[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon, where you can also get exclusive video content for $5+!]
As we move further into the 21st century, the lines between the physical world we find ourselves born into and the digital worlds we are currently constructing for ourselves are becoming ever more blurred. While many tech companies have spent the past few years chasing the dream of fully-immersive virtual reality experiences, Microsoft has chosen to imagine that we will soon live within “mixed reality” — a hybrid of real and virtual space — facilitated by their latest products.
While it may be difficult to imagine this wearable-tech-dependent future as anything more than Silicon Valley’s latest pipe dream, we may be able to more readily experience this convergence of real and digital life in the games we play. Many Tetris diehards in the 1980s noticed how they would compulsively visualize the ways in which differently-shaped buildings in the real world might click together in a satisfying way; writer Jeffrey Epstein coined this phenomenon the “Tetris effect” after phantom Tetrominos began floating in the peripheries of his vision.
As developers continue to better approximate our own world in the game spaces they create, this effect has only become more pronounced. Spend some time with Mirror’s Edge, and it becomes second-nature for your mind — if maybe not your feet — to trace out a parkour racing-line across city rooftops. Or, after a stint roaming the wastelands of Fallout, witness the strange compulsion to pick up loose duct-tape, screwdrivers and other junk which your mind would normally relegate to your peripheral vision.
The first time I visited Los Angeles, I felt deja vu for streets I had never seen before. Well, I had driven down these roads — just not in this world. I had spent enough time traveling the streets of Grand Theft Auto V that my mind confused the asphalt of L.A. for the pixels of Los Santos; I suddenly found myself in a borderland between the real world and a virtual representation of it.
As these man-made digital spaces begin to bleed into our world on an ever deeper level, it seems an interesting time to reflect upon our newfound creative potential. Now that we have the ability to create worlds in whatever image we choose, how are we reflecting and distorting our own reality into these collectively-imagined virtual spaces? What philosophies are — consciously or unconsciously — guiding their construction? And for us as players, as these lines between reality and virtual reality blur, just how radically can our time spent in digital worlds shift our perceptions of the world around us?
I found myself reflecting on these questions while pottering around the soft-focus dioramas of Everything, the latest oddball digital art piece by David O’Reilly, which purports to be a space where “everything you can see is a thing you can be.” Players start out as a randomly-selected animal — my first avatar: an antelope wandering through a mustard-yellow savannah — and then are free to explore this world and ‘hop’ into any other object, living or non-living. If O’Reilly’s first game, Mountain, allowed players to “fulfill their dreams of being a mountain,” Everything allows the curious player to fulfill their dream of being a bee, a glacier, a top hat, a hot air balloon or a suburban home.
After players spend a bit of time poking at the possibilities of the game’s world, O’Reilly grants players the ability to move up and down the levels of scale within this space. Players can send their perspective down into the realm of the microscopic, playing as a ladybug scuttling among towering blades of grass; from there, they can descend one step further to the cellular world if they want to see what it’s like to be one of the mitochondria powering that ladybug’s wobbling stride. On their return trip up the scale, players don’t have to stop at the level of camels and cacti; they can continue zooming their perspective ever outwards, to control the drift of entire continents over the ocean. With another jump, they are piloting planets through an alien solar system and, with one final leap, are able to steer entire galaxies between black holes and other, stranger, celestial phenomena.
Delightfully — especially for a medium where the predominant verbs of interaction with the world are too often “shoot” or “punch” — players mainly interact with this world through singing and dancing. The ‘sing’ button emits a sound unique to each object (a lion’s roar, a fire truck’s siren, the rustle of a tree), which causes other nearby beings to either be attracted to you or to flee your presence, depending on the context. Gather enough friendly items around yourself, and you can choreograph joyful dances of log cabins, sea lions, or asteroids.
Somewhat improbably, each item has the power of locomotion and is able to freely move within and explore the world. Even more improbably, each object has unique thoughts that they are all too excited to share with the player. A maple tree feels down because its children don’t talk to him often enough; a rollercoaster briefly stops to tell me she loves me before speeding on her way.
Eventually, players may call any previously-discovered item into being anywhere within the world, allowing them to create such absurd tableau as a school of fish flying between the tree trunks of a snowy forest or a pizza party populated by bears in the empty space between galaxies.
Everything remains an odd, freewheeling piece of software, hard to place within the traditional boundaries of genre. It is closer to the world’s most elaborate toy box than a traditional game, with its lack of clearly-defined goals. Set the controller down for a few seconds, and Everything can play itself while you go about your day, idly generating impromptu dances of polar bears and penguins. (The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has used the game in just this way, projecting it along an entire wall of their gallery.) David O’Reilly, when asked, describes it simply as a “consciousness simulator”. This statement, along with discoverable snippets from lectures by late British philosopher Alan Watts, may give us a clue as to this world’s true ontology.
Everything is as an exploration of Watts’ conception of the world through the medium of play, rather than an attempt to translate his ideas into traditional language. Watts studied the Vedanta school of Hinduism, which revolves around a conception of the world referred to as non-dualism. Non-dualism negates the idea of a fundamental separation between object and observer, and instead conceives the world as one continuous whole. For example, where common sense tells us that when a person is looking at a mountain, the person and the mountain are completely distinct and separate from each other, a non-dualist would see both as part of a larger, overarching process which is able to observe the mountain part of itself through the human part of itself.
If we extrapolate outwards from here, in the non-dualist conception of the world, the appearance of our universe as a collection of disparate “things” is an illusion. Rather, the universe is composed of one fundamental material (depending on the person or belief system, they may name this substance Consciousness, Brahman, Spirit, or simply God) which constantly transforms itself into different forms over space and time.
To illustrate this, you can follow the ‘flow’ of matter through the many different forms it adopts. The same atoms which are found in a plant are taken into an animal when it consumes it; this animal is then eaten by a human, who, in its turn, eventually dies, decomposes and returns their constituent atoms to the earth. Because of this, non-dualists often express phenomena as verbs rather than nouns; a tree is never permanently a “tree”, but rather the universe “treeing” in that spot for a period of time, before transforming it into something else.
In O’Reilly’s world, you take on the role of god playing hide-and-seek with yourself, by playing as the various objects within this space. O’Reilly explains Everything as “a game [that] lets you see the entire universe from the point of view of the thousands of things in it. In other words, there is no distinction between you and the world.” While playing Everything, you are the entire game world experiencing life (or, when thought of in another way, experiencing itself) from one perspective at a time. Within this space, there is no meaningful division between yourself, the world or this world’s god — all are one and the same.
Everything casts you as its world’s fundamental creative force, expressing yourself in different forms — now a giraffe, now a palm tree, now a TV set, now an asteroid — throughout the universe; in another way, you take on the role of this universe’s god, endlessly playing many different roles within your own creation. As O’Reilly concludes, “[Everything] is about describing a state of reality with no Us and no Them. No We. Just I. For infinity. Everywhere.”
It is difficult to form a mental conception of a non-dualistic universe, as we live our daily lives with the sole awareness of being conscious within one body. Everything allows us to briefly play in a universe where this philosophy is a reality which can be felt in every moment. With his game, O’Reilly demonstrates the ways in which people can share philosophic concepts through the medium of play. Watts himself often lamented the limitations of language — specifically, the difficulties of expressing non-dualistic concepts in a fundamentally dualist language. Everything reveals a new way people can directly share their conception of the world by creating their own reality based on those principles and then inviting others inside to experience their philosophy first-hand.
In recent years, developers have shown a willingness to create universes which lack an easily-identifiable creator. From the procedurally-generated star systems of No Man’s Sky to the ways players are able to become a secondary creator of a world when they reshape pre-existing games with mods, games are complicating the typical relationship between the creator of a space and the creations which live at its whim. As developers become more daring, games may help us to visualize non-Euclidean spaces, allow us to interact with strange pantheons of gods, or experience radically different states of consciousness.
Perhaps our eagerness to play within strange worlds such as Everything indicates that we are gradually becoming more comfortable with living in worlds not dominated by a singular creator. Through play, we may begin to see our own world less as a space bestowed upon us by a force beyond human comprehension, where we must learn to weather the ravages of an alien nature, and more as a world we are intrinsically part of and which we can form in the same way it gives form to us. Ours is a reality which is possible to shape, through collaborative creation, into whatever image we would like to see.
At one point in your wanderings through Everything, O’Reilly breaks the fourth wall to tell you that only when you step away from the screen will the real game begin — your life in the ‘real’ world. O’Reilly does not mean for Everything to be a bottled experience which ends when you turn the console off and put this world on pause. Rather, Everything seems to serve, in some fashion, as a gentle tutorial on how we can make a more permanent shift in perspective to view our own universe through a less anthropocentric lens. If my mind can see Los Angeles through the lens of Los Santos, it’s at least possible that my time spent with Everything will help me to see the world around me from a more non-dualist perspective. Our sojourns into these virtual spaces may help us in our attempts to grapple with the strangeness of our own universe.