American Thanksgiving is behind us, and with the end of the year breathing down our throats, I decided to preempt all of the inevitable “Game of the Year” lists with my own advocation for the single game that made the biggest impact on me this year. I don’t expect I’ll be “first,” nor is that my aim, I just presume that—given the coverage I’ve seen so far this year—my pick for Game of the Year will be completely absent or poorly represented elsewhere. What follows is the text of the above video, so choose one or the other. The text you can read at your leisure without requiring headphones at work, the video has a lot of... well... video to enjoy in addition to the words.
The holidays are right around the corner, and the only thing this time of year makes me think about more than my favorite novelty songs are my favorite games of the year. Something about looking back on the best parts of the year just makes the season feel more… I don’t know, impactful.
2017 may have been a dumpster fire of a year for the planet Earth, but it was a tremendous time for video games! We had a new Zelda, a new Persona, a new Mario, even a new Nier, which surprised everyone by being both excellent and surprisingly popular, for a niche sequel about existentialist robots and gameplay metanarratives. And while I loved each of this games, really, I did, no game affected me quite like David OReilly’s Everything.
In the simplest sense, Everything is a game where you play as everything. Look, here I’m a lobster, and now I’m a tree. Now I’m an offshore oil rig. Now I’m a Higgs Boson Particle. There’s an immediate novelty to that premise and most people never looked past that. The part about Everything that stuck with me, though, was its statement on the sense of self within a grander consciousness.
Now, I’m not trying to make a big thesis here or anything, this isn’t some essay about how Grand Theft Auto is the truest depiction of immigrant life in America, or how every game should learn from A Boy and His Blob’s use of a dedicated hug button. I’m not reading too much into this or projecting my own feelings onto it, this is literally the narrative of the game.
You see, as you scoot through the various landscapes and planes of physical existence, you interact with all sorts of things, from chairs to rocks to planets, and all of them have thoughts and feelings, and as you hear those thoughts and feelings, they start to fill up your own self and your own personality becomes informed by the things you hear around you. This is a neat way of illustrating the way we as people are informed by the voices around us, the communities that we are embedded in. Pretty cool, right?
Well, not when all those voices around you are unhealthy ones who openly hate themselves and obsess over their past mistakes. That’s right, everything in Everything is deeply disturbed, mentally troubled and unhinged. This eye regrets shutting out its parents. This mussel has been avoiding a social life by burying itself in work. This photon just keeps saying the word “no” over and over forever and ever.
All of the negativity, all of that self-hatred, all of that regret just builds up inside of your avatar until it literally prevents you from proceeding. You’ve hit a wall and you can’t keep going like this. You need to make a change. And that’s when the game teaches you its least-impressive skill, but most useful: the ability to let go. When you make the conscious decision to let go of all the things you’ve heard, the weights that are holding you down, then you get to be free and explore further and redefine who you are and who you want to be. It has to be a deliberate action, the things other creatures say to you don’t just roll off of your back, you have to be the one who makes the choice and says to yourself “that’s not me. That’s not who I am. Those thoughts don’t define me. I do.”
Now, if this sounds unnecessarily heavy, bleak, or surreal, it helps to have a little bit of context about the game’s creator. Everything is the second video game designed by David OReilly. His first game, Mountain, was a much more passive game where you took the role of an inanimate hunk of rock, floating in the void of space. Sometimes there was life on you, sometimes there wasn’t. Every now and then your mountain would express an existential thought, like “I AM DEEPLY CONNECTED WITH THIS DAWN” or “I’M A BABE”. Mostly, though, you didn’t do anything, you just waited as nothing happened, or, more likely, you browsed the web or did work in another window on your computer and glanced over at your mountain every now and then when something exciting happened, like a mysterious object crashing into you, or a spontaneous explosion.
More relevant, though, was OReilly’s previous work as an animator. Most people know him from his contributions to the Spike Jonze film Her or from his episode of Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time, but those were collaborations where he stepped into another artist’s world and played with their toys. They’re both excellent, but judging OReilly by those works would be like judging Quentin Tarantino by his episode of CSI. My appreciation for OReilly comes from two short films he created: Please Say Something and The External World.
Please Say Something is the story of a strained and slowly crumbling relationship, while The External World is a series of vignettes about various characters and the way the people around them contribute to their own self-destruction… or something… I might be reading too much into that one, or maybe not! Both films deal with love and loss, and are keenly aware of the fourth wall and how easy it is to smash through it and talk directly to the audience.
These films are harsh and brutal, but honest and free. There’s something liberating about admitting to yourself that things are bad and they’re beyond your control but that you’re partially to blame. Owning up to your faults is a crucial step to self-improvement, and that theme carries through to Everything. After you let go of all of those voices, all of the external pressures that have been weighing you down, Everything opens up in a big way. You can transform on the spot into anything you’ve been before. You can grow and shrink on a whim. You can completely defy the laws of your environment, like this giant pancake coasting along the river, or this mob of french fries dancing through the cosmos. You are, finally, everything.
When I look back on 2017 and the great games I played, sure, I’ll remember gliding through the skies of Hyrule in Breath of the Wild and this tank lecturing me on its Mad Max-inspired lifestyle in NieR: Automata, but mostly I’ll remember the quiet feeling of self-actualization I got from Everything. I’ll remember the way I wondered for weeks if my salt shaker was happy or if I had somehow disappointed my teapot. Nothing else made me think about my life or my surroundings this year quite like Everything did.
Now about those dedicated hug buttons…