Part video game, part artwork, and part philosophical terrarium, designer David OReilly's new game, Everything – available now on PlayStation 4 and out next month for PC and Mac – is pushing the boundaries of what we think a game can be.
Though OReilly worked as an animator (most famously, he did some of the animations for Spike Jonze's Her), his 2014 game Mountain – a meditative, goalless screen-saver-like experience – brought him widespread recognition in the world of video games. Buoyed by its critical and commercial success, OReilly was able to spend the next three years developing Everything, in which you can play as, well, everything, from ladybugs to oil rigs to spiral galaxies. You can read our review of Everything here (short version: we loved it), but, in the meantime, we had the chance to talk with OReilly in his San Francisco studio about Everything’s inspirations, what the game means to him, and the space between games and art.
Everything feels like a natural next step from your last game, Mountain. What inspired you to make it?
More than any other game or something someone else did, Everything came out of observing the world. When I was starting to learn Unity, being able to represent nature with real time systems was very interesting to me. I wanted to make something very different from my animation work, and I wanted to make something beautiful.
In a lot of the coverage of Everything, there's some confusion over how to classify you as someone doing creative work. Do you see yourself as an animator, an artist, or a game designer?
That's the most impossible thing to answer, so it's always done by others. Alan Watts says defining yourself is like "trying to bite your own teeth." I find that we're forced to anyway with things like Twitter bios, but I've never been able to keep my Twitter bio for more than a week because it's like putting on a glove and it immediately doesn't quite fit.
But I'm more comfortable with the word "artist" than I used to be. For years, I would have been happier to be called an animator. If people want to say game "designer" or, let's say "screensaver designer," I don't think they're necessarily wrong, but I'm not any one of those things. I'm all of them.
How would you say your work as an animator influenced Everything? Do the animations represent stylistic choices, or are they mainly led by technical concerns in Unity, the game engine you used?
Those are inseparable qualities for me. You always have certain constraints, and you're always trying to find the most interesting solutions to those. With things like the flopping animation, which is what catches most people's eye, it's a very deliberate decision, but it was also a solution to help me do all the other things going on in the game. There are lots of things in Everything that aren't "realistic," but are the most interesting solution to particular problems in order to create a totality.
When I started playing, I was a black horse, while a friend of mine started as a grey horse. Does everyone start as horses?
No! You start as a random animal in the environment. I forget how many, but there's a list of maybe 50 things you can start out as. And if you start a "new game plus," you start as any object in the universe on any particular scale.
When I saw the frame-skipping in the horse's movement animation, I wondered if you were making a specific callback to Eadweard Muybridge's "Horse in Motion" series of photographs. Conceptually, they seem to have a lot in common with Everything.
Not exactly, but Muybridge is very well-known in the world of animation because his stuff was studied by animators from the very beginning, and you'll still find those books in any animation studio. I think Muybridge was a prototypical animator, but he was documenting the world in an encyclopedic way and studying its motion. I like how you don't really see any ego in his work. You don't see much of Muybridge; it's a very transparent documentation of things.
Is there any significance to you for starting in Everything on an island? There are so many other games where you do – The Witness, Myst, etc. – but also a longer history in literature and art where islands are these enchanted places.
In a mythological way, there's something about the "gift" of the island. It's a feeling of origin. It's idyllic and sort of non-human. But then [in Everything] you go out, things get more complicated, and then you come back to this idyllic place at the end. And that's the case with a lot of games I really like. Zelda's probably the most obvious example, but a lot of RPGs start like that and it somehow resonates on a textual level.
I feel like every game is a work of art. The first game was a work of art. I don't know why people have this attitude toward what's 'inside' and 'outside' of art.
A lot of your previous work, especially Mountain, has been associated with popular schools of philosophical thought, like object oriented philosophy, by people like Ian Bogost. Do those interpretations of your work hold true for you?
In some ways, yes, though Bogost wrote a rather spiteful review of Everything because of the lineage of ideas in the game, which are closer to older philosophies and older ideas. In a certain way, there's nothing "new" being presented in the game. The ideas are as old as anything; they're just being presented in a new form. It would have been possible to write some kind of essay about this, but that seemed like such a silly thing to do.
There are definitely different ways of analyzing Everything from various philosophical perspectives, because I wouldn't say that the game is [beholden to] any one of them in particular. Everything takes from Alan Watts and Eastern philosophy, but it also incorporates continental and stoic philosophy. It's not really meant to be a "mix" of these things, but to have different things that sometimes work together.
Everything really comes out of my interpretation of reading a bunch of things and feeling like, well, this seems to be true. Everything isn't arguing for any particular idea of how the world is. It's just offering you one particular interpretation of the world. It's not the right one, just another point of view that you can have.
For me, one of the most interesting parts of Everything is its autoplay feature – you can go through the entire adventure without ever touching the controller.
So much of Everything is about exploring this idea of what you are, down to the most obvious mechanic of entering different things. So, you are totally in control of the game, or the game is controlling you. Both can be true. I love that idea, and I love autoplay. Sometimes, you want to engage with Everything, and sometimes you can just let it go. That ties directly into Everything in terms of thinking about what's motivating you. All of nature is essentially doing itself, by itself, to itself. Autoplay is a expression of that.
So in that sense Everything itself is just another object among everything?
Yeah, exactly. It's a parallel to the idea of nature as a self-arranging entity. And that's also why the game is named what it is. Some people advised against it because it's kind of generic. But it is essentially trying to describe the totality, whether you want to call it "everything" or "nature" or "it" or anything you like.
Autoplay is not an ability you collect, but the first thing you can "do" in the game. So the default ability is the opposite of play; the game just does itself. It's very difficult to talk about or put into words, but it seems very intuitive as something like this that would be part of Everything. It's something we had to do quite late, though, because it requires all the other mechanics to be in place.
How does the fact that you're an artist working games (or a game designer working with art?) affect your relationship to contemporary art more broadly?
One of the default questions I get asked – and thanks for not asking it – is what I think about the whole "games and art" debate. It's a silly question to me because I feel like every game is a work of art. The first game was a work of art. I don't know why people have this attitude toward what's "inside" and "outside" of art. But games have this advantage of having been considered "not art" for a while, because you're seeing things happen in games now that aren't burdened by the system of the contemporary art scene – galleries, theory, and history. It's a very fertile environment for art to grow, though it might take a generation for the established art world to realize what's going on.
After the success of Mountain and Everything, are you planning to continue using game engines or making games for your next creative projects?
I would absolutely love to. I love the people in games, and I've had the most interesting adventures for the last three years. I am coming at this from the outside and I'm a late starter, I suppose. But I do think the possibilities within the medium are huge, and the fact that you can be an independent artist and make something like this is incredible. I've never spent so long or worked so hard on anything in my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.