Animator and artist David O'Reilly reaches for the stars and beyond in 'Everything,' the follow-up to his critically-acclaimed, 'Mountain.'
I was born a human, but I'm a harbor seal the moment I load up a new game for Play Station 4 called Everything. Billed as a simulation of the universe we live in and boasting "a million+ hours of gameplay and thousands of playable characters," it was hard to know what to expect when I picked up the controller. Within a few minutes, I have become a whole pack of harbor seals, then a woolly mammoth, a rabbit, a spruce, a speck of pollen, and an entire island. By the time I'm done playing, I feel less human and more like, as the title says, Everything.
Everything is the brainchild of Irish artist, animator, and game developer David O'Reilly, whose work you've seen in the foul-mouthed video games of Spike Jonze's Her, fan favorite Adventure Time episode "A Glitch Is a Glitch," and numerous award winning, black-humored short films. The game draws deep from the existential humor and low-poly elegance of his filmography—those familiar with The Horse Raised by Spheres already know how the travel patterns of many animals in this world. Everything is his attempt to package his humor, visual sensibilities, and deep-seated beliefs into a playable philosophy text. "The game is how I see the world," O'Reilly explains to Creators.
That philosophy boils down to a premise simultaneously advocated by certain physicists, worldwide stoners, and the Dalai Llama: what if our universe is an atom? What if everything is connected and is actually a single, united organism? As vocalized by mid-century philosopher Alan Watts, doubling as O'Reilly's audioguide for the simulated universe, "What is chaos at one level of magnification is harmony at a higher level of magnification."
As you'll see in the below short film masquerading as a demo video, which debuted at the Berlin Film Festival, Watts' lectures are so funny he tricks you into contemplating the nuances of existence. "He has a real gift for language and drawing you into these unthinkable ideas," O'Reilly says. Throughout game I read minds, dance, and sing with all the other things, but a major force driving me forward is searching for hidden globes that unlock more Watts quotes. Similar to No Man's Sky, the joy of Everything is in discovery, rather than destruction. Alongside Watts' monologue, these hidden nuggets of wisdom, putting names to the thousands of playable characters labeled with question marks until the first time you control one, are soothing and satisfying.
On paper, though, the game is impossible. It's sweeping in scope, difficult to describe, and doubly so to market. Thus O'Reilly self-funded with revenue from his previous game, Mountain, a mountain simulator in the same metaphysical vein as Everything. Getting funding elsewhere wasn't an option. "It's a completely un-pitchable idea," O'Reilly laughs over the phone. "I'm trying to describe an indescribable thing." Fortunately the only person he had to pitch was programmer Damien DeFede, who also coded Mountain. When DeFede said yes, the duo thought Everything would take six-months to a year, but stretched out into a three-year-long project. Later, Double Fine stepped in to help distribute, which is how Everything wound up on PS4.
The accessibility offered by the major platform is helpful to O'Reilly's mission. "I wanted to create a kind of philosophy you can experience," he says. "One that's not the intellectual language game that goes on in universities, but that you can experience by simply observing and listening." He notes with pride that two to four-year-olds take to the game quickly, without expecting it to be like experiences to which seasoned gamers might compare Everything. "The game is only frustrating if you expect it to be something else. The fact that kids have enjoyed it so much is, to me, a beautiful thing."
While Everything is indeed rooted in metaphysics, O'Reilly continues,"The game isn't something exclusively for professors to play or for people to write theses about. Our popular notion of philosophy is something that is trapped in books that are too large and you put on a shelf and forget about. This is much simpler than that—and practical, too."
Ego death is the feeling, often stimulated by psychedelic drugs, of, "complete loss of subjective identity," according to M.W. Johnson, W.A. Richards, and R.R. Griffiths' 2008 study "Human hallucinogen research: guidelines for safety." I believe this is the only logical conclusion of playing Everything for long enough. Most games depend on the construct of the self to function: you must protect your lives, collect experience, gather more powerful weapons and powers. Everything is the opposite of that: the only way to move forward is to let go of that which is familiar and the very identity that "belongs" to you.
Ego death isn't O'Reilly's stated purpose for the game, but here's what he did say: "I've been trying to describe this for the last three years. And the truth is when you get into the idea of the totality or of everything, it actually escapes language. Words aren't very good at describing that sort of thing. That's where art steps in and allows us to describe something we otherwise couldn't. Some people describe ideas with language alone, and can do it beautifully. That's their craft. But language isn't my strong suit. I'm not going to be as fruitful with language as I can be with my art. When I'm looking for ideas, I'm trying to answer the question, 'What is it that I know that I can't describe?' And the better the idea is, the less I am able to describe it. What I really want is for people to see this thing and try it with no expectations at all."