Notes on EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK: Actually It Isn’t

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK by alienmelon, a.k.a Nathalie Lawhead is an incredible game. Scratch that, it’s an incredible achievement, regardless of medium. This funny, sad and deeply personal work is so rich and vast I hardly know where to begin picking it apart, but I’ll try to match the effort in this review that Lawhead puts into her art.

The game (or “interactive zine”, as Lawhead terms it in her description) loads into a window that’s stylized to look like an ersatz version of an old Windows 95 operating system, complete with a desktop full of executables that the player can click on in any order. Really, this zine can be considered as having two parts: the first, where the player is navigating the programs on the desktop, and the second, where the player is playing through the numbered chapters of the zine, which are represented by desktop thumbnails that kind of float, disorganized, on the screen.

This is a sort of meaningless distinction, since like I said the disparate elements of the zine can be engaged in any order the player chooses. But I think it’s a helpful starting point for describing how this zine feels to play, and how rapidly it switches gears between aesthetics and tone, while managing to maintain a strong thematic throughline that somehow remains coherent no matter where you are in the zine.

In the “first part”, which for me refers to the segment wherein the player navigates the desktop—the icons, the Start menu, the Control panel, nothing is excluded—the zine begins by asking the player to input a login name and a password, which it will behoove them to remember for later. In this area, the player encounters all sorts of strange missives and creatures hidden in the system, from Tamagotchi-like frogs that they must feed and entertain to keep alive, to literal software bugs that scurry in dark corners, to programs that are actually eggs that need to be nurtured so that maybe they can one day hatch. There are broken files and mini-games within the Games folder, and text files that read like chapbooks, switching gears from the absurd and whimsical to the suddenly personal. This area is very free-form, a little chaotic, but it shifts seamlessly between tones, from funny to sad, from distant to deeply personal, from stern to vulnerable, from fanficul to deeply, inescapably bleak.

It slowly becomes clear that Lawhead is, in a very disjointed way, telling us a story about trauma, coping and recovery. I don’t mean to sound cold, but there are lots of indie zines that act as sort of confessional, public diaries for their authors. I believe all of them that their suffering is real and profound, but over time I’ve become skeptical of a media economy that preys on typically young, vulnerable people, and particularly women, for their pain. Indie games, and for that matter “content” generally, is still in many ways a mill that processes the stories of abuse and torment of their tellers and grinds them into profit for the people who provide the platforms on which they are told.

This kind of exploitation of pain is clearly harmful for a number of reasons, but one of the lesser consequences of it is that I think it can really stifle the creative potential of the storytellers, because it prioritizes their wounds rather than their minds. Art can be a fantastic tool for reflecting, bonding and healing when terrible things befall us—in fact it’s one of its greatest powers—but when people are reduced to grist for mill, it doesn’t matter how ingenious or singular their art is. And so any real attempt to grapple with difficult experiences in an artful, enduring way, that elicits reflection rather than just reaction, is pushed into a corner and written off as “niche”.

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK is a deeply personal work about harrowing, traumatic experiences of assault, and the betrayal by friends and loss of professional opportunities that followed, but it doesn’t feel sentimental, or glib, or especially cloying. I don’t really get the sense that I’m being sold a simplified narrative about recovery or victimhood. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK resists that simplicity at every turn.

It’s all in the title. Gamers love to fatuously claim that things are satire when they are not, but this interactive zine actually does work as a send-up of every insidious aspect of not just the indie games economy, but of the the media economy generally. The actual mechanics of EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK are very simple and straightforward—it’s largely point-and-click, with a smattering of other devices, like platforming, thrown in here and there—but the ideas and how they are presented are not. It becomes clear that, in fact, everything might not be ok. This brings me to Part Two.

In this second act, once the player has seen everything there is to see in the Windows desktop, they may exit out and return to the initial start window, where an overwhelming mass of .exe thumbnails swarm the page. Some of these thumbnails are actually text files containing poetry, while others are cutely animated game vignettes, which I found to in many cases be more poetic than the abundance of chapbooks there are to read in this zine.

If I had one complaint about the zine, it would be that the poetry, while at times very affecting and vividly-written, sometimes gets repetitive, and feels like it could be pared down a little bit. It sometimes feels like being hit over the head with the point, whereas I found that the vignettes made the feelings being evoked in the poems really come alive.

Bouncy, colourful animations of fluffy bunnies and other gentle creatures with squeaky voices and dismally bleak demeanours play with tone, blending humour with despair, whimsy with desperation, charm with chasmic sadness. The poems, which vary in length and style (a lot of free verse, but there are rhyming couplets here and there), are pensive and emotional, and can be very moving, but all feel very nakedly confessional. These interactive vignettes, on the other hand, have more of a “show, don’t tell” quality, while largely expressing the same ideas and feelings. In one, for example, a lonely bunny creature resolves to make friends by opening up and speaking to other creatures they meet along their path. While sidescrolling, the player must speak to creatures they encounter, engaging them in conversation and following the flow of what they say to be able to answer correctly. This, like many other vignettes in the zine, is ultimately self-defeating. The other conversants lead the conversation, and you merely follow, navigating the range of topics that they bring up (food, politics, favourite colours, etc), without saying the wrong thing and committing a social faux pas. Mastering this system of picking the correct reply when it’s the player’s turn to talk confers no benefit; rather, this is an exhausting process that endlessly goes in circles until the player’s social awkwardness bar fills up and they lose the game. Eventually, the player may start sabotaging the conversation just to fill up the meter and end the game.

In other vignettes, the player is trapped on a raft in a race against time and a steep waterfall that lands on jagged rocks, or is being berated by neighbouring bunnies for speaking out about misconduct committed by a well-liked member of the bunny community, or must feed a bunny by picking the correct foods from a wide variety of options, and picking wrong results in the creature succumbing to their many food intolerances. There are many of these, but each one paints different corners of the same picture. There are running, interlocking themes about the fickleness and cruelty victims are subjected to by others, particularly when the accused happens to be popular. There are the competing feelings of self-blame and pity, of not knowing how to trust or relate to others, of the pressure to remain optimistic and cheery so as not to disturb the sensibilities of the people who are contributing to your misery, or who at least stand idly by while it happens. The heart of this piece is bleak, and isolated, but it’s honest and unflinching and darkly funny.

EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OK is bright and alluring on the surface, but it spits out its own title like acid. The zine vacillates between sarcasm and unvarnished anger and sadness, and while it’s very compelling and a joy to play, it aims to comfort nobody. It deals with victimhood and trauma and all the consequences of that in all of their many contradictions. It is neither maudlin nor aloof, sweet nor bitter, but all of it at once. This comes through in its writing, in its art style, in its game design, in its black humour. There is so much to this zine that had to be left out of this review, so I hope that this inspires at least a few people to pay the $10.00 it costs on (or name your own price) and take the time out to play it.