Imagine taking a philosophy class where a brilliant, engaging, charismatic professor opens your mind and helps you see the world like you never have before who also pauses every few minutes to play a Frank Zappa album. That should give you a rough idea of what it's like to play Everything. It's a game that manages to convey profound beauty and a sense of one's place in the universe that's periodically undercut by a compulsive need to interject a sense of twee and abstract randomness. It's hard to tell how seriously you're supposed to take it all.
Everything is an interactive art project that allows you to transform into nearly any object you find, from planets all the way down to microbes. There are no traditional goals, and except for one particular area, Everything has no hard-and-fast boundaries. It's just you and the universe, with nothing standing in your way.
The dissonance starts from the very beginning. At the outset, you're a bear in a vast woodland full of creatures living out their lives. They move around by tumbling end over end, stiff as boards, like they're auditioning to be new Tetris blocks. After spending some time learning the basic controls, you can roam around freely, “sing” to other creatures and things, learn how to hear their thoughts, and figure out how to talk to them to gain their trust and move in groups. It's the game at its most playful: rocks, animals, and houses will grouse about a friend who's a jerk or cheerily go on about what a nice day it is all while doing perpetual faceplants to get around.
Eventually, one of the plants, animals, or objects you encounter tells you that you can explore things on a smaller scale--and thus, you learn the Descend ability, which allows you to embody a different creature on a lower plane of existence. That’s neat by itself, but the real magic occurs when you realize that you don't have to stop there. Embodying something like an insect is step one. Step two is inhabiting miniscule things like pollen or hair. You can then continue downward to atomic structures, and finally subatomic particles. The trick goes the other direction as well. A bear can Ascend and become a sequoia tree, which can become an entire continent. A continent can Ascend to become a planet, which can become a sun, which can become a galaxy.
The ease with which you can become one of a diverse set of objects across multiple planes of existence feels like a technical marvel. Everything's long-term memory is impressive as well. You can spend a solid hour exploring atoms in a blade of grass. When you eventually ascend, the game will remember the group of ants you corralled into service nearby, no matter how far you go.
If your greatest gaming dream is to assemble a street gang made up of two teapots, an eyeball, a saxophone, and a banana that misses its sister, Everything is the game for you.
Everything is at its most powerful when it provides humbling, awe-inspiring moments of scale, held even further aloft by sound bytes of the late British philosopher Alan Watts that arise along the way. Watts' ongoing narration may be the game's strongest core component, as it provides a sense of neo-spiritualist context to everything you see and experience. Exploring the very building blocks of reality is powerful on its own, but Everything achieves something deeper with the gentle, playful reminder that this, too, is us.
How, then, do you marry that with the ability to hop down the street as an refinery's smokestack, or talking with a monkey about how dumb his friends are? The answer: You don't. There’s an element of wacky, dadaist humor to Everything that, at its most absurd, brings back memories of Katamari Damacy's endless amusement; being able to roll the most random things up in a ball and watching them squirm around, making noises until the ball is big enough to swallow planets whole. You can't roll things up here, but if your greatest gaming dream is to assemble a street gang made up of two teapots, an eyeball, a saxophone, and a banana that misses its sister, Everything is the game for you.
Therein lies the fundamental issue: there is no unifying theory of Everything. If the point is to invoke a sense of existentialist zen, it accomplishes that, but it subsequently undercuts the accomplishment with a sense of lame, abstract humor. If the point is to invent a wild playground where everything that exists has a self-centered consciousness all its own, it’s that as well--in which case, it's almost taking Alan Watts' ideas to Looney Tunes levels of ridiculousness. When those two elements are at odds, the game seems to lose all meaning.
That's a grave disservice, too. More than a few games are able to deliver this brand of random crazy on a far more enjoyable, technically polished scale than this--the very “ending” of the game feeling like an inadvertent homage to the intro of every LittleBigPlanet game just solidifies that fact. But the number of games able to so effectively recontextualize how you think about your place in the universe in an interactive medium is paltry. That crazy game of playing as random stuff is disposable. That game of realizing we are all one is vital. A combination of the two thrown together, Everything becomes staggering in its ambition--and yet deeply disappointing.