A Nonsense of Things

An essay towards Everything

Talking on the subject of symbolic versus material pleasure, the philosopher Alan Watts said: “A monetary unit is of course useful in exactly the same way that inches and hours, days, months, pounds, grammes, and other units of measure are useful, but nobody has yet made a claim to fame by collecting inches.” [1] Watts is important to this essay for two reasons, the first of which is that the simulated worlds in contemporary video gaming are most often designed to be consumed by people who are collectors of inches; people who value a token of measurement as a prize in itself and even as a source of bragging rights. Those who buy the games and play in the gameworlds are aptly described as consumers: the worlds are made to be possessed and devoured.

The earliest video games appearing in arcade cabinets offered no form of lasting reward beyond the sliver of fame afforded by a place in the high score table. For a while that was enough for players, but once video games moved into the home and game state could be preserved, the obsession began with the acquisition of wealth and status. Today we roam gameworlds in which we are ever gaining new weapons, clothing, tools and accessories, currency and experience points. These gameworlds are primarily acquisitive in nature, asking that we toil for numeric advantage or to amass intangible symbols of affluence, and the players they attract are those who derive symbolic pleasure from acquiring and displaying these tokens.

A famous exception to the acquisitive model of game design is Rogue and its “roguelike” imitators. When we crawl the dungeons of Rogue, our death is permanent and means the irreversible loss of all we have gained, except (perhaps) a little extra wisdom. Personal improvement is not another form of property that can be tallied at the end of every run, but rather it happens piecemeal as we play and discover the optimal strategy to beat the game. Notably the modern trend of “roguelite” games have almost always added some kind of persistent player progression to the formula. We are now so used to having an acquisitive model to measure our progress in games and to define their entertainment value to us that Rogue is generally considered an oddity suitable only for the purist or the player with ascetic tendencies.

Increasingly it falls to the “art game” to imagine what we might do in a gameworld if we are not trying to conquer it or to acquire it piece by piece. Proteus serves up an island popping with shape, colour, and melody, and invites us to be a part of it. The difficulty with this proposition is that most people know how to do but not how to be – without a task to accomplish we feel bereft, and without a clear metric to measure our progress by we conclude that we are achieving nothing at all. Proteus would not be a better game if it had a high score table, but its unstructured play makes it a difficult experience for those who come unprepared. The material pleasures it offers are too pure for an audience more used to collecting tokens.

We return now to Alan Watts in connection with another art game, Everything by David OReilly. Everything is a simulation of the entire natural world from the subatomic to the galactic, and at every scale it appears to be constructed from parts found in a child’s toy box: fried eggs slide across sidewalks, googly-eyed animals tumble end over end, celestial bodies defy Newtonian physics, and entities of every kind clip through one another with abandon. Everything teeters on the brink of havoc, but the game rescues itself by its own enthusiasm and by a gentle absurdist sense of humour that requires no victim. This is a cheerful anarchy that intentionally upends the acquisitive model; we simply cannot take seriously the accumulation of wealth or status in a simulation dedicated to making such a nonsense of things.

Scattered about the universe are fragments of archive audio from Alan Watts’ lectures in which he preaches a kind of pop Taoism by way of Zen Buddhism. Watts tells us of the interconnectedness of the universe and the perils of thinking that we exist apart from it. This is heady stuff, and combined with freeform explorative gameplay in the same vein as Proteus, it could be expected to repel players who come to it cold. Instead Everything is canny enough to funnel us through a series of gameplay tutorials that introduce game mechanics to us one by one. We are unafraid to play because every tutorial doles out a morsel of symbolic reward to reassure us that we are playing correctly and achieving mastery of the game. We feel that we are busily getting things done as we are taught to use a toolset designed for aimless exploration, and as part of that process we learn to enjoy bumbling about the game’s toy universe, singing and dancing and generally acting the fool.

A clever trick, but we might ask: what is the endgame? Completion of the final tutorial is rewarded with a fireworks display and the words ‘Welcome to Everything’ emblazoned on the screen. We have arrived. Finally we can explore without limitation or direction imposed on us, because Everything has fully prepared us to enjoy ultimate freedom from the strictures of acquisitive gameplay. The guiding structure falls away like unneeded scaffolding; now it’s up to us to make something happen. To Watts once more: “So what have you discovered? When there is absolutely nothing to do… you suddenly discover that you are what happens.” [2]