Everything is a Game

On the eve of launching his new game Everything on Mac and PC, I spoke with David OReilly about the perils of game development, what makes Everything’s Quantum level tick, and the origin of the Warped Ruins…

30000fps: We first spoke back in 2015 when the game was still in its early stages and I feel kind of lucky to have witnessed its progression from then until now. You initially described the experience of Everything to me as being “Powers of Ten : The Game.” That’s easily one of my favorite animations—it plays so well with scale and struck me as a really ambitious concept to model a game after.

One of your production documents expanded on the idea:

Your main ability in the game is the power to enter, and at any time you can become something bigger or smaller. Entering is a form of transportation in the game allowing you to move around to different areas, and also a perceptual lens so that you can experience the world from many different viewpoints.
Everything involves exploring a beautiful, detailed world and listening to it describe itself. The player must get comfortable becoming attached to different things and letting go of them. Many things in the game have thoughts — ranging from the mundane to funny to helpful. These can guide you around each level.

And this is from the official synopsis on the game’s site:

Everything is a procedural, AI-driven simulation of the systems of nature, seen from the points of view of everything in the Universe.” –everything-game.com

I was able to spend some time with the game over the past few weeks and can honestly say I’ve enjoyed it immensely. So far I’ve been over 1,300 different “things” and I’m pretty sure there are still more out there. These are just a few of the categories of objects the player can become: Animal, Atom, Bird, Cloud, Furniture, Galaxy, Light, Planet, Particle, Reptile, Space Junk, Virus, Water…

I can imagine the task of researching and designing a universe of 3D objects from scratch must have been pretty daunting. How long did it take to create them all?

David OReilly: There are over 3000 different things if you include variations. It was a massive undertaking from the very start of the project. The process of building up the library, and creating tools to use things in level design, never really stopped, I was making changes to it right up to release.

You chose the Unity 3D engine to drive all of the functionality in the game. This includes all of the scale transitions, thought generation, time dilation, sound warping, object transformations, weather systems, day-night cycles, camera effects, lighting, level tiling, and so on.

What were some of the biggest challenges that you and programmer Damien Di Fede faced while building this thing?

Unity was what I was used to, since doing Mountain in it. There are a lot of things it does well, and automatically — which helps when you’re a tiny team — but it was also quite frustrating. Every single part of the game involves some crazy system that we had to build from scratch — no part of it is “off the shelf”, so it was a big challenge to get it running well on the PS4. It involved often working around engine bugs and putting a huge amount of time into optimization. I do like Unity, but I don’t think I would use it again for a 3d game.

There are elements of procedural generation built into the game. Randomly composed “thoughts” can pop up above the object you control, and there’s also an option called “Zero Player” that allows the game to randomly transform every object in the level into something else.

Your first game Mountain also incorporated similar elements, what do you find interesting about randomness?

I think on the highest level it’s about describing what nature is doing, and every idea follows behind that. The results of that can lead to abstract looking things, that you might call “unnatural”, but only in some visual specifics — the underlying logic and systems are all attempting to describe the common ground of life itself.

Said the camera to the chameleon

The audio in the game is excellent! It really adds a lot of depth to the experience. How did you connect with sound designer Eduardo Ortiz Frau and composer Ben Lukas Boysen?

Eduardo is well known in the game audio world and he was the first person I asked. I knew after 5 minutes of meeting him that nobody could do this but him, he took the whole thing head on and did an amazing job.

I have been a fan of Ben for years and it was another thing that clicked easily. We communicated very well and he brought so much to the project. I wanted the sound and music to give the game a sense of dignity, because visually it can look quite crazy and you want the world to feel sincere underneath. The audio of the game is describing something more realistic than what could be achieved visually.

I get a kick out of finding new objects and listening to their different “sing” sounds. I discovered that the Ice Cream Truck plays an interesting melody, one that sci-fi fans might recognize. I also had a pretty good time roaming around as a pack of Hyenas and having them laugh at things.

The Warped Ruins also have a pretty wild sound, like something from another dimension. What’s the story behind them?

Many of the weirder things are from an earlier incarnation of the project from back in 2012. It’s a rather long story but I ended up with a bunch of models that ended up being used to prototype Everything, and many made it into the final game.

The time I became a wheelchair and raced two police cars…

The game can actually play itself in Autoplay mode, what inspired you to include that as a feature?

Autoplay is something I had done before with Mountain. It’s an idea stolen from nature, which is (to me) nature’s most interesting and important feature, something that’s doing itself to itself. Autoplay is describing a point of view shift in how you perceive your own behavior — if you are behaving or the world is behaving you. Both the experience of control and no-control are true interpretations of what you’re doing. So you have both free will and no free will in the game, and this seems to bother no one.

If you consider that most games are interactivity punctuated by moments of intense concentration/conflict, Everything is interactivity punctuated by moments that provoke thought, and you cannot think properly if you’re mashing buttons, so being able to give up control is essential to that. It allows space for the player’s mind to wander.

Was there a moment during the whole process where the game started to come to life for you?

There were a few big moments in development when it really delighted me. The first was when the scales first linked up and you could travel between them, and all these worlds persisted. That was broken for the longest time — because theres a thousand ways for it to break, but once it started working it really was very exhilarating. We also put a massive amount of work into making the transitions between scales as fast as possible. It went from taking 15 seconds, to eventually what it is now, about 2 seconds. Each time it got quicker it improved the feel of the game more and more.

Four of the seven scale levels in Everything: Galactic, Solar, Human, Quantum

“Which level of magnification is the correct one? Well, obviously they’re all correct They’re just different points of view.”

British philosopher Alan Watts , from Everything’s audio narration

(Some slight spoilers follow in the next few paragraphs, to skip scroll down to the image of the logo)

One of the tasks you gave me was to come up with visual ideas for the look of the game’s Quantum scale and the objects inside it. How would you explain this level to someone? Was it difficult to try to imagine how this area could look?

The good thing about working at such a small scale, is that you don’t need to explain anything, you can just work on intuition. This is probably the biggest advantage of working small. So when I started thinking about this area initially I wanted certain concepts to feature more, like symmetry, but it wasn’t well defined, and it definitely felt like something that was hard to imagine. The initial vision for it was quite out there, it might be another game altogether. It’s honestly just a small taste of what would be possible with serious time and money but it’s still probably my favorite area!

Concept art created for the game’s Quantum scale level / credit: 30000fps

This level definitely ended up looking and feeling much more abstract than the others. What are some of the design choices you made while you were creating this space?

The kaleidoscope overlay happened by accident when I was experimenting with making post effects. The extreme FOV pull (camera effect when the player moves forward quickly) was inspired by your designs. It’s basically the same sprint FOV pull from the other levels cranked to an extreme.

The entire area also lights up to music which was something that was added quite late. This is the one area of the game where the rules could be different, and many of the ideas in it just came up in the process of putting it together, and knowing there was a place for a certain kind of idea.

Quantum zoom / in-game capture

A lot of what the player sees in the Quantum level are pure geometric forms — points, lines, and polehedra, among other things. Can you explain how you decided on what the player sees at this scale?

It was you who suggested using dimensions (1d/2d/3d) as categories, and I went from there and just started filling out each with what you might expect to find. I used software to generate some of the geometries and a lot came from experimentation. I would have loved to have dynamic 4d shapes but I didn’t know how to create them, so many of the actual level geometries (the pulsating lines that surround you) are based on hyper-cubes and hyper-pyramids.

The logo is something we also collaborated on. It evolved from the initial sketch of a cube with seven points into an impossible object. Is there any significance to its final form, the interlocking hexagon?

There is a lot of significance to the logo, there’s so many reasons this shape worked the best — some were intentional and some came up later that kept reinforcing it. So I think it’s better to not discuss it and have people interpret it as they like, as I think there are many possible correct interpretations of it.

Mockup of the game’s start screen / credit: 30000fps

Since the game’s initial release in March I’ve personally seen many positive reactions to the game, some emotional ones as well. I’ve also read comments by people saying that playing it gives them a sense of calm and even helps ease their anxiety. Do you think there’s something to that?

I think all art is therapeutic, even very violent art, and games are no exception. I think a lot of people will find this game therapeutic.

You spent more than three years developing and designing the game. How did you stay motivated over such an extended period of time?

It is very hard to answer because I think what motivates us is often not rational, and often isn’t even revealed to us. Basically I have always had a massive belief in the project, and feel that I was put here to make it.

An alpaca discovers a black hole, an example of the game’s many possible unscripted moments

Last thoughts, do you have any opinions on the simulation theory? The idea that the universe, including us, is potentially nothing more than code being executed on some type of advanced system that resides somewhere outside of what we can observe..

I have a lot of disagreements with the simulation theory which I won’t get into. I’ll just leave a few questions for anyone who buys into it to ask themselves — a simulation of what? for whom? and to what end?

Thanks David, all of us who were involved wish you success with the release this week. For anyone who hasn’t experienced the game, it’s truly a one of a kind experience and not to be missed!

EVERYTHING is available now on STEAM and PS4

“An exuberant celebration of connections, of the ties that bind the universe together… I burst into tears.” –Kotaku

Everything Game
David Oreilly
Damien Di Fede
Alan Watts Project
Ben Lukas Boysen
Sebastian Plano
Eduardo Ortiz Frau

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