If you’re going through a period of intense anxiety and dread, Nathalie Lawhead wants you to know that Everything Is Going to Be OK. It’s a solo effort from Lawhead, who develops games and interactive art under the moniker Alienmelon. And this past weekend, her game won the Interaction Award at the IndieCade Festival. It’s an interactive art piece that’s a series of miniature experiences filled with adorable creatures who alternate between slinging uplifting slogans and expressing existential ennui.
“It’s a collection of life stories, abstract life stories that are based around depression, trauma, struggle, how society fails people that have to struggle with things like depression,” said Lawhead in an interview with GamesBeat. “It’s framed in a way where it’s cute characters in terrible situations. It’s comical. On the surface it looks like dark comedy, but as you interact with it and go deeper, it starts unraveling those topics and kind of facilitates discussion.”
When I played Everything Is Going to Be OK, it sometimes reminded me of filmmaker Don Hertzfeldt‘s dark absurdist humor. However, this game has a more tangible sheen of optimism. It’s the kind of experience that huddles down in the foxhole with you, pointing at how horrible everything is but poking fun at it anyway.
The stories are represented by icons that float around on a glitchy computer desktop. As you click on them, they open up in separate windows. Each of them is a vignette that approaches topics like self-esteem, awkward social interactions, rejection from friends, body image, and more. Often, the awful things that befall the cute characters are juxtaposed against their cheery attitudes. One character stares into a mirror, which tells it that everything would be better if only it were more “normal.” “I love this!” the character exclaims.
“There’s nothing good about fighting with this stuff,” said Lawhead. “But at the same time, it should be uplifting and funny and kind of make you see how ridiculous life can be. One bad thing after another, after a while—that becomes ridiculous. It’s comical. It’s something I want to convey. Life is ridiculous. It’s one damn thing after another. You make the best of it. You roll with the punches.”
One of the things Lawhead wants to dispel is shame around personal struggles. For instance, her grandmother was a prisoner at a concentration camp in World War II. Her family felt ashamed of the horrors they endured, and Lawhead also felt ashamed when she went through her own struggles. It was hugely reassuring when she finally met and talked to other people who were going through the same things.
“Trauma is perpetuated by not being able to talk about it,” said Lawhead. “‘You should be ashamed.’ ‘You should be optimistic and positive, be a hero.’ It kind of invalidates you in a way.”
You can find more of Lawhead’s work linked on her site or on Itch.io. All of it features an aesthetic that mashes up textures, searing neon colors, and deliberately glitchy movements. She says she’s inspired by old tech, the “brokenness” of computers.
“I really love old computer UIs, like Windows 95, earlier stuff, where developers were in charge of the UI, and it’s crappy and terrible,” said Lawhead. “There’s something sweet and disarming about software that’s still trying to figure out how to be software. It’s broken, but not. It’s really charming. I like the jolted aesthetic, the glitched, broken animated GIF feel. It’s communicative. It’s interesting.”
Lawhead has been creating net art since 1999 with her first release, Blue Suburbia. She viewed it as a piece of interactive art, a kind of mixed-media poem, and soon people were referring to it as a game. At first, she was resistant to the categorization. She’s now more open to it, but she says she still approaches her work as interactive art rather than games per se.
“There’s still a lot of prejudices around people’s expectations,” said Lawhead. “‘Game’ comes with a lot of baggage. You have to have loops and magic circles and a gimmick. When you do stuff like this, where there’s obviously no real point but to experience something—it’s getting to a point where people are willing to try it, but there’s still a lot of ice to break. It’s a good time to do stuff like this.”
Lawhead says she’s wanted to make a project like Everything Is Going to Be OK for a while in order to open up a discussion while also communicating to folks that they’re not alone. When people are struggling, she feels that society often pushes them aside out of convenience because they don’t know how to help or because they don’t really want to help. So far, she’s had good responses when she’s showcased it at events like the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) and IndieCade.
“It’s something that’s been brewing for a while,” said Lawhead. “For me it’s been personally cathartic, but I also wanted to see something like this made because I know I’m not alone. People have related to this. That’s the best thing I could ask for.”