"Humor is a way of disempowering terrible things (or people). If you can see the ridiculousness in the abuser, abuse, or bad situation, then right away this loses the power it had over you. It can't control you if you just can't take it seriously."
Nathalie Lawhead's early access indie title Everything is going to be OK explores dark, horrible life events through a lens of relentless optimism and humor, facing down soul-crushing horror with an absurd cheer. It's also a scathing look at how we deal with life trauma, in both ourselves and others, showing cartoon bunnies cut in half who are being told how diet and a positive attitude will get them through. It's absolutely ridiculous, and yet shows how many of us deal with emotional pain.
Still, each of these bunnies, no matter how much pain they're in, survive. Despite useless advice and pointless platitudes, they persist. They live on, and find a way to exist past the traumatic event, even if their lives are never the same.
Lawhead wanted us to feel that absurdity and that pain. Wanted us to experience the out-of-control ways in which life throws endless curve balls that we can only work to survive. Embrace the chaos that comes with the relentless difficulties of existence. And then, with maybe a little bit of powerful optimism, come out on the other side, still hurt, but maybe, just maybe, be OK.
"Making light of hopelessness, and even laughing at it, is sometimes the only thing you can do. Humor is very liberating. If you're laughing at something dark, you really can't hold anything against it. The hopeless big thing becomes so small and manageable. It automatically becomes more positive." says Lawhead.
True to life
Yes, Everything is going to be OK is about bunnies getting impaled, and you offering them some life advice as the spike slowly slides up them, or trying to get followers to care about your emotional plight while you get cut in half. It still seeks that kind of unending series of tragedies that life can be sometimes as well, even if it does so through an absurd lens.
"The theme is about life, and I feel like there is no control here." says Lawhead. "I wanted to leave no control to the player, and for this to function on its own terms. You have to get to know it (how it behaves, works, how to interact), and maybe you'll never completely understand."
For the game to feel like life and its constant difficulties, Lawhead wanted the player to feel they had little control over the experience. Players can choose bits of dialogue or which page of tragedy to visit, but they'd be given little indication of what that decision would mean, and no direction whatsoever. They would be allowed to meander, but would have to slowly discover what the experience meant for themselves.
This experience mirrors life, as players are given a modicum of ability to guide it, but that guidance is little more than the implication of forward movement. You're going further ahead with something, but is it in a good way? A bad way? Does that even matter. Having a bunny call for help to gain more followers on social media may fill up a bar, but does that mean you're doing better?
"What interested me was how the drive to understand an interactive experience (like a game) was another form of power fantasy, or expression of control over something (art somehow owes us an explanation)." says Lawhead. "The player must always be in charge, or feel like they are in charge, of what is happening. For this game I wanted the reversal. The game is in charge, or even better (in many places) nothing is 'in charge'. It functions and you are experiencing/surviving this outside of traditional expectations."
Lawhead wanted this to feel true to life, where people can try to take their basic life experiences and attribute meaning onto events. We are all just meandering through our lives, making educated guesses on how to best proceed, but the chaos of existence tends to throw a wrench into things. We can only use what knowledge we have based on the life we've already experienced and hope for the best with our decisions for the future.
This goes against the typical control that games offer, where concrete inputs and controls give the player a perfect ability to interact with their worlds. If I press 'A', I punch. If I beat up all of the bad men, the world will change for the better. Lawhead wanted to cast off this form of power fantasy, taking away the player's ability to knowingly push through their problems.
"The fact that we have a term 'power fantasy' fascinates me to no end. It's so important for entertainment to leave us with a sense that if you 'take charge' somehow, magically, things will align and you'll save the world, country, yourself, job, people, universe... It's so contradicting to how life is, though."
"You're constantly told to 'take charge of your life' while you're drowning in debt, can't afford basic necessities like health care, or food, and somehow you are just managing not to sink completely. By cultural standards you can't ask for help because people see failure as some sort of contractable disease. I mean, this is literally what being homeless is all about." says Lawhead.
Life is not a series of decisions the player can make with perfect certainty. It's not a time when people can just take charge of events, because there are other factors at work, some that may be beyond anything the person involved can even know. There is no taking charge of Everything is going to be OK, but only just the actions of someone trying to make sense of it all and survive.
"If you put this in a game, and there are all these cute little characters that are so happy and somehow just managing, I feel like this is a fair assessment of life."
An interactive life
This uncertainty is infused in every aspect of Everything is going to be OK, and through player's ability to interact with it, forms that strong connection to life itself.
"It's funny, because I could have just settled to make this a traditional zine, or online comic. It would have had the same message, and probably been something people could process easier as entertainment." says Lawhead.
However, interaction is what lets us get through our lives. We have choices to make, even if we aren't quite clear on how they'll turn out. It's in making decisions without ever knowing all of the answers no matter how long we exist that life occurs, and Everything is going to be OK mirrors that through how the player can interact with it. Even if only to click a dialogue box or fiddle with dismembered body parts, we are the force that pushes the events forward, creating that connection similar to life.
Despite some feelings that another medium may have made it better as entertainment, Everything is going to be OK carries a stronger message as interactive software. "I love computers. There's so much about them that's uniquely frustrating. Sometimes they are the most interesting when they are breaking. Playing with expectations of what should happen when you click something is just the greatest. If you hit minimize, but minimize doesn't happen. Or the close button actually opens 5 more windows. If you do these things right you can get either great comedy, or horror." says Lawhead.
We have expectations of how things will behave based on our life experiences. We think we know what something will do when we take a set action. But, like in life, computers can take odd actions the user doesn't expect. Things don't always go how we would assume no matter how much experience says otherwise. But, like life and games, all you can do is move forward and roll with what happens.
"So, making this sort of thing in this virtual realm is amazing. It takes you out of your comfort zone, throws you in the middle of something, and asks you to participate even if it's something that makes you feel uncomfortable." says Lawhead. "The more you participate the more chaotic it gets, but you have to participate. Once people become used to how the thing asks you to participate they start exploring and then you can hide things for people to find. Like easter eggs, or secret programs. There's this really interesting layering of branching directions the game ends up with."
"For example, many of the "pages" (mini-games) have icons hidden in them." Lawhead continues. "If you open them, you find more stuff. Inside some of those is more stuff. You end up with this chaos of windows, with stuff happening in all of them. It's this beautiful anarchic flood of information you're a part of, and barely surviving. I don't think you can get something like this outside of computers."
For every decision a person makes, within the confines of Everything is going to be OK and in life, it is difficult to know where a decision will take you, or what opportunities will be hidden there, and as we persist in existing, we become more comfortable exploring. We can find new ways to other places and mental states, but even at our most knowledgeable, it can just be guesswork. We simply learn to navigate the chaos in different ways over time.
Through the clicking around, the dialogue choices, and the other interactive elements, Everything is going to be OK connects with life through the player's ability to move through it. They will rarely be entirely clear where their clicking and manipulation will take them, though, but can instead learn to live within the chaos their actions create.
Misery and confusion are plentiful enough without looking to create more, digitally, though. Lawhead wasn't just looking to bring players into another existence filled with suffering, but to also see how humor and optimism can save us from the pain and confusion that life heaps upon us.
"Literature has had this for a long time. Comedies, satire, sarcasm, etc... There is a liberating quality about looking at this horrible thing through that lens. Humor is the substitute for hope after you've lost everything." says Lawhead.
"Humor is important in a lot of my stuff. When I set out to make something interactive it's a question of incorporating someone into the joke, for example: 'How much do I want to mess with the person that's playing the game?' Maybe that sounds sinister, but I love chaos. There's something profound about trying to get someone to laugh at it."
The optimism in some moments is so extreme that it is difficult not to laugh at it, even if it is terrible. The bunnies' high-pitched voices, cheerfully talking about how they're enjoying themselves watching the world burn with them in it, draws up a dark laughter. It's all so absurd that all the player can do is chuckle at it all, even if events, really, are terrible, and they have no idea how to work through them.
That optimism, to Lawhead, is what makes all of these horrible things a bit more survivable. "Optimists seem to make it further than pessimists. If the game where about pessimists it would be a very short game. Pessimists have the good sense of just melting into a puddle of resignation and bitterness. Optimists somehow never quit. I'm poking a lot of fun at the level of ridiculous positivity, optimism, and hope required to get through some of life's struggles. It's a satire on hopelessness." says Lawhead.
Optimism goes far into the realm of outlandish in Everything is going to be OK, but given the dark subject matter, the fact that the game can make its players smile and laugh hints that, maybe, it's what works. It's what Lawhead has seen work in the lives of others, at least.
"Here is a story. It's my favorite example...In the neighborhood where my grandparent's lived (Europe), there were a lot of concentration camp survivors. Aside from World War 2, the family had a lot of history with all the other wars that happened (breakup of Yugoslavia, etc...). Both my grandmother and her neighbor were in a concentration camp. The experience completely destroyed my grandmother, especially later in life. No amount of life, success, career, family, was enough to get her out of it. She basically stayed there."
"The neighbor was completely different. She was stubborn, strong, and happy. The ones that had the outlook of being 'given a second chance at life' acted like the world was theirs. The ones that dwelt on 'why this thing happened' stayed in that place." says Lawhead.
Optimism, then, is a way of moving forward. Dark events tend to mire the people they catch. They drag them into a mindset and place they cannot escape, perpetually hurting the person even if the event is, technically, over. That's not to oversimplify the suffering of people both optimistic and pessimistic, as optimism can be seen to be completely absurd throughout Everything is going to be OK, but it often gives the chance of moving on.
"I am not saying that there is any right way to cope." says Lawhead. "I fail at this constantly... but when bad things happen to me, I think about this. It can be really hard, and sometimes it seems like life is out just to destroy you, but if you can be as stubborn as possible about not letting that grief define who you are, that's transcendence. That's when you're really going to be ok."
Even if the bunnies are hopelessly optimistic despite utter catastrophe, there is something healing in their demeanor. These cute, fictional beings are teasing the kind of relentless optimism needed to survive life's horrors, and the goofy ways people try to strive to grab onto that optimism, but it is also hope. Yes, the pointless advice your family and friends are offering is pointless and worthless, but even in that offering, there is almost a silly hope. You can laugh at the absurdity of trying to change your diet to cure your grief, drawing some healing humor out of the misery. To survive it.
"I feel like survival is a very subjective term. You could survive something but are you really OK afterward? A lot of the situations in Everything is going to be OK go there. For example... two cute characters drowning in lava. If you click on one, the other encourages that one, but saying something encouraging also causes them to sink."
Lawhead continues. "So, you have to balance out which character encourages which. This way both make it to the end. If they both survive, they are super happy about that, but it's clear that they are not OK afterward. There are many pages that do that. You can make it through, but you're left with the sense that the real struggle will be being OK afterward. This is how I view life."
Because that is what we strive for, in the end: a means of continuing. A celebration that we persist. Everything is going to be OK takes us into its existence through its interactivity, having us join into its facsimile of life through its chaotic nature. We do not know what tragedy will befall us in here, but we do know that we can smile and laugh at it through the unrelenting optimism of these silly bunnies.
Not that every moment can be flippant. Even those with endless optimism can break, eventually, which Lawhead captures with a few moments in the game. "It's a difficult balance to hit. There are many touchy subjects, and it can be hard not to be too 'dark' about how they are creatively approached.
For some pages, I really felt like I had to leave the humor out. For example, Page 11 is probably the darkest, and worst page to start the game with. I wouldn't want to change that one though, and making it more happy (or "funny") would damage the meaning."
"With these messages, If I take these messages, and also mix more lighthearted pages (not about anything dark, just there to be cute), then I feel like the overall project is more approachable. Also, cuteness is a great tool! If things are cute, you can't really hate, blame, or fault them. They bring a disarming quality to everything."
Through these cheerful, goofy, ridiculous bunnies, perhaps we can learn to laugh at our own misery. Find humor in the terrible ways people try to help us through it. The offer a glimpse at life at its most horrible and painful, and yet the player comes away smiling. The hopeful nature of these creatures in extreme chaos makes it seem like they will survive it all, no matter how awful it is. In sharing some time with them, perhaps we feel like we can laugh at our own miseries as well.
"I feel like life has been a dark comedy in so many instances. It's really wild, because I will literally pay to go to a movie theater to watch other people be in terrible situations, and maybe they'll come out ok at the end (depending what genre), and I'll find that entertaining." says Lawhead. "If it happens to me, it's traumatizing, and difficult, and I can personalize it to no end. Sometimes bad things happen, and if they happen often enough it starts to appear more ridiculous than anything."