In The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe tells a story about the first supersonic jet pilots that doubles as a parable about control.
When a plane is flying 13 miles up and close to twice the speed of sound, Wolfe writes, aerodynamics go haywire. Midcentury daredevils found that planes at that speed and altitude couldn’t bank without tumbling. Panicked pilots who instinctively rushed to reassert control, smashing knobs and buttons, would only make it worse. Several crashed and died. But when Chuck Yeager found himself pitching at high speeds, he caught a lucky break: He was knocked unconscious. His plane rolled, horrifically, end over end, but — out cold — Yeager did nothing. Eventually he plummeted down seven full miles, back into the earth’s thicker air, where he awoke and righted his ship.
The lesson? As another pilot put it, “You take your hands off the controls and put the mother in the lap of a supernatural power.”
Or: “When frustrated, let go of the controller.” That’s what Everything, an elegant game from the Irish animator David OReilly, advises its players to do.
Everything rewards letting go. For one, you really can drop the controls and let the game play on. It turns out that you — the named person you consider yourself, with hands and a brainful of electricity, the individual who profoundly wants absolute control over this existence and moreover to win — is utterly dispensable. In fact, the game plays better when you’re not running it.
You may recognize in Everything’s master conceit a Buddhist commitment to the notion of “no self,” and you’d be right. That conceit is made numbingly explicit later in the game, but from the start a player’s identity dissolves. It’s disorienting to be so ... nowhere. Rather than slipping you into armor or a Ferrari, Everything makes you porous and shape-shifting. The only real description of the actual gameplay I can give is this: You come to inhabit everything from a microorganism to a patch of grass to a gorilla to a supernova, while none of these shapes quite gets the solidity of an “I.”
Playable characters in Everything don’t die. They’re not even protagonists. They just change shape, passing the baton of playability to another animal, vegetable or mineral, each in its season. There’s a suggestion of reincarnation here that supplants the greedier gamer notion of “extra lives.”
Without personal boundaries — or the specter of death, which in some Eastern views is what produces ego — you’re unable to grasp and focus on any one playable character. Surrender, acceptance and flow are the chief principles. As with a pilot caught in a thin-air, high-velocity spiral, you don’t white-knuckle Everything. You play with an open palm.
OReilly — a dreamy and cerebral designer who created the Warholian game Mountain in 2014 — is also known for an essay on animation aesthetics that argues, in part, that the believability of a digital world is a function of its coherence rather than its verisimilitude. Aiming to make animation approximate live action is a fool’s game, he contends, and a recipe for the uncanny. OReilly has thus historically embraced animation’s answer to punk’s three-chords-and-the-truth: clashing palettes, low-poly graphics and glitch effects. Mountain, which let players examine a mountain under zero instructions, was almost defiantly simple, and its stony, impenetrable surface made many players throw up their hands.
Everything is wonderfully coherent, but it’s not defiant. And if there’s an artful glitch, I have yet to hit it. Instead, Everything takes as its organizing principle something like oneness — and the Buddhist idea that separation from others is an illusion.
All of this reference to religious esoterica might sound like overreading. But the game neon-signposts its mystical themes, most notably in the sonorous narration of Alan Watts, a self-styled “spiritual entertainer” whose 1960s lectures on mystical matters play throughout the game and serve as its guiding light. Watts is the patron saint of Everything. OReilly seems determined to resurrect him in his work as a kind of Godhead, remastering the old lectures to echo anew in our skulls. Most people believe they outgrow Watts, as we outgrow shrooms and psychedelics, but in Everything, as I half-played a deer and a gorilla, I found his voice and ideas newly captivating.
One lecture in Everything’s archive is Watts’ 1960 rumination on the lack of a self, “You Don’t Really Exist; Let Me Prove It to You.” In it, Watts gives the goal of Buddhist psychology as “to bring about a state in which the individual feels himself to be everything that there is — the whole Cosmos, focused, expressing itself, here.” That is also the explicit goal of Everything.
With a kind palette and a mellow, open score, OReilly also aims to “bring about a state” with his world, one consonant with Watts’ vision of Buddhism. To measure OReilly’s success against his intention seems not in the spirit of Buddhist detachment, but I will say he’s set himself an admirably tall order. As you move through a rural landscape that faintly recalls Grant Wood’s landscape paintings, you can sense the game is also ambitious on your behalf, and eager to win your surrender to a new mental state. I don’t like to be pressured to surrender. My first impulse as a gamer — to mastery, to winning — had to be subdued, and submission didn’t come easily.
If games generally start players in snug parameters — between frustration (“this is too hard”) and boredom (“this is too easy”) — while gradually raising the frustration ceiling as a player levels up, Everything starts with the frustration-boredom parameters at max extension. That never really changes. It’s a snap, then, to get frustrated and bored with this game. Everything very much does not move at the speed of sound. It’s slow and dreamy, maybe a little high. Like nature for those who don’t entirely get it, it’s also periodically uncomfortable — and snoozy. I entered the game as a tumbling and oddly stiff pig in a blocky springtime landscape and instantly thought: What to do? Then things turned seriously existential: Who cares? What’s the point? I was, I guess, “bored.”
And that’s why I was delighted to find the option to drop the controls and let the game spring to life on its own, while I took a breath or two — or even a Chuck Yeager nap. While I write this, Everything is playing itself, and I’m confident it’s doing a superb job exploring OReilly’s hallucinatory Gaia, moving through microscopic and galactic and group identities, as well as hitting the game’s odd “achievements,” which include the delivery of fragments of the Watts homilies.
So I sat back for a beat or two. Pig-me somersaulted along, looking for adventure or interest, or maybe just being a virtual pig. I liked it when the pig merged with other pigs — and I became plural. Later, when deer-me, in a wintry landscape, breathed heavily and her breath showed, I enjoyed being breathed — a meditative feeling. But I wasn’t always Zen. Often I forgot the Yeager lessons and stabbed at the keys, vexed. I couldn’t get this gorilla to do my bidding. There was no hit of dopamine after an early victory to make me crave another.
And that’s when things got existential yet again: Why play this game at all? But maybe — now I was thinking like Watts — I’m not here amid Everything for a winnable game, for some Virginia Heffernan project, but just to live and die with all the other animals, vegetables and minerals in this accidental universe. Oh look. I didn’t smile or frown to recognize it, but I knew it to be true: Everything had me.
Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Wired and Politico, an op-ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a host of the Slate podcast Trumpcast. She is the author of Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.