The Angel Looking Backward—On Everhood

Special shout outs to my friend Jack (aka HendrixTrog) who gifted me this game on Steam, thinking it would be of interest to me. He was right! Please check out his YouTube and Twitch channels. He is genuinely one of the funniest people on the internet.

Everhood is the kind of game that people will tell you not to spoil yourself on. So I’m going to respect that framing and “pitch” the game a little before deep diving on it. If you want to play it by the end of that pitch, go ahead! The article will wait for you.

A screenshot from Everhood, where the doll-like Red dodges notes shot by an angry ATM.

Everhood is a rhythm action RPG. It is broadly split into two formal modes: A top-down exploration mode, where you talk to other characters, explore bare but distinctive environments, and solve light puzzles, and a battle environment, where
you dodge notes descending towards you in a Guitar Hero style grid. Part of the appeal of Everhood is its inventive relationship with its formal elements. Both modes receive several amusing iterations. You will dodge notes while in the “exploration” mode and the battle mode contains many of Everhood’s most dramatic narrative beats.

On an accessibility note, the game has settings for image sensitivity and color-blindness, as well as a variety of difficulty options. The rhythm game portion can be quite difficult, especially as you explore alternate endings. If that difficulty doesn’t interest you or would be a major obstacle to playing the game, these options should serve you well.

The narrative structure is similar to Undertale, in that it starts mostly as a comedy. The plot concerns a scarecrow named Red, whose arm has been stolen by Gold Pig (both an accurate description and a name). To get it back, Red must traverse a wacky world. Fittingly, the enemies and principle characters began as jokes. A sneezing vampire named Noseferatchu, a cackling wizard named the Green Mage, and a forever defeated knight named Lost-a-lot are just a few of these figures. However, their interactions with Red grow increasingly tender. You play a match of video game tennis, developed by Smega, with Noseferatuchu, the Green Mage reveals himself to be your Dungeon Master, and Lost-a-lot never gets up the will to fight you, opting instead for lazy camaraderie. These are repeated jokes, but they are also a means of fleshing out gags until they become characters. It’s nothing particularly deep, but it’s endearing and it gives the game’s future tonal shifts some weight.

A screenshot from Everhood showing the aforementioned Red at a Dungeon and Dragons table with two mushrooms, a slime man, a sneezing vampire, a blue dude with blonde hair, a unicorn man, and a one-eyed wizard dressed in green.

Everhood has a dedicated fanbase (even its own subreddit), but I’m kind of shocked that it is not an Undertale level hit. Though my feelings on it are more mixed, Everhood is charismatic, filled to the brim with fanwork inspiring character designs, hummable boss tunes, and dramatic twists. It’s pretty earnest, but it is very much in the same spirit as games that have blown up with enthusiasts and press. Yet, I have never seen it mentioned outside of a couple conversations with friends.

This is both odd and unsurprising. The explosion of indie titles and their increasing scale means that it’s harder, though not impossible, for smallish indie titles to become culture defining successes, especially single player and narrative driven ones. Everhood itself is in a curious position too, in that it would have blown minds in a pre-Undertale world, but also likely would not exist without Undertale’s influence.

That said, it is still an odd choice for The Angel Looking Backward, because Everhood is by no means obscure. It has a vinyl release for god’s sake! Nevertheless, I’m writing about it, because I think it’s a game people would get something out of talking about, provocative even and especially in its limitations. It’s a game that deserves spoilercasts and fervent disagreement. Even though it is successful, it’s kind of doomed to “let me pitch you on this” engagement rather than the wide open criticism of the culturally established. In that spirit, I want to talk about what provoked me about Everhood, where it got me thinking, and the gaps that it still leaves behind.

So, without further ado, here is the spoiler zone.

~

In a tripped out, distorted screenshot from Everhood. Red dodges notes unleashed by a frog wearing a trash can lid.

~

As it turns out, there is a reason Everhood’s population wants to end your quest. As soon as Red earns his arm back, he discovers that its principle function is murder. The world of Everhood is a realm of immortality, every person here has artificially elongated their life. It is a world beyond death, except for this one arm, this tool of the gods. Red, and by extension you, are tasked with killing everything and ending the world. Killing people will free them, Red is told by a wise messenger frog, but with each life taken there is no evidence.

There are alternate paths. You can fight the messenger frog to break your fate or gather gems to summon the developers themselves. These are but difficult dalliances, not true alternate paths. To see what Everhood has to offer, you have to kill all of its inhabitants. So, you do.

Red, as it is turns out, is a doll for the spirit of Pink, an unstable being who has killed some of the immortals in the past. With the literal assistance of the player, Pink sheds Red, descends into an abyss, and emerges in a waiting room. Here, the spirits which Pink killed thank him for freeing them from immortality and allowing them to continue a reincarnation process. At the end, Pink and the player exit the waiting room and join the spirits of Everhood for a brief moment together before the other life truly begins.

The divine Messenger Frog attacks Red with notes while surrounded by a halo of guitars.

There are three big things I really appreciate about Everhood.

First, the game really asks you do something kind of unpleasant. The way Undertale scolds players for playing the “genocide” route and praises them for not killing always struck me as facile. It’s a moral universe built around mercy without justice and retribution without cause. While Undertale has things to say about fandom and interpersonal relationships and creation, its meta-fictional moral universe was always kind of flat. Everhood is simple (we’ll get to that later), but it pulls some richness out of this reversal. At journey’s end, you will know that everyone is alright, that some kind of life awaits them, that ending that forever world was a kindness. Before the end though, you don’t know and neither do those you kill. While none of Everhood’s characters reach a real psychological complexity, they are easy to like. This effortless charm feels like a weapon when the game puts its foot down, and it doesn’t lose its sense of humor when you begin murdering. Far beyond the cheap shocks of a No Russian or Shining Lights, Even In Death, Everhood is not really about complicity or violence, but about seeing a hard thing through.

Second, I appreciate how uninterested the game is in usual video game meta-fiction, outside of the unessential and flat alternate endings. Everhood is not really trying to make some comment on video games as a whole or how violence is depicted in them etc. It’s mostly interested in a video game as something that mimics “a reality.” After all, Everhood’s two-dimensional plane has hard limits. It has a limited number of actors. It will remain in stasis, until the player acts to affect it. The game is cheeky about this, and not all of the jokes work. However, the game foregrounds the fact that this is an experience that is happening to you, rather than “just” a game. The hard limits of computer programs, as well as the fuzziness of the border between digital and physical realms make an argument that life transcends one momentary existence. Like energy, it changes shape, but cannot truly die.

Third, Everhood feels genuinely devotional. In the game’s last music sequence, after talking to the spirits in the waiting room, a Buddha appears. The story of accepting an unpleasant fate for the greater good echoes the Bhagavad Gita as much as any of the video games it pulls from. In true RPG fashion, you kill god (or a god) but it’s mainly because they ask you to (here, even god must accept the necessity and ecstasy of death). It’s a far more conversational relationship with spiritual power than almost anything I’ve played. While the game is not without moments of divine menace, its divine is multiple and questionably literal. Many video games are secular in same way America is, implicitly Christian with a ready hostility towards foreign elements. Everhood hops over all of that, freely incorporates religious symbols, and puts forth a sincere philosophy of life. It is far from the only game to have some genuine religious feeling, but Everhood’s sincerity and straightforwardness is striking and refreshing.

Backgrounded by an explosion, Red dodges notes from an angry looking furry unicorn wearing punk style clothes.

With that said, Everhood is still simplistic. Though it leaves some tantalizing gaps, its characterization is ultimately more flat than suggestive. None of Everhood’s characters are really people as much as they are gimmicks with a touch of pathos. Perhaps a side effect of a bored eternity, Everhood’s world has no real culture or society. It’s very un-material in a way that fits some of the theming, but also makes its moral questions lose some of their bite. In contrast, consider Zardoz, a story with similar thematic preoccupations as Everhood, but one that dwells more thoroughly on the horror of death as well as its necessity, and offers a thrilling sci-fi exploration of immortality as an imperial tool. It’s bleak and funny and dark, partially because it has deeply material concerns alongside its lofty philosophical ideas. Everhood washes its most biting emotional moments in saccharine shades and gives its most profound voice to characters who are, after it all, mostly jokes. In its worst moments, the game feels more fable-esque than profound. Everhood’s primary philosophical statement has complex emotional shades, but it is nevertheless largely straightforward.

So why write this much about it? It’s less that I think Everhood is a transcendent game and more that I think it points at a possibility space for narrative games moving forward. I wrote about both Ico and Metroid recently as games that simultaneously have rich legacies and feel absent from the games they influenced. For both games, I meant this as much in the negative as the positive. There’s stuff I wish people would take from Metroid and Ico, just as much as I wish there were things they would leave behind. Everhood is a ripe canvas for both rejection and acceptance.

Video games are in a weird place, because the canon is simultaneously revered and ignored. IPs continue endlessly, while the games that started them are unplayable outside of emulation. There are a lot of things about that situation that I would like to correct, but the most relevant here is that: I would like games to respond to each other. While there are endless homages or spiritual successors, it’s rare that a game really counters or expands on a previous game’s ideas (or at least it’s rare that than expansion is not framed as improvement or failure). Everhood is not mere homage, it is not a retread. It continues a conversation. I would like to see a response.