2017 marks the year of animator David OReilly’s return to to the medium of videogames, following up on his strange and serene digital-art-toy-screensaver-thing Mountain (2014). His new game, Everything, released on PS4 on March 21st, and releases on Windows, Mac and Linux this Friday.
The game’s title, Everything, is also the game’s premise: It is a game about everything. Specifically, it is a game in which players can be everything, switching at will from trees to koalas to rocks to quarks and back. I haven’t had a chance to sit down with it yet—I suspect I’ll make time for it once it’s out for PC—but I did want to take the advent of its multi-platform release as an opportunity to muse on this premise’s history in gaming.
Everything may be the first game that explicitly promises to allow us to be everything, but games have previously offered the ability for us to step into the role of quite a lot of things, including a surprising range of inanimate objects. “The child plays at being not only a shopkeeper or teacher,” wrote Walter Benjamin, “but also a windmill and a train.”[i] Games have proved to be a continuing outlet for this childhood animist fantasy—why, in just a couple weeks’ time, we’re going to be able to play as a coffee mug!
Join me, won’t you, in a breezy tour of some of the stranger things games have let us be.
First up, animals. Animal protagonists are a dime a dozen, although most of these are anthropomorphized—your Crash Bandicoots, your Crocs, your Lugarus, and whatnot. It doesn’t take poking around that much, though, to find games that attempt to place you in a more genuinely nonhuman mode of being-in-the-world. There’s Dog’s Life (Frontier Developments, 2003), which I won’t go into detail here because I’ve written about it more extensively elsewhere. There are also, at this point, roughly eleventy–hundred million billion games where you play as a cat.
For some more exotic fare outside of the kid-friendly sphere of common domesticated animals, we can turn to Deadly Creatures (Rainbow Studios, 2009), which lets you be both a tarantula and a scorpion during various chapters of its campaign. The combat in this game is perhaps somewhat underwhelming—despite controlling two arachnids, the controls are actually quite similar to fellow hack-and-slash travelers on the Wii, such as No More Heroes (Grasshopper Manufacture, 2007) or MadWorld (PlatinumGames, 2009). Still, though, the game’s play with scale, especially when paired with the ability to crawl up ceilings and walls, defamiliarizes the human-centric spaces of the game quite nicely, fostering a genuinely alien mode of engagement with the world.
But why control only two animals when you can control dozens? The utterly delightful survival sim cum stealth game cum beat ’em up Tokyo Jungle (SCE Japan Studio/Crispy’s!) delivers on this front. It’s a beat ’em up where you can play as a chick (as in, yes, a literal chick), and what more could you possibly want? What kind of monster are you?
I would love to talk about Tokyo Jungle at greater length, but honestly it’s one of those games that completely short-circuits my analytical abilities. There’s probably a ton one could say about its eerie vision of a post-human future and nature’s reclamation of urban space, its focus on reproduction, lineage, and succession, and the way it uses offspring as “lives,” but if I attempted to start writing about it I would inevitably start babbling about how cool it is that you can trick out your Pomeranian avatar with aviator goggles.
Since Tokyo Jungle has so many of them covered, let’s move from animals to inanimate objects. These are rarer, but by no means impossible to find as player-characters in games.
2015 gave us no fewer than two games where you play as a slice of bread. Truly, Leibniz was right: we live in the best of all possible worlds. A Day in the Life of a Slice of Bread (The Bee’s Knees, 2015) spins an interactive fiction yarn chronicling the life of bread that has recently achieved sentience.
Then, of course, there was I Am Bread (Bossa Studios, 2015), Bossa Studios’ follow-up to Surgeon Simulator 2013. Here, your bread’s apparent sentience is of no immediate importance: what is important is to become toast, posthaste. Given that I actually published an article that was in part on Surgeon Simulator, I am more than a little embarrassed that my skillz in I Am Bread never progressed to the realm of “mad.” In all honesty, I found it to have one of the most difficult and frustrating control schemes in all of fumblecore. Being bread is no picnic.
For something even more high-concept, we can look to Dyad (][ Inc., 2012). The game is primarily remembered for its trippy visuals, which probably strike most players as non-figurative. Before its launch, however, early promotional materials claimed that its visual were not pure psychedelic abstraction, but instead an attempt to imagine the experience of a particle in the Large Hadron Collider. “If you were a single particle in the LHC,” one of the the game’s teaser trailers asked, “would you have the same consciousness? How would you interact with the word?”
Finally, we arrive at those games that most paved the way for something like Everything: games in which you play as not one single animal, or one single object, but switch between multiple objects and animals at will during play. One key precursor here is Geist (n-Space, 2005)—another game that I’ve written about before.
In Geist, players find themselves in the role of John Raimi, a biological weapons specialist separated from his body during an attempt by a nefarious corporation to enlist him as a “spectral operative,” a sort of occult mercenary. Transformed into a nomadic spirit, players find themselves without any primary seat of bodily experience, but instead endowed with the power to possess people, animals, and objects. The animals include a rabbit, several rats, a dog, and, on one occasion, a bat. (Geist, it seems, is philosophically ambitious, taking on Thomas Nagel’s famous imponderable.) Objects that are possessable include a fire extinguisher, a dog bowl, a ladder, a stack of plates, a mousetrap, an oven, an old tube TV, a fan, a mop and bucket, and a vending machine, all presented in “first-person” view.
Given that my academic background is in media studies—and given media studies’ incessant faddishness—it might seem warranted for me to invoke object oriented ontology here. The list of things you play as in Geist has a certain “Latourian litany” sound to it, so beloved by the OOO theorists. And, let’s not forget, Ian Bogost, one of game studies’ most famous proponents, is also an avowed speculative realist.
Taken as object-oriented insight into the inner experiences and relations of things, though, it must be said that Geist’s approach leaves much to be desired. The game has little use for allowing the various possessable nonliving entities strewn throughout the game to exist on their own terms. Instead, the meaning of each individual thing is inscribed in terms of the larger task of frightening, and thereby making possessable, the next human or animal host. In the video below, for instance, you can see me take some aimless stints at being a fuse and a computer. Geist, though, isn’t really about being things for the sake of being things. It’s about being things to solve a puzzle using adventure game logic, and the only reason I’m aimlessly inhabiting so much detritus in this video is that I hadn’t yet figured out the correct order to do things in to solve the puzzle.
Likewise, when playing as a fire extinguisher there is no combination of button-presses to issue commands such as “rust,” “slowly leak nitrogen,” or “remain indifferent to the affairs of humans.” There is only an onscreen prompt announcing to the player that pressing the context-sensitive “A” button will result in a “scare” if the marked host is positioned correctly. Despite the fact that Raimi is now a fire extinguisher, he still possesses human intentions, and although the game involves the unusual implementations of certain objects, these objects are ultimately still thoroughly positioned within a human world. The game, in fact, presents only a slight variation on the classic Heideggerian phenomenology of the worldhood of the (human) world: Every possess-able object is always already part of a Bewandtniszusammenhang, already understood as belonging to a range of other equipment which, if the player observes the correct order of operations, can be harnessed in order to frighten a potential host. The only caveat here is that the equipment here is inhabited rather than incorporated; it is the avatar’s body that transparently withdraws into the work, rather than the hammer. The consciousness of the player’s avatar within in the game, then, although displaced, de-centered, and re-oriented to a variety of nonhuman forms of perception and action, never quite dissipates to the point of becoming pure object-object relationality, divorced from all psychology.
This particular “allow player to take the form of a dizzying array of nonhuman things, but subjugate this activity to puzzle logic” finds an even fuller expression in Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective (Capcom, 2010), another spirit-possession themed adventure game, and one that considerably improves on Geist‘s formula.
Here, the focus shifts from a simple sequence of individual objects to a sort of mass assemblage of various nonhumans. The player’s spectral character must turn themself into a veritable Rube Goldberg device, marshaling every bit of an environment in order to avert a character’s disastrous fate, in what amounts to a logical inversion of the premise of the Final Destination series. In the above clip, that means briefly becoming a fan, a sheet of paper, multiple limbs of multiples suits of armor, an ornate scale, a frame, a curtain, and a globe, just to deliver a bottle of pills to a magistrate with a heart condition.
Well, that’s it for the tour. Everything remains to be seen. Will it jettison the puzzle logic of Geist and Ghost Trick, surpassing them and finally becoming the OOO videogame par excellence? Will it grant us access to truly nonhuman modes of feeling and understanding the world? I can’t wait for this timed exclusivity to end, so that I can find out.
[i]. Benjamin, Walter. “On the Mimetic Faculty.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. Volume 2—1927-1934. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Ed Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambride, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pg 720.