For Lunch Zone last week, I played Everything, a game where you can literally control everything, kind of.
I started as a star, soaring through space. This part of the game felt good. It took a while for me to build momentum with the star, but I got there. Then, I landed in a desert landscape and became a camel. To my surprise, I didn’t gallop or clop along the desert landscape. I rolled like a rectangular prism along the sides of the camel. The initial shock was joyful. As I rolled along the desert, I ran into other camels and I eventually learned how to speak to them. Again, the sound wasn’t like a camel, but rather a semi-grating bleat of some kind, like a demonic but well-meaning sheep.
Everything didn’t really care about an accurate “representation” of the real world. The camel felt much more like one of those plastic figures of an animal you could buy at the zoo. The bleat sounded like a little kid trying to imagine what a camel might sound like even though they’ve never heard one. The game itself is what you might call a “sandbox” game, where you explore the level as an object and interact with the world around you without any real goal or linear purpose. Yet, it also just seemed like sandbox in the literal sense. I could imagine the desert, animals, and trees in this level of the game being the vision of a couple of toddlers messing around with their toys on a playground.
It was charming, cute, fun, and engaging… until it wasn’t.
My main goal was to move around the desert level and to interact with objects with little dialogue bubbles above their heads/leaves/plateaus. Then I learned how to interact with other animals/objects in the game. But after engaging with these thought bubbles for about forty minutes, with no indication about how to do anything else besides call out with my shrieking bleat. My Serious Play friendos had to google how to do things besides just walk around the level. I had to call out to objects until they liked me enough to follow me along in the game.
I restarted the level and started out as a little plant. I tried walking up to other plants and calling out to them, which sounded like dead leaves rustling in the wind. Eventually some of the plants reacted to my call. Triangles and plus signs appeared out of the tops of these plants. Does that mean they liked me? Did I gain a popularity point? Or did they think I was obtuse?
I spent the next twenty minutes trying to call out to the plants, and some plants did end up following me, but I was thoroughly confused. I didn’t really understand why I wanted plants trailing me, or what these signs meant, or why some plants would get angry at me and others would love me when I interacted with them. I was thoroughly confused.
It’s possible this is completely user error. Despite studying games, I’m not some games god who has authoritative control over every game I play. (Although Everything does seem to encourage me to view the environment in that way – this is something we can discuss in another article.)
It’s also possible the game is meant to be confusing. Like a little kid in the sandbox or a baby camel, I couldn’t quite find my footing in the world. Things were weird, strange, and just didn’t seem to add up. Maybe that’s what the game was going for.
But when I looked at the controls for the game, there was an action mapped to every button. And for the hour that I played, I only could only use a couple of those buttons. All of the others didn’t work. So it was a strange mixture of linearity and freedom. I think if the game was really trying to just throw you in this world with the intent of you trying to find your footing, Everything would just give you all the controls and allow you to figure out how to interact with the world. Instead, (assumingly) I would have to achieve of number of things before I could unlock all of the control options. The problem is the game didn’t really tell me what I needed to accomplish to unlock more functions or how to achieve those accomplishments.
So I’m not sure how I feel about Everything. I enjoyed the fun little surprised, the construction of world where you can control everything, but that world is really full of playthings and toys imitating the real world. But after a while, with little indication of what the game is designed to do, it just got frustrating. Again, it could be me. People seem to have easily gotten the hang of it online. But I got stuck.
Maybe part of good game design is beating people over the head with controls. I don’t know. But I do know this:
I want one of those little plastic camels.