Shoot first, ask questions later
The American philosopher Thomas Nagel posed a famous question in 1979: “What is it like to be a bat?” The question makes sense because we assume bats have some level of awareness, of conscious experience. And, Nagel writes, “The fact that an organism has conscious experience at all means, basically, that there is something it is like to be that organism.” The problem is that this something-it-is-likeness cannot be captured purely by objective scientific measurement. You could in principle map a bat’s entire brain and nervous system and understand down to the quantum level what is going on in the neurons, but you still wouldn’t know what it’s like to be that bat. That, Nagel says, is the nub of the whole mind-body problem in philosophy.
I haven’t yet been a bat in David OReilly’s game Everything, but I have been ladybugs, pine trees, spiral galaxies, atoms of argon, and hundreds of other things. At one point the game allows you to morph instantly into any type of thing or being you have already encountered, and, says the help text, “feel what it’s like to be them again”. Except I don’t. I don’t really feel what it’s like to be a grey horse, even as I can whinny and lovingly join up into a herd while square-rolling my way around the endless pastures. Nagel’s challenge remains defiantly unresolved.
Given this inevitable limitation, a cynic might suppose that Everything is just another piece of artgame thinkpiece-bait. And yet its aesthetic and philosophical choices do add up to something refreshingly new. That deliberate form of anti-animation itself, for example, is a thing of unexpected beauty, a thoughtfully stylised response to resource limitations. Don’t we all sometimes feel like we’re tumbling end-over-end through life in this way? “I can never really tell how I’m doing at this,” says a rock early on – just like a player in Everything, and just like a human. I said “thing or being” earlier, but
Everything wants us to abandon that distinction itself. This game is a procedural argument for the truth of panpsychism: the philosophical view that consciousness is a fundamental property of all matter, not something confined to the higher animals. Therefore all things are beings too. That is why rocks and clods of earth, as well as stars, have thoughts in the game. As a tree thinks early on, “Everything sings!” The game also ties into other holistic strains of contemporary science: it evidently chimes, for example, with the views of the German forester Peter Wohlleben, who has had a surprise bestseller with a book called The Secret Life Of Trees, arguing that trees communicate and co-operate with one another in a vast “woodwide web”.
The game’s explicit philosophical content comes in the form of snippets of talks from the British philosopher Alan Watts (19151973), an interesting guy who was an Anglican priest, a psychedelic experimenter and friend to Aldous Huxley, an early ecocampaigner, and a populariser of Zen Buddhism in the west. These clips are rather reminiscent of Dustin Hoffman’s character in I Heart Huckabees, kindly explaining that we are not separate from one another but all part of the same blanket. But lest a player be inclined to dismiss all this as hippy Orientalism, it should be noted that the same ideas have popped up everywhere in the history of philosophy. Everything’s Wattian view is very similar to that of the maverick genius Baruch Spinoza, a 17th-century Dutch philosopher and lens grinder, who argued not only that what we perceive as separate things are really parts of a whole; what we think are separate minds are just different aspects of the single mind of the God-universe.
A philosophical idea can be exciting and beautiful even if you don’t really buy it, and
Everything remains a richer and deeper experience than just a tech-demo for a way of gamifying philosophy lectures. A decision as simple as using the action button for the verb “to think” points towards new possibilities for the form, even if they aren’t fully realised here. In that spirit the game reminded me most not of other modern indie games but of Automata’s Deus Ex Machina.
Watts once described himself to some sceptical Californian students as a “philosophical entertainer”, and Everything makes a wonderfully unabashed case for the videogame itself as philosophical entertainment. The one question it leaves the exhilarated player with is that deepest cosmological conundrum of all. Why is there everything rather than nothing?
I don’t really feel what it’s like to be a grey horse, even as I can whinny and lovingly join up into a herd