Review by Stalvern

Reviewed: 04/10/17

Is this for real?

I am amazed and disheartened by the credulously fawning reception that this game has drawn. I can't think of anything, game or otherwise, that has made such a show of making a point while failing so badly at it. Whether due to limited resources or to sheer laziness (the idiotic tumbling of the animals suggests the latter – even assuming that skeleton animation was too tall an order for the tiny development team, nothing should prevent a bear or deer from stiffly toddling along like the insects manage to do), the game never even approaches following through on its most fundamental premises.

The entire point of the game is that everything in the universe is connected and mutually dependent, a concept sure to blow the mind of anyone who never read "Song of Myself" in high school or college. As basic as this idea is, the game hardly makes even a gesture of actually implementing it. Grass is necessary to herbivores; herbivores, to carnivores; the decay of animals, to the flourishing of plants, mediated by innumerable teeming microbes – this, of course, is why a sheep never eats grass or flees a wolf, why paramecia and plankton will inertly swim and bounce to no real end. The game purports to show the player the "perspective" of anything they find, but the perspective of a rock is no more distinct from a mountain's than from a grain of sand's – no matter what you "are", you're an arbitrary set of polygons free to do little more than wander, completely without obligations to your environment or a place within it. Even the trailer video, a carefully curated showcase of the game's accomplishments, hilariously juxtaposes Alan Watts's ruminations on the gravity that binds the cosmos into a single entity with a literal pile of galaxies carelessly dragging itself through the stars, blithely ignoring the cataclysmic consequences of such an event in the context of the game's own narration of the spectacle. Space is connected, Watts tells me, while the game goes as far as is conceivable to show me that no, it's not, at least in this case. At the opposite scale, zoom out far enough from the universe itself, and you're a carbon atom... not bonded in a molecule, not composing the substance of a cell, just idly floating about, free of purpose. Everything in the universe of Everything is a completely isolated, independent model (the closest that the game comes to surpassing this is in the animals' herding and flocking behavior, which merely replaces one arbitrary entity with a larger one). Drawing a variety of animals on index cards and sliding them around on a table would be a more convincing picture of the universe's interconnectedness; I could at least slide them around according to some coherent idea of an ecosystem.

On top of that, the game still further undermines its own worldview by giving the player's vantage point objective credence. "Out of all the points of view you find, which one is the right one?" the game rhetorically asks – the ostensible answer is that all of them are, but the truth is that only one is genuinely acknowledged: that of the player, whose ultimate task is to have controlled one of every type of object in the game, with progress tracked by percentage in each category. While the game makes the statement that one part of the universe is as much the whole as the whole is one part, that everything is in everything else and nothing is isolated, the player is demonstrably not that whole, insofar as they have only been 57% of birds or 19% of landmasses. In taking on this limited perspective as its own, the game inadvertently abandons all pretense of universality.

Finally, there are bizarre, whimsical elements that seem to have been thrown in by sheer caprice. Why is it that past incarnations are saved to be switched to at any time, and why can they take any given size? When an enormous clover floats its way through a solar system, what is the game saying? What is that clover's connection to the space around it when it's clearly only there because a player casually dropped it in by fiat? The game's philosophy actively denies the concept of a foreign body in the universe, even as the player is given the tools to insert a patently foreign body that highlights their presence as an intruding external agent. In a sane game, this would be buried in a debug mode, not put on parade.

The message of Everything, then, is that the universe is tied together not by the laws of nature, the consequences of survival, or the inherent inseparability of the cosmos from itself, but because a dead British man tells you so in spite of literally everything you see. It's the opposite of a thesis; the game makes a claim, then actively discards any evidence that could ground it. It takes the magic and wonder of life in its myriad expressions and replaces it all with soulless, mindless rolling and shuffling in service to the completion of a glorified Pokédex. This is a simpleton's Walt Whitman, a Buddhism more emptily facile than anything sold by Deepak Chopra or Rhonda Byrne: The world is not connected because of any meaningful connection but because the idea, uh, sounds kinda nice.

A possible objection is that some of these decisions, like the wandering galaxies or completion percentages, are necessary to make Everything a game. This is a small-minded attitude: a game genuinely concerned with showing what a galaxy is to the universe could find a better way than letting the player trundle it through space, and a game invested in the endless diversity of life in time's endless march should certainly know better than to cap itself with a finite goal. To shoehorn something so far beyond gaming's established traditions into some of its most hoary tropes is a complete waste, a service to nobody at all.

Of course, for plenty of people, Everything is perfectly adequate as a quirky little sandbox game, the novelty of gliding over the desert as a street sign being more than enough reason to play. I can understand that – I like Goat Simulator as much as anyone – but what right does such a trivial toy have to be so preachy about what it won't even practice? The narration is overbearing enough, but the twee little dialogues with sundry creatures and items (low point: the ham-handed whining of the objects trapped in a certain abstract space, e.g. "Where did all my THINGS go? I lost everything.") are a special kind of irritating. Imagine if Minecraft took itself this seriously.

Worse, imagine if people took Minecraft this seriously. From The Washington Post: "I can only hope that Everything opens the door for more philosophical games; it is the rare game that may push you to want to lead a better life." Wired says, "Everything depicts a world where all objects are both combined and separated, paradoxically of the same substance yet with unfathomable gaps between them. [...] It’s symbiosis on a mass scale, writ across the innumerable bodies that populate the universe." Kotaku: "For large portions of Everything, I wasn’t sure how to feel. By the end of it, I cried. A lot." I can't even boil Polygon's breathlessly pseudo-poetic "review" down to a single quote; suffice it to say that it would have been right at home on Pitchfork around Y2K.

Is this pompous inanity really what passes for thought in the world of games? Were a book or film so incoherent about its ideas, it would be roundly derided, but people seem to have set their standards so low for this that the sheer fact of its ambition, never mind whether or not it was actually fulfilled, is enough to pass for profundity. This is the same insidiously patronizing attitude that had critics in 2013 blustering about two games simultaneously as "the Citizen Kane" of the medium. There is no greater proof that modern games need to mature from their protracted adolescence than the desperation with which their maturity is constantly proclaimed, and until journalists give games the honesty they deserve, there is nothing that holds them back more.

Rating:   1.5 - Bad

Product Release: EVERYTHING (US, 03/21/17)

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