David OReilly's 'Everything' is a Dreamlike Masterpiece

David OReilly's 'Everything' is a Dreamlike Masterpiece

Anything you can see in this image you can control – and swap endlessly David OReilly

A game that doesn't so much answer the tired question of whether games can be art as it makes that entire debate feel obsolete

A game that doesn't so much answer the tired question of whether games can be art as it makes that entire debate feel obsolete

Three years ago, David OReilly, an Irish-born artist then known mainly for his animated shorts, developed what might have been 2014's strangest game: Mountain, an "ambient procedural mountain game." By his own account, OReilly had almost zero expectations; Mountain was little more than an experiment in the Unity game engine. Against the odds, though, Mountain caught on among both critics and players, who found it a surprisingly moving meditation on the nature of Being. Buoyed by Mountain's commercial and critical success, OReilly set his sights on a more ambitious idea – a video game in which you can play not only as a mountain, but as anything in the universe.

That project became Everything – out now for PlayStation 4, and coming next month to PC and Mac – and it's a masterpiece. Everything has rules and a narrative, but for the most part, the game simply asks you to explore and commune with things on every scale, from the microscopic to the transdimensional. As promised, Everything's primary mechanic is to take control of different objects as you tour the great plane of existence. Early on, while playing as a cluster of desert shrubs, I'm waved down by a pygmy giraffe who asks me if I can explain sadness "in a way that doesn't cause me to burst out laughing."

Everything radiates with mystique. It is the rare game – and possibly the only game – that doesn't so much answer the tired question of whether games can be art as it makes that entire debate feel obsolete. Like all great art, Everything plays the same way that a particularly enriching conversation feels. It is highbrow, but never pretentious. It has something urgent to say to you, but it never feels like a lecture. Unlike most modern games, which tend to your needs with overbearing precision, Everything treats you like the autonomous human you are. The game invites you to share your private intuitions about the world, and compare those ideas against its own.

It takes familiar video game conventions you've internalized over the years and inverts them in tantalizing ways

If there is one overarching theme in Everything, it's that all things are connected in some way – an idea that is borne out by the ease with which you can shift between perspectives and scales. It's not strictly true to say that you can play as everything in Everything. You can't play, for example, as air, classicism, Glixel, my friend Samee, or the seventh ring of saturn. But you can play as black obsidian crystals, oil rigs, gas giants, candlestick phones, camels, cirrus clouds, pinecones, canopy beds, ocean liners, blue whales, kelp (large), kelp (small), toilet paper, continents, icebergs, red flowers, blue flowers, all twenty-six letters, nebulae, several types of flightless birds, boulders, the aurora borealis, dorian columns, and a vast array of deciduous trees. Conservatively, this list comprises 5% of the playable objects in Everything.

And yet Everything plays with you at least as much you play with it. It takes familiar video game conventions you've internalized over the years and inverts them in tantalizing ways. After a few screens of expository text, I take up a familiar third-person viewpoint behind a randomly-selected black stallion. Instinctively, I lean my left stick forward to see how quickly my host will move. Instead of stepping forward, though, the horse rotates on its z-axis, skipping straight from having four feet on the ground to pointing its legs directly toward the sky, as if all the frames of animation in between have been cut out. For a second, I wonder if it's a glitch, but then I see that the trees are still swaying at 30 frames a second.

My mind wanders to Eadweard Muybridge's series of photographs The Horse in Motion, which he made in 1886 to settle the a bet over whether horses took all four feet off the ground when galloping, something that human vision was incapable of seeing the way a camera’s eye could. The Horse in Motion is about seeing something familiar in a new way, a reminder that the way things seem from one perspective – be it human, animal, or machine – are not the same as from another. As I wonder if OReilly intended for players to make this connection, I'm hailed by an elm, who says "All the planets and little creatures... are they here for you, or are you here for them?"

Before I can answer, it continues, "It's hard to imagine that everything could be out here for each other, because you can only see things from a black horse's perspective, just as I can only see from an elm's perspective." And then the tree retreats back into silence while I'm left wonder what sensations shape an elm's world.

Everywhere revels in these perspectival sleights of hand, and it excels at making whatever seems old and inert feel magnetic and new. One of the first abilities you learn in Everything is how to "sing" to other objects, who then become part of you. For me, much of the joy of Everything is seeing what kind of "voice" every object has – who would have thought that boulders sing like gravel going down a chute? Soon, I am a flock (?) of pillows, caroling across the tundra and picking up new choristers along the way. Now, I'm a boulder – no, two boulders. Then I'm the island itself, skimming across the mackerel-crowded seas like some tectonic speedboat. Every moment in Everything feels like a gift, absurdism and intimacy bound up in every frame. For a game that is maximalist in scale, it's remarkable that Everything never feels less than personal, even when I'm listening to galaxies enthuse about their hobbies.

Ironically, the weakest parts of Everything are when the game engages the philosophy of "being" directly, drawing on words rather than mechanics explore its themes. As you traverse the universe, you uncover little koans of wisdom from the mid-century British philosopher Alan Watts, hiding behind spiral galaxies or in the shadow of storm clouds. Watts, who died in 1973, was deeply influenced by the Buddhism of his youth, and his ideas about humanity's connection to everything else in Being are obviously at home in Everything. Still, Watt's missives – e.g. "We are quite in need of coming to feel that we are the eternal universe" – are often a little too on-the-nose for a game that is otherwise so beautifully oblique and open-ended.

It's telling that if you leave Everything alone for more than few seconds, the game will start playing on its own. I discovered this the first time I set my controller down in order to type a few notes for this article; when I looked back up a few minutes later, I was no longer leaves of grass, but some kind of multidimensional tesseract tumbling through a crystalline expanse. I thought I had stepped away from Everything, when, really, it was Everything that had stepped away from me. Whenever I'd pause to write down an especially striking image or quote ("This could all be some kind of massive simulation" quips an drifting piece of ice to my herd of waltzing oil rigs), the game would simply carry on without me, as if bored by my absence. After a while, I started to think that I wasn't playing Everything so much as I was collaborating with it.

This feeling was confirmed while floating through some distant precambrian ocean where I encountered a sunken television playing none other than Everything. After a second, I realized that the screen it was displaying was the same one I was seeing. It's a gorgeous, introspective moment that elicited an audible gasp from me alone in my darkened living room; suddenly, I felt very aware of how small I was compared to the night gathering outside. Everything itself is part of Everything, just as it is now part of everything. Everything is not a puzzle to be completed or a solution to be deciphered, but an invitation to think about and commune with the universe of things that has been piling up alongside you all along. What other video game would have dared to dream such a thought?

Just before I turn Everything off and go to bed, a satellite arcs across my television, tracing some impossible orbit. "Give thinking a go," it tells me as it glides away. "Just try not to take it too seriously."