David O'Reilly's Everything could be the 1st Oscar-nominated video game
11-minute video of in-game footage won the Jury Award at the Vienna Shorts Festival
In the video game Everything, you can play as a blade of grass, or a pebble on the ground, or perhaps a brown bear. You travel around environments like forests, deserts, cities and more, all of it rendered in a dreamy, muted colour palette.
With the push of a button, your point of view leaps from whatever plant, animal or object you were controlling to anything else you see on the screen. The game continues for as long as you want, until you see and control everything in the world.
Before long, you learn to increase or decrease the scale of your sightseeing, and the scene changes dramatically. Shrink down to the microscopic, and you are a hydrogen atom. Expand out into space, and you are the sun — and then, a galaxy.
Everything, by Irish developer and filmmaker David O'Reilly, earned rave reviews for its meditative exploration of life and nature, accompanied by narration from British philosopher Alan Watts.
But it's also on track for another, groundbreaking honour: it's eligible for an Academy Award nomination.
Video game as short film
Before working on Everything — and his 2014 game, Mountain — O'Reilly's animation credits included Please Say Something, which won the Short Film Golden Bear award at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, and the animated sequences in Spike Jonze's Her.
When the Berlin festival asked O'Reilly if he had a short film to submit for 2017, he said he was working on a game, not a film. So they asked him to submit that instead.
O'Reilly put together an 11-minute edit of Everything, featuring in-game footage with selected excerpts from Watts's narration.
The video was eventually shown at other festivals including the Vienna Shorts Festival, where it won the Jury Award. That accolade makes it eligible to be nominated for the Oscar for animated short film.
"It's certainly unexpected, because for one it wasn't designed as an award-winning film — or game," O'Reilly said of the Vienna win. "I was pretty sure that there was a pretty good chance that this whole thing would be ignored and would not really find an audience. That was always a huge risk."
Daniel Ebner, the Vienna Shorts Festival's artistic director, told CBC News "the beauty of David O'Reilly's fantastic universe is that it's all-embracing and has no limits whatsoever, neither in form nor in content.
"The jury ... praised the strong poetic and philosophical approach of his hybrid work which serves a highly educational purpose, and at the same time encourages us to let our egos dissolve and gain a new perspective on the world."
It's not yet an official Oscar nominee — the short list of 10 animated shorts will be announced this November, then cut down to the final five next January.
But it's the closest a video game has ever made it to an Oscar podium.
Chances of winning 'quite low,' says creator
Despite the current praise for Everything, O'Reilly isn't terribly optimistic that he'll make it all the way to the Hollywood red carpet.
"I think the chances of it happening are quite low," he said. "It's no surprise to anybody that the Academy has very particular tastes and they tend to be quite traditional."
"If it happened, I guess it would be a good thing. I know that certainly the best thing that would happen, from my perspective, is that it opens up opportunities to make bigger things."
O'Reilly doesn't base success or failure on the long shot of an Oscar win.
"The most pleasure I get is from people actually enjoying the project or the game individually, and if they enjoyed it so much that they share their feelings about it, that's where I get joy. The awards aspect of it, I really don't care about it. It's not something that drives me," he said.
"Whatever I say about awards, I should also add that I am unbelievably grateful for the human beings that go out and buy and play the game. So I don't want to sound too dismissive about that."
Indie game spotlight
The transition from filmmaking to video games was overall a positive experience for O'Reilly, who has no shortage of things to say about the gulf between Hollywood animated films and short films by independent experimental creators.
"Most people will not hear of the most amazing animated short films of the year. And if they do, maybe they watch it on YouTube, and that's the end of it," he said.
"The difference is that within games, the independent world is very much part of the mainstream. The people that report on the big games are also reporting on the small games."
On Steam, North America's largest digital store for PC games, bestsellers range from Stardew Valley, a farming simulator built almost entirely by one designer, Eric Barone, to billion-dollar franchises like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.
"I feel like I made absolutely no effort to pander to an existing audience with my games, and yet I've been able to make a living better than I've made out of making independent animation, which I worked equally hard on and did my best at putting out there," said O'Reilly.