Most video games are meant to be played in the same handful of spaces. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 presume you’re on a couch. Nintendo’s Switch and 3DS, along with smartphones, offer a bit more freedom: perhaps you’ll play their games during a commute, at a park or on the toilet. Everything -- the video game, not the idea -- is the exception. The latest project from artist David OReilly, arguably his most welcoming art to date, works anywhere.
Available on PlayStation 4, PC, Max and Linux, Everything is a game about the universe, how you perceive it, and how it perceives itself. If SimCity simulates urban development and The Sims simulates domestic relationships, Everything simulates the notion of existence. It is big to the point of feeling endless, not unlike 2016’s procedurally generated galactic exploration sim No Man’s Sky, which presented existence as a Sisyphean quest for junk. But the comparison only goes skin-deep. If anything, Everything is No Man’s Sky antithesis. In Everything’s universe, you don’t accumulate stuff; you become it.
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When you open Everything, you begin as a random animal. Maybe you begin as a bear, seeing the universe from the bear’s scale. You are smaller than oak trees, larger than fish. You’re too big to see a cell, but far too small to place yourself within the solar system, let alone the galaxy. Everything encourages you to shift perspectives. Within the first hour you might push your consciousness down to a flower, a bug, a fungus, or a single molecule, and then up, up, up to a mountain, a continent, a planet, or a intergalactic abstraction.
You don’t behave like these animals and objects. If you’re a building, you don’t spend hours protecting inhabitants. If you’re a snake, you don’t hunt for mice. You can move and waddle and befriend other creatures and objects, but largely you exist, taking in everything around you from this new point of view. You are a rock on a warm, sunny hill. Now, you are a sun in a lonely, distant solar system. Now, you are the very idea of geometry. You don’t role-play as everything. Instead, the game retrains you to perceive that everything exists.
It’s rare ground for video games, the majority of which are power fantasies in which the player navigates a world designed to make them feel like its center, every obstacle slightly more challenging than the last to create the illusion of progress and purpose. You win the Super Bowl, conquer the kingdom, or save the universe. You finish the race, solve the puzzle, escape the dungeon. You experience the trial, but too rarely do you experience the perspective. The avatar is just a vessel for ourselves, nothing more and nothing less.
Unlike these contemporaries, Everything doesn’t make you feel big. OReilly has overlaid the game with lectures from mid-20th century British philosopher Alan Watts, whose relaxed, oaky voice and optimistic, holistic perspective can make spending a couple hours with Everything fall somewhere between a self-help summit and a cult indoctrination. Each of us, Watts explains, is one of countless interdependent systems, locking together, beginning with the Big Bang and radiating into the unknowable future, not in a straight line but across a web of space and time, matter and meaning.
You, me, a leaf fluttering in the breeze, the mucus dripping from the nose of a stranger with a particularly gnarly cold, a stone on a planet we’ll never visit: we’re all made of the same dust, Watts calmly reassures the listener. We’re all part of the same grand process. It’s a comforting belief system in a world that feels increasingly unpredictable and indifferent, if not outwardly hostile.
As if to emphasize the elegance and superiority of Watts’ philosophy, OReilly contrasts the audio with sometimes funny, often vapid text bubbles, expressing the internal lives of the animals, plants, buildings, galaxies, and other bits of existence. As a singular beings, you see everything is selfish, anxious and burdened with existential confusion. You are unmoored and yet the center of it all, caught in our own Truman Show. As one thought bubble puts it: “The world will end in the year you die.”
I wonder if OReilly, roughly my age, sees these texts as the voice of our generation -- smart but cynical, widely agnostic but starved for something bigger than ourselves. Watts’ estate is notoriously protective of his work, though in Everything they perhaps saw the perfect partner: a young, fresh evangelist for a generation in need of a secular savior.
Maybe you buy it, maybe you don’t. Personally, I find the dialogue between Watts and the text bubbles flimsy. Nearly every philosophy sounds appealing when placed alongside the vapidity of a late night text message about someone’s dream or the meaning of life. As critic and game maker Ian Bogost suggested around the game’s release, it would benefit skeptical players to ignore the text bubbles and monologues. Everything doesn’t lose meaning without its words. No, it avails itself for interpretation.
As a raw simulation of scale, I’d argue Everything is as rich, if not richer, than Watts’ message. The market isn’t for wont when it comes to grand, beautiful drawn open worlds. This year, Nintendo released its elegant, pastoral The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Guerilla Games published the post-post-apocalyptic Horizon Zero Dawn, and Ubisoft added another entry to the historical tourism series, Assassin’s Creed. These games are filled with things to do, people to meet, things to see. They’re safe spaces to experiment with the unsafe and unsavory corners of our id, namely the pursuit of violence and adrenaline.
But do they ever make you, the player, think about your spot in the real, truly grand world? Like other games, Everything presents a safe space to deal with something, for many, feels unapproachable in our day to day lives: existential angst. Considering our mortality and meaning can spoil our day, but Everything -- with its humor and warmth and scope -- acts like a tour guide on the path towards the Big Questions. It doesn’t quite get you to the answer, but it gets you moving towards something.
When OReilly showed Everything at a San Francisco Art Museum last winter, it had a noticeable effect on the audience. Whether they played or watched, stayed for an hour or just a couple minutes, you could see the flash of displacement, of the person beside themselves, briefly aware of their spot in the museum in this city in this country in this universe in this time.
OReilly included in Everything an auto-play mode, which sends the perspective up, down, and up again through the creatures and things of its galaxy. There’s a tempestuous debate among video game fans about what makes a video game a video game. Is it an amount of challenge? Is it a degree of interactivity? Who gives a shit? Here is a game that plays itself. It exists with or without you. In a medium full of power fantasies, Everything invites you to savor the power of knowing you’re powerless. It’s a reminder than no man is an island — unless he’s an island.