By gamer_152 3 Comments
Note: The following article contains major spoilers for Everything.
Within modern indie entertainment, there is a Petri dish of progressive philosophy games. The Talos Principle, The Turing Test, SOMA, and similar titles raise and even answer high-stakes questions about reality and our experience of it. Commendably, they're rooting around in intellectual territory most media won't touch, but few of these games feel like fully-formed dialogues with the player. They rely on referencing outside texts instead of being complete texts within themselves, they have gameplay distract from their points instead of reinforcing them, or they read off essays at the player without giving them any hands-on learning. Everything has a far better command of its lessons. That doesn't mean it's necessarily a more fun game than any of the above or even that its arguments are more correct, but it is a shining example of how philosophical delivery mechanisms in games should work.
Everything is built on the back of a body of lectures by twentieth-century English philosopher Alan Watts. In these speeches, Watts conceives of the universe as one unified entity, shunning the popular view that it's a cluster of separate objects and lifeforms. Watts says that instead of pursuing the common individualist outlook on the universe, seeing ourselves as islands within everything, we should instead embrace that we are the universe or "everything" and that all human beings, including us, are just some of the things everything is doing. After all, everything, including us, is made of matter and energy, and that matter and energy all come from the same point of origin: the big bang. Many of the chemicals that were previously part of other things are incorporated into the human body on a daily basis, and everything in the universe is contextualised by its relation to everything else. Watts has a lot more arguments than these, but this is a taster of the arguments that drive Everything.
This logic is what pulls along the gameplay; gameplay which has you making wayward journies across the cosmos, shifting your control between a wide variety of organisms and objects as you do. By taking on the forms of hundreds of different things from across the universe, you can feel that you are the universe. The beings you meet along these journies offer up audio files of Watts explaining his monistic worldview; Watts is the logos, and the gameplay is the pathos. By receiving the aural snippets of Watts's classes from all things in the universe rather than just tapes or computer files, as we do in many other games, Everything also suggests that it's us making contact with the universe that awakens us to these wisdoms about it.
This concept of being one with everything is traditionally packaged in a way that alienates a lot of people because it gets justified with pseudoscience, is culturally alien, or is played up as some grand knowledge only attainable by spiritual gurus who spend fifteen hours a day meditating. Unlike the rest, Watts succeeds in imparting this idea because he doesn't appeal to any of the above concepts. Throughout his career, Watts believed the truths about the universe were intuitive enough that anyone could understand them. You don't need familiarity with academic or religious bodies of knowledge to listen to Watts because he is working off of common sense concepts. That's a big part of what helps the game feel like a whole and not a fraction when it argues.
Unlike The Talos Principle or The Turing Test, it doesn't prime you to go off and read some more informative book to understand the questions it raises; you're already primed with common knowledge, and so it can give you the answers then and there. The game's simplistic mechanics are proof of how simple the concepts it's conveying are. You can become different things, change size, dance, sing, and not much else because there doesn't need to be much else. Watts is also the only philosopher that would fit this game format. He is a captivating orator who speaks in a way everyone can understand and his philosophy commenting on the nature of the world gels well with video games as world exploration is one of the pillars of the medium.
However, this is not to say that the game is a carbon copy of Watts's vision; it does expand on it to some extent. Watts has often valued the natural over the synthetic and lamented that our modern living conditions mean bumping up against a lot of "junk", but Everything argues that if we are part of the universe, then that means not just being organic things but also being all manufactured things. Following Watts's logic all the way to its terminus, if you are every star in the night sky, then you must also be every garbage bag on Earth. If you are every species of bird, then you are also every species of virus, and in Everything, you can be. It allows you to be the "junk" and the synthetic and unpleasant things in the universe that preachers of holistic spirituality don't want to speak about. But it gets even weirder. The game argues you must also be any alien organisms we haven't discovered yet, as well as some abstract concepts like the Planck length or zonohedrons. Through Everything's eyes, if you want to have a holistic worldview then you shouldn't meditate to connect with just the trees and the animals and the air as it's popular to do. You must also meditate to connect with your bacteria, cutlery drawer, and the shapes that make you up, and Everything fills in this gap, it is itself a meditation that has you interface with those things.
The gargantuan scope of this meditation is what hits you hardest, and the challenge Everything poses is not the hand-eye coordination or strategic tests of other games. It's internalising that you are not the single person you feel like and that the universe, the thing you are, is almost inconceivably diverse and vast. This scope also posed a challenge to the game's developer, David O'Reilly, one of realising a universe of hundreds of objects that a player could interact with in a manner that feels contained and manageable. Just dumping every thing in one place would be lazy and overwhelm the player, but O'Reilly gets around this by sorting all things in the universe into layers. Everything turns to scale as the principal way in which we can distinguish things from each other, almost certainly inspired by Watts's 1965 "World As Self" lecture. In the lecture, Watts explains that any observation of the universe is only relative to the scale that you observe it on. At the largest scale everything else is so small that we might not see it, and at the smallest scale, everything else is so large that we might not recognise it. So rather than creating a single perspective on its universe, Everything creates a variety of perspectives we can move between and in each of these perspectives different things are visible. So you may start at a level where it's easy to see whole continents, then move a level down and not be able to see them properly but discover a new world of trees and mammals and houses, and then move down to a level where they become invisible but you can see flowers and bugs, and so on.
In both Watts's philosophy and the game, this direction of our attention to things much larger than humans and much smaller than humans is a reminder that an anthropocentric perspective gives us only a sliver of insight into everything that makes up the cosmos. There are entire cosmic harmonies which exist above us and entire ecosystems below us. Most reflections on the vastness of the universe are preoccupied with how tiny and insignificant it makes humans, but Everything has a more complex view. Sure, a human body is small compared to the Milky Way, but we're less likely to make the equally valid comparison that we are enormous compared to the world as it exists on the atomic level or even the microorganism level. The game also takes a bit of a shortcut to make you feel like there's something always larger than you and smaller than you. When you ascend from the highest level of space, you end up in the smallest tier of a different universe, and when you descend from the subatomic level, you end up in the highest tier of another universe. It's unscientific but is in the spirit of reminding you that scale is always relative.
Another way in which the game manages to model a whole universe is by not modelling the mechanical differences between any two things. Everything's saxophones have no unique mechanics that emulate the functions of real saxophones, and its bees have no unique mechanics that emulate the lives of real bees, and that leaves saxophones feeling less like saxophones and bees feeling less like bees. You'll also notice that the energy exchanges between items in the universe and the life cycles of these items are not depicted in any way. This is a fault when Watts takes these processes as crucial evidence that the universe is one organism and not many. However, creating an interactive system which accurately simulates every kind of item in the universe and the interactions between them is likely impossible right now, and so the game makes a trade-off of detail for breadth. Just as Watts's perspective is pulled very far back, dealing with the universe as a whole instead of commenting on every nook and cranny of it, the mechanics are pulled very far back, created to give a platform for embodying the universe but not the most specific characteristics of every thing within it. Everything may not do all of its subjects justice, but it does fit them all into frame.
This mechanical flatness is, however, not just a product of design limitations. Every thing has identical player verbs (sing, dance, grow, shrink, etc.) and that allows the game to suggest through its mechanics that they are the same thing, the same way that any two things with identical appearances might be taken to be the same thing. It follows that if they are the same, then they all deserve equal consideration and respect in our conceptualisations of the universe. However, we can also forward an argument that the lack of mechanical separation between the things is the game chopping away at a potentially more accurate simulation of reality to create a weak justification for Watts's philosophy.
It's easy to think every thing is the same thing when we interact with a system that ignores the differing properties of those things, but those unique properties may be what make those things unique organisms or objects and not things we can categorise as just regions of a whole. We could say, for example, that if the game did faithfully mechanically render saxophones and bees, then in their differing behaviours and interactions with everything else, we would see proof that they are not the same things. To put it another way, isn't something having properties unlike the things around it how we identify it as an individual thing? Even if you believe faithfully in Watts's worldview, you have to believe that the existence of everything as a single whole is not due to a lack of differing traits between the parts of that whole, as the play would suggest, but instead, that the whole exists despite those differing traits. Everything's perspective on everything is pulled so far back that its subjects are blurry and how can we ever get a realistic image of blurry subjects?
Whatever the truth, this equality between the things is also part of the game's larger abandonment of rewards and goals. Because there are almost no rewards for being one thing instead of another thing and because we don't have to go gallivanting off to one corner of the universe to complete a specific goal, we can instead focus on just being what we are which is consummate with Watts's philosophy. Watts thinks we get too distracted by acquisition and achievement and forget how to enjoy simply existing. The only compromise the game makes in this department is that it does keep an encyclopaedia and total of all the things you've been and so you may feel encouraged to leap into other forms to fill out your universal Pokédex. In this way, it displays an opportunity for acquisition which is at odds with Watts's opinions.
There are other bones we can pick with the game as an adaptation of Watts's worldview. For example, while Watts's lectures tell us that we are everything, these mechanics only allow us to be, at most, a large group of things. In fact, it's a little hard to work out what it would mean to be everything in the universe in a video game, and it may currently be impossible to make a game that lets you be everything because one human being is only ever able to perceive so much. You could even claim that no audio, visual, or mechanical media could ever do Watts's worldview justice. He argues that immediate sensory perception, like sight, hearing, or feeling misleads us about our place in the universe and is part of what tricks us into thinking that we are individuals rather than the whole. If media relies on these senses, can it ever embody the phenomenon Watts is detailing? However, in all contexts I've discussed so far, the game at least makes it clear what Watts's philosophical position is, even if it doesn't fully recreate it in play. There is a brief blip during which that stops being true.
Everything's "tutorial" culminates in the descent into "The Golden Gate", a surrealist nightmare realm inhabited by deformed biological screwups and an excess of consumer products. The game contains a mechanic in which the things around you will sometimes share their thoughts with you, all of which it records in a special menu. The Golden Gate is chattering with thoughts, far more than the outside world and most of these thoughts are about the regrets and wasted lives of these things. Eventually, you find a computer monitor displaying the same thing as the in-game camera which tells you that the things here are souls trapped in a world they created. It also gives you the key to exiting the area: you have to delete all the thoughts you have collected thus far. Once you do, you may leave, and the tutorial ends.
This misadventure seems to be derived from Watts's ideas that our modern lives are an unhealthy styrofoam existence and that incessant thought leads to despair. The monitor showing our camera represents the game itself and suggests that the game will provide us with the escape route from such an upsetting lifestyle, presumably by teaching us Watts's lessons. In a very Alan Watts way, meditation, which is the opposite of incessant thought and consists of the deletion of the thoughts, saves the day.
It all looks very neat on paper, but the delivery of the Golden Gate section is muddled and rushed. The rest of the game picks one of Watts's ideas and takes the time to discuss all its forms and implications with plenty of metaphor and reflection, mostly through using those clips of Watts. The Golden Gate contains no audio of the philosopher, likely to show that this dimension is not a place his mantras have penetrated, but that also puts a hard cap on how much this section can say. It doesn't make it clear what the relationship is between the synthetic objects and over-thinking. It also makes the claim that people can't be "convinced" out of this space but doesn't explain why, and paradoxically, makes this statement before convincing you of how to leave.
The only message that's properly delivered during this period comes when the tutorial ends, and we are welcomed to Everything. Keep in mind that up until this point the game did not flag that we were in a tutorial. Because of this, it may seem baffling why the experience up to and including the Golden Gate is treated as such, but it makes sense if you think like a philosopher. Most games have tutorials to teach us how to operate their mechanics to trigger a win condition, but this is a philosophical game, and so its tutorial informs us of how to view its mechanics as metaphysical commentary. Is it only after the Golden Gate that Everything proper "starts" because it is only at this point that we have been taught its full relevance: It allows us to be the universe so that we don't become depressed by becoming stuck in ourselves like the objects in the Gate.
The Golden Gate is also a wonderful example of how the "thoughts" give the game such a resonant sounding board for its existentialism. The things' thoughts are often about their lives or big picture philosophy, so it's natural to compare them against Watts's positions. When you do that, the things that seem troubled because of their personal problems come across as making the mistake of being too self-obsessed. When you have flown to other galaxies and back, it's hard to see any one person's problems as dire. Conversely, it's the things which are highly aware of or love their place in the universe which seem enlightened. Obviously, this may not be a proof of the idea that it is naive to feel personally troubled; after all, the game mechanically explores nothing about the human experience apart from the fact that we exist in the universe, but it is the game remaining true to Watts's opinions. This brings me onto another point we've already touched on a little but needs to be stared at head-on: Everything imports Watts's work without any rigorous criticism of it and any piece of media which leapfrogs off of another creator's work in that way adopts not only the strengths of that work but also its weaknesses.
A sceptical listener of Watts's lectures could reasonably argue he creates the impression that viewing the universe in a top-down manner is the only valid way to do it, neglecting the validity of the bottom-up approach. If we imagine a car engine, we can also imagine breaking it down into a set of components: the crankshaft, the pistons, the exhaust valve, and so on. In this example, we can note that the existence of the individual parts of the engine does not invalidate the existence of the engine as a whole, nor vice-versa. In the same way, we can say that the existence of humans, trees, planets, etc. as parts of the universe does not invalidate the concept of one whole universe, but neither does the concept of a whole universe invalidate the idea that these are different parts. What we see here needn't be competing worldviews but different perspectives that we can apply to everything at different times. We remain most educated about and conscious of reality when we remember to explore both individual things and the wholes they comprise.
To be fair, Watts does at one point acknowledge that you could see your body as isolated from the universe, with "you" stopping at the top of your head. However, he speaks far more about the whole than the parts and at another point uses specious logic to conclude that there's no such thing as individual "things". Watts reasons that "thing" is synonymous with "noun" and that as there are no nouns in nature, "things" exist only as an abstract linguistic concept. Watts is confusing words, which we use as signposts to point to things, with the things themselves. Yes, you'll never find the nouns "bear", "kelp", or "pollen" in the wild, but that doesn't mean what those nouns point to doesn't exist physically. Bears, kelp, and pollen are still physical aspects of our planet.
It's easy to misconceive that because Watts has a philosophy that accounts for the state of everything in the universe, that he is giving a full education in the philosophy of the universe. Keep in mind that Watts doesn't fully acknowledge what competing theories to his say and that he occasionally gets stuck in these logical potholes. When the game repeats him verbatim, it does the same. However, Watts and consequently Everything carry with them a profound big picture wisdom that deserves to be shared and even if Everything can't provide a mechanically complete simulation of all the universal phenomena Watts described, it at least gives you everything you need to understand what Watts said about reality.
A successful adaptation of someone else's work means not just a replication of their ideas but an elevation of them. It means using the chosen medium to convey the source material in a way that couldn't be done in any other medium, and Everything is a rare example of that being done properly in a video game. Watts's arguments that you are the universe may be compelling and touching by themselves, but they're even more so when you hear them while inhabiting the bodies of hundreds of different objects and organisms from across the cosmos. While other philosophical games can be found leaning on texts greater than themselves to prop them up, Everything matches and in areas even outpaces Watts's original lectures in explaining his friendly brand of monism.
So much of Everything's success as an adaptation is in its self-confidence. While The Talos Principle, The Turing Test, and SOMA often hastily treated from their philosophy into puzzles or had one distract from the other, Everything commits, using every moment and mechanic it has to argue for Watts's worldview. It's even confident enough to, like Watts, crack a joke now and then. While I'm all for dark and serious video games, it's also an achievement that unlike most other media talking about existentialism and death, which is disquieting and disturbing, Everything manages to be warm and welcoming. Most of all, I'm reminded that a meaningful work is one that you don't just remember after you finish it, but that's incorporated into your identity or perspective, and it's hard not to absorb Everything into yourself in that way. After playing the game, it's instinctive to look down on the street and imagine the world of microbes beneath you or look up at the night sky and imagine the galaxies above you and to feel a kinship with both. Thanks for reading.