The Video Game That Claims Everything Is Connected

Instead, it shows how individual and unique things really are.

A herd of wooly mammoths float among galaxies in Everything, a new video game. (Everything Game / Ian Bogost)

I am Rocky Mountain elk. I somersault forward through the grass, toward a tower of some sort. Now I am that: Industrial Smoke Stack. I press another button and move a cursor to become Giant Sequoia. I zoom out again, and I am Rock Planet, small and gray. Soon I am Sun, and then I am Lenticular Galaxy. Things seem a little too ordinary, so I pull up a menu and transform my galaxy into a Woolly Mammoth. With another button I multiply them. I am mammoths, in the vacuum of space.

There are others, too. Hydrogen atom. Taco truck. Palomino horse, spruce, fast-food restaurant, hot-air balloon. Camel, planetary system, Higgs boson, orca. Bacteriophage, poppy, match, pagoda, dirt chunk, oil rig. These are some of the things I got to be in Everything, a new video game by the animator and game designer David OReilly.

It may sound strange. What does it mean to be a fast-food restaurant or a Higgs boson? That’s the question the game poses and, to some extent, answers. In the process, it tumbles the player through galaxies, planets, continents, brush, subatomic abstractions, and a whole lot of Buddhist mysticism. The result turns a video-game console into an unlikely platform for metaphysical experimentation.

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In retrospect, OReilly’s last game was a warm-up for this one. Called Mountain, the game depicted a mountain, disembodied in space, at which worldly miscellany hurtled and sometimes stuck. Eventually, after 50 hours or more, the mountain, rather than the human, quit playing and departed.

When I wrote about Mountain upon its release in 2014, it was easy to find a hook. OReilly had produced several esoteric, animated short films, but he was best-known for designing the animations for the “alien child” video-game sequence in Spike Jonze’s Her, a film about a man’s relationship with an artificial intelligence that eventually reaches transcendence and leaves him. Her, I argued, was Hollywood taking the easy way out with alien love. Scarlett Johansson’s Samantha was just a human left unseen. Mountain offered a bolder invitation: to commune with a representation of an inanimate, aggregate object rather than a living, individual one.

Against all odds, Mountain was a commercial success. It cost $1, and it did well enough to allow OReilly to self-fund the development of Everything. That’s a big bet, but OReilly feels palpable glee from having taken it. “Money lacks the ability to look forward,” he tells me, reflecting on his difficulty parlaying short-film festival success into paying work. He sells the risk as a moral imperative. “I could have done a commercial thing or gotten a mortgage,” he explains, “but I felt a responsibility to go deeper.”

Three years later, Everything certainly goes deeper. The game sports thousands of unique, playable things, promising players that anything they can see, they can be. To “be” something in Everything means binding to and taking control of it. Once accomplished, the player can pilot that object around Everything’s vast, multi-level 3-D world. Rolling the boulder over to a Montgomery palm allows the player to ascend further, as I did up into the galaxy from the Rocky Mountain elk. The game also allows downward progress: descending from planet, to continent, to kelp forest, and then orca, then plankton, then fungus, then atom. And further, too, until discovering that, according to Everything, the tiniest of things in one dimension might just be the biggest ones in another.

Everything’s tagline promises that everything you can see, you can be, which has led some to conclude that the game is a “universe simulator,” along the lines of No Man’s Sky. But Everything isn’t a universe simulator. You can’t be anything in Everything, and anyone with that aspiration will leave disappointed. After bonding with a fast-food restaurant, players can’t descend into it to discover booths, ceramic floor tiles, low-wage workers, hamburger patties, or the fragments of spent straw sheaths like they can with galaxies and continents and shrubs.

Only a fool would try to make a game that contains everything—or think that it would be possible to play one. A game containing everything in the universe would be coextensive with the universe. We’re already playing that game, it turns out. But that fact is hard to see. Everything helps a little, by reminding people of the things that coexist both alongside and very far away from them.

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Everything’s take on the matter comes at a cost. In Mountain, the nature of a mountain was easier to imply, even if as a caricature, in a video game. Mountains are massive structures of rock and earth, formed and destroyed by tectonics and erosion. The timescale of a mountain makes a human being’s encounter with it evanescent. Fifty hours into Mountain, staring at the same mountain, the slowness of geological time feels palpable.

In Everything, everything feels more familiar, more human. The player moves things around, side to side and up and down, in the manner familiar to video games. This makes sense for beetles and cargo ships, but less so for redwood trees and office buildings—which disconnect from the ground and lumber along as if they were giraffes. The game tries to undermine its anthropomorphism by animating living creatures in a deliberately unfamiliar, awkward way. Mammals, their limbs fixed, execute somersaults rather than walking upright. The things in Everything also express existential angst, and with language, no less. “So many times I could have asked him out,” a lime wedge says, as I, VHS cassette, tumble past it. What would it mean for citrus to date, or to Tinder?

Such questions make more sense when considered alongside audio clips that the player can find throughout the game. They are excerpts from the lectures of the Alan Watts, the British-American philosopher-mystic who popularized Eastern philosophy in the West during the mid-20th century. He’s largely responsible for importing Buddhism to California in particular, where its rise had an important influence on the counter-culture movements of the 1960s—which together partly shaped the rise of the microcomputer in Silicon Valley.

Watts’s monologues are insidiously seductive. His voice imposes involuntary serenity, even among listeners (like me) who disagree with the ideas it conveys. The cadence and quality of the recordings also telegraph the period of their production: the cradle of mid-century prosperity, when certainty sounded more certain. Blending Zen and Vedanta with Freud and Heisenberg, Watts argued against the Western notion of the alienated self, separate from and at odds with its surroundings. Instead, he advocated a holistic conception of being, in which all entities in the cosmos are fundamentally interconnected, reliant, and compatible.

The recordings are extensively excerpted in the game, to “bind the ideas of the game to its structure,” as OReilly puts it. To do so required extensive negotiation with Watts’s estate, which has turned Watts’s lectures into a cottage industry for corporate licensing. OReilly appealed to Mark Watts, Alan’s son. Many owners of PlayStations are probably unfamiliar with Watts’s ideas, OReilly reasoned, despite their influence on the contemporary mindfulness trend they partly enabled. The two struck a deal: The video game and the library would partake in a delightful, unexpected cross promotion.

OReilly’s own view of the result is broad and unassuming. He does see a central claim in the game—“the world as subtracted from the idea of the self.” But OReilly also knows from Mountain—used as an object of mockery as much as a relaxation aid—that people use media for their own purposes, even if those purposes amount to making GIFs for their friends.

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Even so, Everything yokes its horse too tightly to Watts’s cart. The concreteness of the philosopher’s voice and ideas risk overwhelming all other interpretations. And even without them, Everything’s narrative structure (yes, there is one) is textbook Watts. The player enters the universe with an anxious certainty about the role of the self. Over time, with practice, that player can let go of those attachments, free the mind, and reach enlightenment. At which point the real work of living—or playing—can commence.

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.

I tried to play Everything with that attitude in mind, rather than Watts’s holism. And it obliged surprisingly well. For one part, the game puts man-made entities on the same footing as natural ones. Bacon and street lamps are no less or more valid avatars in Everything than are spruce trees or ice planets. This idea alone is enough to recommend the game, and to break the yoke of Alan Watts, whose version of Western Buddhism still bound too much to environmental naturalism.

And Everything offers a paradoxical salve to the anthropomorphism on which it also relies. When the rocks and the amoeba all have and express the same anxiety of death as people, as they do in Everything, they also draw attention to the fact that rocks and amoeba can’t possibly have that anxiety—at least not in the same way as you and me. In her book Vibrant Matter, the political scientist Jane Bennett has a tidy summary of this unexpected escape route from human self-centeredness:

Maybe it’s worth running the risks associated with anthropomorphizing … because it, oddly enough, works against anthropocentrism: a chord is struck between person and thing, and I am no longer above or outside a nonhuman “environment.”

Counterintuitively, by allowing things unlike people to pretend they are like us, the game helps drive home the fact that they are not.

For another part, 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.

There’s a lovely moment in Everything, just before the player reaches its version of awakening. A new thing appears in a curious murk. It’s a PlayStation, wired up to a television. The game displayed upon it is Everything, and the scene is the very one the player currently occupies. In a humble whisper, Everything admits that it is not everything, but only a video game by that name, full of things made from polygons, just pretending.

People play games—and read books, and listen to lectures—not to mistake their ideas for the world, but in order to find new ways to approach that world. This fact is so obvious that it seems stupid to observe it. And yet, video games—that medium of prurient adolescent fantasy at worst, and numbing, compulsive distraction at best—rarely try, or succeed, in doing so. Especially at the level of ideas so abstract as ontology, the study of being.

Perhaps this is Everything’s greatest accomplishment: a video game with a metaphysical position strong and coherent enough to warrant objection as much as embrace.