When a game is called Everything, you come into it with a bit of skepticism. After all, we all have some idea of how videogames and computation work. You create a system out of blips and blops, and within that system there are representations of a finite amount of things. Minecraft has a certain amount of stuff, and The Witcher III has quite a bit more of it. Skyrim probably has even more stuff. Everything delves deep into micro-objects like DNA and far into macro-objects like galaxies to create a game that has, and please pardon my French, an absolute shitload of stuff, from cars to wolves to bacteria to planets.
Everything is doing something other than those other blockbuster titles, but it feels like it is in conversation with all of those other wild and wacky open world games. When Ghost Recon Wildlands pushes its “responsive open world,” it is banking on you being impressed by the narrative and environmental worldbuilding. It wants you to recognize the scale of the game, and to think that you are just one more small cog in a massive subcreated clock that is ticking all the while. You’re meant to understand yourself as part of a world that you play in, but which is not necessarily only for the player.
Everyhing has all of the same things in that kind of open world, but you might wonder what you’re doing with it if you’re not shooting it or stacking it up to get a high score. In a move similar to those other games, you’re merely possessing it. The play of Everything isn’t very complicated. You get near things, you take control of them, and then you sing. If you’re a small rock, for example, you can roll around the world. You can click a button to put out some world rhythms, and it might make other things around you react. Hold down another button, roll around into some compatriot rocks, and then you can become a pack of small rocks. You all run around together. You can all sing.
This kind of possession, which is all about being the thing that you have taken over, is diametrically opposed to the normal way that we experience possession in games. In your other massive games, the games of witchers and dragonborn, you end up possessing the world in a different way. You cram it into your inventory. You buy deeds to locations. You convince people and animals to follow you. You eat bread and biscuits and sausages, slay dragons and dogs, and render the world completely in thrall to the amazing powers that you wield.
It’s hard to interact with Everything without thinking of creator David OReilly’s previous game Mountain. Back in 2014, I reviewed the game here at Paste, and that review ended up being ambivalent about what that game did. It was an object, I argued, that demanded a certain amount of endurance. One had to sit with that damn thing and wait for it to do something, and sometimes it did. It was a game that abstracted interaction itself because it asked you to just sit the hell down and wait for a minute. You couldn’t ride your horse toward the next objective. You couldn’t make time move any faster. You couldn’t drink a potion to have a social connection with that goofy mound.
Everything is doing similar work around the idea of interaction. It asks very open questions: What is the nature of a world? What does it mean to be part of a world? Is everything in concert with everything else? To drive this point home, the game has lots of excerpts from the 20th century philosopher Alan Watts peppered throughout the environments you can possess things in. He says typical Wattsian stuff, mostly adapted ideas from Asian philosophy with all the edges and serial numbers filed off. He says things like “a people peoples.” I’m not joking. The verb nouns.
Despite my reservations about the philosopher used to give the game some kind of evocative legitimacy, I do think that Everything wants us to be thinking as intently about how we are interacting with it as Mountain was. From its foundation, the way that the player can control, group, sing with, and delve into all of the things in the game puts it into stark contrast with the organization of the universe present in nearly every other videogame that you can play on a contemporary console.
For me, Everything is less a game about an idea than it is a game that argues against every other game. It’s a game about the theatrical artifice of all games. Todd Howard tells us that the world of Tamriel is real, and that we can go to those mountains, but we all know that they do not exist on their own. They are not objects that exist for themselves; they exist only for us, for the players who are going to go stomp around on them. Unlike the world outside a game, which does not need humans to keep on keeping on, a game world is only a pretense for giving a game player something to do.
World bibles, character interactions, and environmental simulations all tell us that a game extends forever. When we learn the hundred-years history of Destiny, we’re supposed to take all of that in. These guns aren’t necessarily for us, and this helmet has a long history of being passed from warrior to moon wizard down through time. Every Assassin’s Creed product is this fleshy, extensive thing that spills out from itself, from movie to game to YA novel to comic book, and each of those is meant to ground us, as consumers, down into this world even further. We’re supposed to be immersed not because some wonderful developers created an experience for us. Instead, we’re meant to feel awe at the scope of creation. Like looking at the Grand Canyon, we’re supposed to be enthralled by the scale. We’re supposed to think about how this wide work could swallow us up.
Everything flattens it all out. It delivers what all the other games pretend to. If you see a mountain, you can go there. You can be a boulder on it, and if you get bored you can be a tree, or a worm, or a dog who moves around between these objects. Everything lets us possess the world, but not in the way that tricks us into thinking that we’re a cog in this grand machine. It’s literal. Any moment is the same as anything else, and whether you’re a car or planet, you can merely exist. This world is the world that most videogames claim to be, and in getting to play what we are always promised, we might realize that being yet another object in a universe of anonymous objects might be pretty boring.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.