The animator David OReilly is best known for designing the foul-mouthed alien video game in Spike Jonze’s Her, but his abrasively funny, absurdist work has also been seen in Adventure Time and in his own Octocat Adventures. In 2014, he made the leap to making actual games with Mountain, in which you play as a mountain. If that doesn’t sound exciting, you are right: Mountain is not an exciting game. Mountains don’t do much, it turns out. They just sort of sit there and are mountains. Accordingly, in Mountain, you couldn’t do anything. Hit the pause screen, and the controls come up for what the keyboard does (“nothing”) and what the mouse does (also “nothing”).
This is a bit of a feint, as the mouse actually rotates the camera, letting you view the mountain from any angle you choose, and banging the keyboard makes little majestic “dong!” sounds. Over the course of hours, little objects crash-land on the mountain—padlocks, top hats, flying saucers—and, eventually, the world ends due to one of a number of randomized apocalyptic calamities. This serves as both game over and victory, after which you can start again as a new mountain. At the time, people called it a screen saver, and they weren’t far off. It worked best as a digital companion, almost like a plant or a terrarium.
In OReilly’s new game, Everything, you play as everything. (The game has been a blessing to headline writers everywhere thanks to sentences exactly like that one.) It features seven distinct, richly populated planes of existence to move through: microscopic matter, plant-sized life and objects, animal-sized life, continents, solar systems, interstellar bodies, and finally a tesseract-like plane outside of space and time as we know it. (It’s awesome there.) On each plane, you hop from thing to thing, moving from camel to palm tree to pyramid, or space shuttle to super massive sun to mesoplanet. Over time you develop the ability to be several of them at once, moving in herds as you explore the massive, lo-fi fantasias. It can feel like visiting and inhabiting the home universe of all PlayStation 1 games.
The planes gradually evolve from simple, pastoral wilds into vast cityscapes, and the cosmos grow in complexity from our basic solar system to interstellar voids teeming with phenomena. You can dance and sing and talk to any of them, and they say stuff like, “All of this is for me,” or “I gotta tell you, the snowflakes around here think they’re SO unique.” At press time, I have seen less than one-fifth of the total number of things in the game.
Despite expanding from a single object in Mountain to every object in Everything, and moving from “no” controls to a surprisingly large amount of them, I suspect people will still be bored by Everything. It doesn’t play nice with our expectations for games—namely, that they challenge us or tell us a traditional story. It’s almost a procedural essay, using a series of monologues from the Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts to explore the nature of existence. You’re not transferring from object to object as if they were cars in Grand Theft Auto but gradually exploring the oneness of all of them. It’s a conceptual conceit that the game effortlessly holds together in all of its language choices. (“You are Blue Spruce,” it announces, or “You are Can Of Soda.”) Paired with gentle generative music, including somber organs and quivering sci-fi synthesizers, it can be quietly moving, mind-expanding stuff—assuming you’re up for playing it on its terms.
Intriguingly, the game allows you not to. OReilly seems to delight in flouting video game conventions—the press release for Everything claims it contains “1 million+ years of gameplay”—and the game proudly includes an “autoplay” mode that can be lightly tweaked to the player’s specifications. Set the controller down, and it takes off, shifting from thing to thing and plane to plane, dancing, finding new things, and progressing of its own accord. I’ve let it gently patrol the time-space continuum as I worked the past week, while cleaning my fish tank on Sunday, and even while clearing out shrines in Breath Of The Wild. Right now, I’m a rock lolling about on some stone steps in a snowy landscape.
Given all the grousing about Mountain as a glorified screen saver, this detailed autoplay mode seemingly doubles down on the premise. In practice, though, it’s less of a plantlike companion than a sort of active, generative art piece on your TV screen. Spend some time with it, and it starts to make you think more games could use something like this. Many experimental games struggle to pair their ideas with their interactive elements, such that actually playing them is the least interesting part. While quietly exploring Everything via controller can be fun, it’s at its best on autoplay, which trades the bloodlust we feel when we hold a controller for something more meditative.
Everything dares us to view a piece of software as a piece of art in and of itself, irrespective of its interactive elements. A game like Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture told a high sci-fi story via appropriately rapturous sights and music, but people hated the walking speed so much that it got panned. But what if it played itself? Everybody was dazzled by the concept of No Man’s Sky, which created an unfathomably large universe for players via algorithm, but almost a year later, its developers are still slowly trying to give players things to do in all that space. What if, instead, they had merely let players explore and appreciate that algorithm? It’s a matter of framing. A fine line was struck between this player-game divide by thatgamecompany, whose work on Flow, Flower, and Journey has clearly inspired Everything. And yet few of us recall those games for their fussy puzzles, which only served to meter the player’s progress through an audio-visual experience.
I’m not suggesting all of those games would be better if they played themselves, but the reliance on traditional structures can be a dead end for non-traditional games. If the game itself is beautiful, perhaps the best thing to do is merely set that up in a frame, stepping away from the altar of “gameplay.” I was always annoyed by Mountain’s claim that the mouse and keyboard did nothing. I liked what little they did. I wanted Mountain to own its light interactivity. Everything adds in a lot more—it adds in everything, you might say—but the concept of meditatively appreciating a piece of software remains the same, and autoplay proudly foregrounds it. In this way, it recalls Noby Noby Boy, the digital toy created by Keita Takahashi that invited players to gently stretch and prod a weird digital creation, and Reflection, the endlessly generative field of colors and sounds created by Brian Eno and Brian Chilvers earlier this year. Everything attempts to pack everything into a video game; it belongs in a frame.