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Everything: The Kotaku Review

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For large portions of Everything, I wasn’t sure how to feel. By the end of it, I cried. A lot.

Everything is a game about everything. In this new game from the developer of experimental game/virtual pet Mountain, you can take control of every object in the game world, from ants and buildings to solar systems and subatomic particles. You explore until you decide it’s time to pop into a different body. Then you explore some more.

Initially, it comes off as aimless and repetitive. You wander infinitely-expanding maps, cataloging each new thing you leap into via a wide range of categories like “plant,” “animal,” and “space junk.” There’s not a ton to it, and it’s difficult to discern a goal beyond experiencing the objects the game lets you inhabit and listening to the thoughts of select NPCs.

Over time, however, Everything peels back its simplistic trappings. Some of its layers are mechanical (via new skills you unlock), while others are philosophical. The game reveals itself to be an exuberant celebration of connections, of the ties that bind the universe together. It’s some hippie-ass shit, but it’s good hippie-ass shit, especially if you’re in desperate need of a reminder that life’s bigger than the problems right in front of you.

This review contains some spoilers, at least insofar as a wildly open, free-form game can be spoiled, so let’s get this out of the way first:

I remember the night I decided to shut myself in my apartment. It was early February, and I stumbled inside wet, chilly and overcome with Booze Emotions. I flicked on my three-headed cluster of wimpy IKEA lamps—which I call Cerberus—and thought about how my romantic life was in shambles, the world was in the toilet, and due to what I feared was a severe physical injury, I needed to isolate myself and heal. “Fuck everything” was basically where my head was at.

At the time, I was pretty busted up over what felt like an important and binding decision. I’m adventure-prone to a fault. My friends have a running joke about me always being at some event or another. Suddenly, though, my wings had been clipped, and my world shrank. I grew restless, and I felt trapped in a body that was markedly less capable than it had been only a brief while before. That took away healthy physical outlets like exercise, as well as the aforementioned option of going outside and spending time with people.

It all added up to a mess of despair and anxiety, so I did what I usually do when I’m down: I prepared myself for the worst possible outcome. I stopped reaching out to friends, even for solidarity purposes, because what was the point? How much could they really do? I kept telling myself I’d consult a doctor and find out what was really up with me on the physical side of things, but each day, I decided to put it off until the next. A doctor would just confirm my fears, I figured, so I’d just save myself the trouble and wait it out.

When I first started playing Everything, I mostly ignored objects and creatures I wasn’t controlling. It was easy to lose myself in changing bodies a bunch, so that’s what I did. Here’s how it works: you can’t just jump directly from, say, a beetle to the sun—at least, not initially. You can only move directly between things that are roughly within your size range. You might jump from a beetle to a particularly sizable sprig of wheat. Then maybe you become one with a turtle. After that, perhaps you possess a tree, then a bigger tree, then an entire landmass.

Three or four jumps later, you stop and realize that your view on things, taken holistically, is now radically different. Bigger things become small. Smaller things lose their clarity or disappear altogether. Before long, you’re the damn sun.

You keep going. You become a cluster of planets, stars, a galaxy. You are everything. But then you ascend one more tier, and you’re on a subatomic level again in a new universe. This one might have different kinds of planets, or different underlying properties altogether. Regardless, you’re back at square one.

When I first started playing Everything, I repeated this cycle for a while—trying out new objects, moving through various phases, emerging in new universes—but the novelty didn’t last long. It was stunning the first few times, but the experience felt empty, and frequent framerate drops didn’t help. I could be anything I wanted to, but I couldn’t tell what it was building to. I felt isolated, unsure what the point of it all was.

After a couple weeks of feeling down and disconnected from life outside my apartment, I mostly stopped feeling anything at all. It sounds painfully melodramatic, but at the time I considered it a victory. The way I saw it, I was on my own for an indeterminate amount of time, so the sooner I stopped being affected by it, the better. Isolation became practical, comfortable.

Surrounded by four largely undecorated walls, I idly browsed Twitter, and I was fine. I marathoned three seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer spin-off Angel, and I was fine. I yelled a lot at Overwatch, and I was fine. Sometimes, it almost felt like I should talk to somebody about how trapped and hopeless I was feeling beneath the surface, but that would’ve meant I let those feelings win. Besides, I thought, it wasn’t like I was dying or suffering from real depression or anything, so why burden other people? Staying disconnected struck me as simpler for everyone involved.

If you take the time to talk to NPCs, Everything’s central message becomes abundantly clear: everything is connected. Separations between various states of being—the huge gulf between a beetle and the sun, for example—do not refute that. Rather, everything is relative, existing as part of the whole. It’s not a novel message, but it’s deftly expressed with both dialogue snippets and voiced quotes from late philosopher Alan Watts.

The game advises you to interact with NPCs by approaching ones with icons over their heads and reading what they have to say. Some talk about their lives. Others wax philosophical, or in special cases, offer new abilities. No matter what size of object or creature you are, you can call out to others of the same type, and they’ll start following you. You can also “dance” with them, which allows you to create copies of yourself. I’d used the command with pigs and other creatures when the game first taught me about it, but it wasn’t until I made a little family of particles that the feature hit home for me.

My companions danced in a little circle, and each time I pressed the X button, a new one joined. I had no particular need for tens of these microscopic dance disciples, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make them stop dancing. They seemed so joyful, so connected, so much bigger than the dirt-brown pocket world that caged them.

Everything takes ideas that would normally make us feel small and insignificant and argues that we should be emboldened by them. The universe is massive and untamable, sprawling and intricate. By jumping from object to object, Everything shows how amazing it is that we exist at all given the sheer number of ways things could have turned out. Everything is essential. We’re all as small as molecules and as big as a galaxy.

As I watched the tiny life forms dance around me, my stomach sank. I could feel hot anxiety rising in my throat. I was no longer “fine” in the way I usually am when I’m sitting comfortably in my apartment, consuming a piece of media. Something started bubbling to the surface. I tried to push it down, but it wouldn’t take the hint.

It was cynicism, followed by anger. Here I was, with a front row seat to these artfully rendered miracles of existence—paired, in some cases, with delightful prose or moving lecture snippets—and I couldn’t turn away my impulse to detach. When I was younger, I happily embraced art and philosophy that depicted humans as part of a terrifying and beautiful universal tapestry. I used to be an idealist’s ideal of an idealist, but that’s slowly worn away. These days it takes a lot to tickle my wonderment bone, and I reflexively fight that feeling, because I’m worried that the things I’m feeling it for will turn out to be disingenuous. I’m more prone to make myself feel down than get my hopes up. It feels safer.

Still, I knew I was playing something special. I was upset that I couldn’t enjoy the moment and the game more.

I ended up in hell.

In real life, I got up to use the bathroom. By default, Everything sort of plays itself if you leave it alone for long enough. When I came back, my character was a bottle of wine, and I was in a place that resembled the game’s particle phase, but the colors were a neon nightmare.

At first I didn’t think much of it. Everything is a pretty strange game, after all. I’d already taken control of a slice of pizza and a piece of feces and made them talk to each other, so I figured anything was possible. But then I paid attention to what all the miscellaneous floating pieces of junk in this acid-washed wasteland were saying.

“I hate this place, and I hate you.”

“I never called him, and now I’ll never get to.”

“I wish I’d been better to my parents.”

Gone were the encouraging messages of cosmic connectedness. Every direction I turned, a new thought bubble appeared with words about isolation, regret, or hate. The worst part? I couldn’t leave. When I tried to ascend to a higher location, a text prompt told me I wasn’t going anywhere. I had no idea what to do, so I just wandered for a while and read on as busted record players and sad trombones whispered their laments.

I won’t spoil how I got out of hell, but I will tell you what I realized in the process: cutting yourself off from the outside world can seem like a good idea in the short term, but it’s rarely wise. The broken souls in Everything’s rendition of hell had trapped themselves in prisons of their own designs. They convinced themselves they’d solved their problems, or that they didn’t have problems at all, and then they paid for it. A handful even specifically mentioned isolating themselves from their friends when they should’ve reached out. And when those things didn’t work out for them, they turned the resulting negative energy outward. They transformed it into animosity.

When I decided to lock myself in my apartment and barely talk to anyone, I wasn’t doing a much-needed Difficult Thing like I thought. In reality, I was taking the easy way out, avoiding confronting the things that were getting me down and giving in to the same pervasive defeatism that stopped me from being able to feel wonderment earlier in Everything, and so many other times over the past couple years. I disconnected. That road, replied the game, almost as if addressing me directly, doesn’t lead anywhere good. Cynicism is simple and attractive. The real challenge is climbing out of that hole and learning to feel like you’re part of something again.

There’s another lesson in Everything, too. Even in the face of unimaginable grimness—of the hell that is difference, actual or perceived—there’s still room for wonderment at the miraculous gazillion-piece jigsaw puzzle that is the universe. It’s OK to believe that we’re all part of something, that no matter how fragmented things can become, there are still innumerable connections.

In a voiced quote, philosopher Alan Watts argues that even differences are a form of connection. Without differences, we would not be who we regard ourselves to be. If everything was the same, we’d have no understanding of ourselves at all. People, creatures, objects—we all serve as lenses through which to reflect on who and what we are. We all shape each other’s identities. We can choose to feel hostility toward that, or we can embrace the idea of being small parts of an endlessly diverse whole. We’re crucial pieces of each other. That’s something worth taking pride in.

Everything dragged my character down to a hell where everyone rejected that notion. Then it forced me to find a way out.

After about a month-and-a-half of minimal outside contact, I recently saw a doctor who ended up telling me I’m not as injured as I thought I was. Turns out, fatalistic cynicism isn’t super great for medical diagnoses after all!

That burden’s off my back, though, and I’ve got lost time to make up for. It’s been a difficult process, but I’ve started opening up to friends again. The few I’ve told were shocked I didn’t say anything sooner, because they care and want desperately to help. Turns out, people actually appreciate when you do that sometimes. It shows that you trust them or something ridiculous like that. Who would’ve thought?

It’s amazing how much easier things can be when you get out of your own way for once and embrace the connections you’ve formed. Granted, this isn’t over. I’m coming back from an especially low point, and a bit of long-overdue progress does not a victory make. But it’s good to feel like I’m not hacking my way out of the woods on my own anymore. It’s good to just feel again, honestly.

Everything never really ends. There’s a point at which major things happen and you unlock a new game plus mode that lets you keep your previous skills, but the game contains countless universes that stretch on nearly endlessly as you explore them. I get the impression that there’s still probably at least a few things I haven’t discovered. The game doesn’t really signpost how to uncover them all, either. But then, I wouldn’t a game called Everything to just reveal all it has to offer upfront.

I feel, though, like I already got my reward. At one point, an NPC character told me it was so, so happy that I could share a portion of my weird adventure with it. It said that my journey had only just begun, but it was overcome with joy that we were sharing even a brief glimmer of a moment. It even used my actual name, which I gave it at the start of the game, while telling me this. Maybe it was that little touch, or maybe it was the fact that I was a bleary-eyed mess playing the game at 4 AM, but I felt so connected to… everything. My thoughts quickly jumped to the real people and things I care about—the connections I’d let languish as well as the ones I’d begun to reestablish—and I burst into tears. I realized I hadn’t cried in a very long time, because I’ve been so caught up in disconnecting and trying to stop myself from feeling things. So I cried for a bit, alone in my apartment at 4 AM, and I was happy.