I can’t tell if Everything is either a poignant attempt to transgress the nature of play or another underhanded pitch from David O’Reilly designed to paralyze the neural activity of anyone who attempts to assign it with a definition. Everything is sincere in its message and competent in its assembly while simultaneously preying upon standard gaming conventions and coming up with devious ways to gently denigrate the entire process. It’s either an impassioned opus of pop philosophy and basic interactivity or a joke with no visible punchline, and the obvious conclusion is that it’s actually Everything.
Everything is a PlayStation 4 and (soon!) PC game where you exert direct control over a variety of objects. You begin on a procedurally generated biome ripe with animals, plants, and other assorted objects (I started as a camel in the middle of a desert). From here you’re taught how to group up and run around with other animals, become any other object you encounter, and eventually dance and party with your collection of nouns. With time you can increase their size, quantity, and eventually spawn-in whatever your heart desires, leading to situations where you’re propelling a parade of marijuana plants through outer space.
Sandwiched in between all of this, effectively serving as Everything’s narrator, is philosopher Alan Watts. Watts died (too soon) in 1973, but snippets of his talks and lectures from the late 60’s and early 70’s survived and found a comfortable home inside of Everything. You’ll periodically come across objects that contain these audio files, and these 30 to 60-second clips will accompany your journey. Despite being culled from larger speeches, they’re all neatly self-contained and hand out Watt’s philosophical fragments like candy. There isn’t room for an especially deep dive into the nature of self or the human condition, but brief hypotheticals function as a cooperative invitation to Everything’s nebulous mission. “Why are we here,” is identical but also completely different from, “Why are we here.”
What drives the player is where Everything starts picking up friction. Beyond the first two hours of Everything’s de facto tutorial, where your introduction to mechanics is a swift march toward horizon of discovery, is nothing traditional. You can kind of just do whatever; make a bunch of whales swim through the sky, run a toy choo-choo train through neon hell, or drastically increase the size of a horse and leave it on the horizon. This remains engaging in the absence of traditional “videogame” objectives because of the insane novelty of hundreds of toys juxtaposed into incongruous procedural dioramas. It’s silly, and perfect for sharing in the age of intense social media.
While I am sensitive to dissident experiences like Noby Noby Boy, Cibele, and Virginia, Everything reached a point where I was looking for something more corporeal to grab ahold of. I found it in the game’s only measure of progress, filling out the list of “things” within the game. Becoming something adds it to the list, so I was making each world smaller—all the way down to an atomic level view of a pile of sand—to larger—playing as a literal galaxy. I was building my catalog of items at every available level. This lasted for about six hours.
It was around this time that I picked up my 40th or so lecture from Watts. At this point I had considered his words only coincidentally related to Everything, but this one stated, “You as a complete individual are much more than a scanning system – you are in relationships with the external world that are incredibly harmonious.” That had to be on purpose, right? O’Reilly had to be aware that a not small number of players would default to Everything’s “scanning system” and lose themselves in a mindless quest to assemble everything in Everything.
I was also ignoring the transient nature of Everything’s basic systems. I started on a desert continent on a green planet. Once I zoomed out to and became the sun, I quickly returned to my Earth stand-in and located what I assumed was my birthplace in the desert. Later, without thinking, I became my green planet and transformed it into a planet-sized penguin because I thought that would be funny. I then made a dozen more of those humongous penguins and then deleted them all and ah shit, there went everything I had ever known. Everything isn’t No Man’s Sky; a sense of permanence was never intended. You can’t go back and you can’t, necessarily go forward, either. Everything exists in a form of stasis.
There’s also Everything’s incurious absence of humanity. You can visit city continents and become the components of a sprawling urban metropolis. Dumpsters, a variety of cars, gas stations, cranes—obviously, everything on screen is at your disposal. Likewise, objects in space like shuttles or satellites are under your control. Humans aren’t here for a reason, and whether it’s technical (animating them would break the game’s motif) or metaphorical, well, I have no idea. Like much of Everything, I can’t tell if this was done for a reason or for no reason. But I think about it.
This leads to the cavalcade of Weird Shit™ one can discover when they poke and prod around Everything’s sharp edges. Getting down to one dimension is a trip, as is filling the screen with so many objects the Everything interrupts the player on a meta, interface-like level before freaking out and resetting itself. This gives credence to Everything’s function as some kind of interactive encyclopedia that aliens reconstructed from data left behind by humans. It’s like a vague approximation of the wealth of human knowledge (each object in Everything has a brief description) but absent of any sort of syntax. It’s all nonsense, especially if you’re an alien species and you’re trying to determine what in the world humans were trying to accomplish in their time here.
Everything can also play itself. This isn’t dissimilar from O’Reilly’s first game, Mountain, though Everything is slightly more complex in its autonomous business. Points of interaction can be adjusted on the pause menu, allowing the game to flow (more or less) under the player’s command. Personally, next time my wife and I have friends over, I’m just going to leave this thing idling on the television and say nothing because Everything can get really weird. But I still don’t know if that’s the intended purpose. Once again, Everything and its motives are a mystery.
I don’t know. Nathan Stevens may have figured it out when he reviewed Everything and gave it an 8. That seems like a good score. For me it’s a bit like trying to brush your teeth with hunks of monkey fur someone glued to a row of unused staples. Effective (probably) if not completely unorthodox, and it only works as intended, whatever that intention is, a few times.