Everything & Nothing
Developer David OReilly seems to get pleasure out of confusing people. Or, rather, he seems to delight in confounding people's expectations about what a game should be. At least, that's the impression I got when looking over the promotional page for his 2014 video game, Mountain. The one lone quote OReilly chooses to feature comes from Youtuber "TotalBiscuit," who says:
It's fucking nothing
I've talked about it before, but for a quick recap: Mountain is a game where the player watches a procedurally-generated mountain spin through space. The mountain grows trees, experiences weather, and just... exists. It threw some folks into a tizzy because the player doesn't really influence the mountain; the only immediately apparent game controls are zooming in and out. Rather than directly impacting the mountain, the player watches the mountain grow and change over time. The game is clear to state that the player is the mountain, and the mountain just is.
In Mountain, you just leave the game up and running on your computer while you go about other tasks. While I type, for instance, the sun sets on Mountain. Suddenly, it's night, and fireflies are dancing through the trees; soon, it will be morning. A pop-up appears, saying "Are You Just a Voice In My Head?"
"it's Fucking Nothing."
Mountain goes against all ideas of what we imagine a game should be: the settings tab lists the game controls as "NOTHING," there is no goal, there is no plot. Even the achievements awarded from Steam feel arbitrary. Regardless of their feelings towards Mountain, reviewers are often reluctant to call it a "game." Instead it's "an art piece," or "an experience," or "background ambiance."
OReilly's newest game, Everything--which promises that the player can become anything in the world--has elicited a similar response. In an overall very favorable review by Colin Campbell over at Polygon, Campbell nonetheless takes a moment to circle around the "is this a game, though?" drain:
I think to myself, this feels more like a toy than a game, more like an art installation than a game, more like a statement than a game. And then I remember that defining ‘game’ is about the most boring thought I can have right now, at this moment when I am on the threshold of pretending to be anything I might want to be.
This fact has, honestly, thrown me for a bit of a loop. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why Mountain and Everything are such perfect storms of "not 'real game'-ness." I've spent an inordinate amount of time trying to mull it over, unable to come up with a thesis.
First, I thought that maybe Everything doesn't have anything to compare itself again, or maybe it doesn't neatly it into a genre, making it difficult to include within the known game cannon. (This would make sense for Gone Home not being a "real game," but then What Remains of Edith Finch being included, since the latter could be compared against Gone Home, which is now the established classic.) But Everything's is essentially an exploration game with familiar mechanics, so that didn't feel quite right.
I thought maybe it was something about the softness of the game, the lack of explicit challenge. But then I thought about The Wolf Among Us, which I just played and which utterly dismayed me due to the fact that, even though I was being given supposedly weighty choices in the game, they ultimately didn't affect the ending at all, thus making it without challenge. So, perhaps not that.
Just now, I thought I had it: maybe it's that games without a clear narrative aren't "real games." But then I thought of games like Five Nights at Freddy's, a jump-scare based horror game that has no real plot, but which countless gamers have spent hours ruminating over its "lore" online.
All of this led me into a tailspin of argument/counterargument. Rather than focus on this at the moment, I want to talk about what Everything is, instead of what it is not.
EVERYTHING, in a nutshell
The gameplay of Everything is broader than that of Mountain, though the tone is equally contemplative. Whereas in Mountain, the player was told that they were Mountain, in Everything, the player is told they can be anything in the world. Or, rather, they can be Everything in the world.
The game starts with the player in control of a single quadrupedal creature (in my case, an elephant in the middle of the desert). The moment you try to move, the game shows that it's not trying to take accuracy too seriously; rather than walk in any sort of realistic fashion, many larger creatures tumble head over heels in a delightful hurky-jerk way. Everything presents the idea of things, rather than the things themselves. It's a model more than a mimicry.
Everything then gradually introduces new gameplay mechanics: you can phase into and out of different creatures (a palm tree, a rock, a gazelle), or go up and down in scale (become an island, become a cloud, become a planet, become a galaxy, become an atom). You can multiply whatever being you currently inhabit (one elephant becomes ten elephants becomes twenty elephants). You can join together with other like-typed beings and cavort around the countryside (or sub-atomic plane, or universe, depending on your scale). Later, you can insert beings into different planes. I had particular fun putting a snake in space.
OK. Maybe "fun" doesn't sound like the right word, but it definitely fits. When I not only put that snake in space but multiplied it into dozens and dozens and dozens snake compatriots ("let there be snakes," I whispered), I felt that gleeful, hard-to-explain rush that is familiar to true sandbox games.
I wanted a universe full of snakes, and I got just that.
As a note, it seems like I'm not the only one who had a particular affinity for snake placement. David OReilly shared the below screenshot on Twitter:
Think it. Be it.
The world of Everything isn't without interjections from the game about what it's trying to accomplish with regards to philosophy. One of the early mechanics introduced in gameplay is the ability to interact with little thought bubbles, which occasionally hang above various beings. These interactions yield a varying array of existential dread from the creatures in the world about the nature of being. There's an example of this in the above screenshot, where one of the many snakes thinks: "All things are friendly, sacred, beautiful, all events are profitable.", more
These lines of thought are consistent with the "thoughts" experienced in Mountain by the mountain. OReilly strikes a tone somewhere in between casual introspection and late-night panic attack.
Even though I said before that this game is "plotless," that's not necessarily true. Perhaps it's more correct to say that its plot is very slow, more a Miyazaki film than a Disney creation. As the game continues, it becomes clear that OReilly's insertion of these thoughts aren't meant to prompt action from the player, but are meant to feel like an accumulating presence, like something that feels helpful, but that becomes a pile of nothing, slowly crushing you with its hollow weight.
In addition, one of the most noteworthy parts of the game is the inclusion of audio snippets from late British philosopher Alan Watts. Truthfully, despite my occasional delving in to woo woo whatnot, I was wholly unfamiliar with Watts's work. Watts was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism and (what sounds rightly & grossly reductive to say in 2017) "Eastern religion & culture." His teaching and writing seems to focus pretty heavily on the One-ness of the universe and about each being's interconnectedness with every other being. Watts's voice also had a (for lack of a better word) seductive quality: he is calm and assured. It's hard to tell if his lectures feel so right because they're actually hitting on some truth, or because he's using platitudes that are so general as to be essentially meaningless. The fact that literally every speech that exists on Youtube is underscored with sweeping orchestral arrangements doesn't help someone (read: me) trying to suss this out.
While playing Everything, the increased weight of the vapid thoughts (via the thought bubbles) and the call towards one-ness/nothingness (via the Watts audio) combined to make an apparent imperative from OReilly: to eschew self-centerdness and think of oneself as part of a larger cosmic entity. In other words, it becomes apparent that the individual thought bubbles had by creatures throughout Everything become a stone on one's chest, pushing you deeper into the Self, a state of being that the game states (explicitly at times, through Watts's narration) is a construct that separates us from the divine singularity of everything in the universe.
If Mountain was a game that told you were a mountain, Everything feels like a rebuke of that, instead asking you to consider that you are everything, and that everything is you (or, maybe, that you might not be you at all, but are everything). It's an invitation, whereas Mountain was a declaration.
Now, this whole thing feels a bit heavy, Like my trying to untangle the merit of Watts's lectures, it's hard for me to separate my enjoyment of playing the game with how much stock I actually put in this. The game is gorgeous, with a subtle soundtrack and moments of uncanny beauty. For instance, in one moment, as I "was" a clump of grass, I pressed the command key to "dance." As the sun set in this rendered world, the grassed whorled around on the 3D hillside, weaving around in an ecstatic dance. I actually felt moved.
And I didn't trust that I was moved by it; it made me wary in the same way that I'm wary of much in my current home of California. I was born and raised in the Northeast and, though we're as predisposed to the fantastic and metaphysics as much as the next (remember the Montauk monster?), there's no doubt to California's leanings. Watts did, after all, spend much of his later life in the Bay Area, not far from where I currently type.
Everything & Nothing
Reviewer Ian Bogost of The Atlantic had an even bigger aversion to the Watts-ian philosophy,
For players prepared to adopt Watts’s take on existence, that’s not a problem. But others, including me, it’s hard to shake off Everything’s unwelcome claim that everything in the universe is connected, accessible, and familiar. To be a thing in Everything feels so much like being a person, or an avatar of one, that it undermines the separation OReilly so adeptly achieved in Mountain.
When I eat bacon, or view zebras, or feel the breeze from a desktop fan, or ingest the hydrogen atoms bound to oxygen in a glass of water, I partake of those things only in part. Their fundamental nature remains utterly separate and different me, and from one another, too. I might be made of carbon and oxygen and hydrogen, but I can never really grasp what it is to be carbon. I might enter a fast-food restaurant, and I might even leave with bits of it inside me, but I can never fathom what it means to be a restaurant. The best I can do is to tousle the hair of that question, and establish the terms on which approximations might be possible.
However, in rejecting the Watts One-ness declaration, Bogost finds depth in its opposite, continuing:
Everything embraces an aesthetic of messiness rather than order. Things are in their place, to an extent: Descending into a continent unveils animals, fences, and farmhouses; rising into a solar system reveals planets and spacecraft. But the range and specificity of things in Everything spotlights the delightful and improbable diversity of existence. The universe contains bowling pins no less than quasars, articulated buses no less than cumulus clouds. The aesthetics of being isn’t a smooth flow of interconnectedness, as Alan Watts would have it. It’s a depraved bestiary whose pages share the ordinary with the preposterous with the divine.
Eventually, Bogost concludes that Everything is "a video game with a metaphysical position strong and coherent enough to warrant objection as much as embrace." (You can also read the review in full.)
I very much agree with this final point. The reason for partaking in any sort of culture isn't to agree with it fully. It's often to hone your feelings, to bounce ideas against, or to reaffirm what you feel is true. Everything manages to do just that: to provide an experience for exploration, not only in the 3D world, but in the player's lived reality. It starts a conversation and, though its own beliefs are clear, posits questions instead of pretending it has all the answers.
The fact that it can do this while also making me feel equal amounts of joy watching grass dance across the hillside or filling a galaxy with floating snakes? Well, that's just icing on the cake.