making a game that is in a lot of ways very limited, it makes good on its absurd sounding marketing bullet point. You can be everything – but the distinction between things is arbitrary and based mostly on appearance. As any downtrodden younger sibling or emasculated bureaucrat will tell you, a win on a technicality is the best kind of win.
“What we call objects are just measures of thing-ness used by us to make sense of the world.”
But this doesn’t feel solely like a silly middle finger to good gaming manners in the way that Mountain did. Everything explores its situation in a thoughtful, and often touching way. A great deal of this is due to the sprinkling of audio clips, taken from a talk by British philosopher Alan Watts, the kind of professor you can easily imagine inviting select students back to his camper van to experiment with weird drugs and listen to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. In the clips, he explores tenets of continental philosophy, including the LSD-laden notion that the boundaries between objects are arbitrary and defined by the way in which we choose to understand the world, that what we call objects are just measures of thing-ness used by us to make sense of the world. It works with the game in an immediate and un-subtle way, not only because you are constantly zooming in and out of perspective – the atom you once controlled is now a part of the grizzly bear you are controlling, which a second later is a barely perceptible part of the entire continent you now possess, and so on – but because all the game’s objects behave so similarly.
There is some sense of progression – as you amble about, a steady drip of new abilities are unlocked for you. Brilliantly, these only make the definition between “things” in the game even more arbitrary. I won’t spoil that steady progression because I do think it’s one of the cleverest things about the game, and the ultimate proof of philosophical concept. Just play the thing. It costs less than a ticket to an exhibition at your average museum. You’ll get more of a brain-fondle from Everything. It’s even funded by the Wellcome Trust, so you can play it with your liberal culture-vulture credentials fully intact.
To call it a toy-game doesn’t do it justice because it is so incredibly sincere and surprisingly stylish. Objects (and animals) rarely animate, but if they do it’s in a bonkers, abstract and very David O’Reilly manner – lurching over themselves in a rigid, mechanical mutation. And as you progress, the breadth of your ability to mess with the game space makes it possible to break the game entirely. The game actively goads you into doing this at points, and it’s worth doing. The plethora of ways in which the game reacts to a suddenly straining framerate caused by, oh, let’s say hundreds of pizza slices flying through space, are always clever and surprising. To embrace the possibility of complete overload so generously was one of my favourite touches.
I don’t know how much more I’ll play of Everything. It’s made its point, one which I have fully digested by now. But it’s also the first game in about 6 years where I’ve taken my PS4 round a friend’s house to be all “you have to see this.” And you do! It’s a confident, clever and memorable experience, and unlike anything else out there.