In the more than half a year since I first experienced Nathalie Lawhead’s 2017 interactive zine EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY, I’ve insisted on typing the whole name, in all caps, just like I have here. I do that because, frankly, it’s fun. It’s fun to yell something that is usually spoken in a soft whisper, or solemnly click clacked next to a heart emoji. Upon reflection though, that capitalization reflects something true about the work, that would be lost in translation. Yelling this phrase turns it from a platitude into a defiant shout or a desperate shriek. It is made bold and stark. It is a set meaning given new life.
In some sense, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY is all about putting things into a new context. A cold and efficient desktop becomes a set of portals into fears and neuroses. The background flips between distorted images of planes flying or eggs cracking. It is a personal declaration of the things we might not want other people to see. Each portal leads to a different vignette or short or game or even a creative tool. There is no set story or continuity. In one, a cartoon bunny gives a powerpoint about their dismemberment. In another you draw a portrait of a pancake person. In yet another, you, through a series of ineffectual choices, attempt to talk an impaled blob out of despair.
On both the itch.io page and in their artist’s statement on the zine, Lawhead describes this as a power fantasy. This might seem unusual at first glance. The zine’s short segments, which often have wildly different control schemes and interfaces, never let the player settle into anything like mastery. In fact when I asked Lawhead about the power fantasy itself, they first emphasized its hostility: “Everything you touch feels like it could just blow up or completely break.” With their own horrible experiences with the games industry and press in mind, it is difficult not to see EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY as an echo of the way those in power shape our horrors and traumas. Afterwards they still ask us to continue, husks of ourselves to be hurt again and again.
Yes, there is nihilism in that—the zine’s own tagline on itch.io describes it so—but there is also strength. We are, after all, still here. Under extreme tragicomic circumstances, these kind, little creatures continue to survive. The strength required to hold on to life while split in two or totally alone is immense, but the creatures never show it. Instead they whine with pain or scream in forced joy. It is effort without any of its traditional markers. Nathalie emphasized this in our interview: “If you can survive, and just be here at the end of the day, you are powerful. It takes a lot of strength to go through all this shit and just be ok… or not be ok. Either is perfectly fine.” That last sentence is the key to EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY’s entire project. The fact is, those suffering from trauma or less, including myself and many of the people reading this, are not okay. But people don’t need the pacifying comfort of “digital hugs” or patronizing advice. They need to be validated, really heard, and their strength must be recognized.
In that spirit, the zine frequently asks you to just linger and feel. When every interaction is a helpless act against inevitable death or harm, the zine really forces you to listen and understand the pain of its characters. Even when it lets you really interact, like with the aforementioned powerpoint or portrait, they become a way of listening to yourself through the apparatus of the zine. Lawhead themself was startled by how much time players actually did spend in its creative moments: “I think maybe the creativity here was a coping mechanism to help unwrap whatever the pages made you feel. Like, there’s nothing that you can do about this fucked up situation other than maybe write a short story about it with the characters.” It is that helplessness that makes these moments of creativity so empowering. When I made the powerpoint, I filled it with the frustration I felt towards my day job. I framed my intrusive, self deprecating thoughts with the glitz and glamour of a presentation. In giving those things presence through the soft, wounded voices of these strange animals, I felt something like relief.
I do not wish to claim that the zine is therapeutic, or somehow transcends videogaming. Rather, it is honest about its limitations. A zine like this cannot materially change the situations people find themselves in. It can, however, resonate with those situations. Nathalie said to me that the lack of a player character “give[s] you distance, so taking that away kind of robs the player from that protection. You’re expected to confront what you are seeing as yourself.” It’s true. I did and do feel confronted. However, it is not confrontation like a showdown at sunset or a massive monster you must destroy with your cunning. Rather it is a confrontation like a blank page, a dormant pen, a mirror. In some sense, EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY asks nothing more of us than to sit and listen, both to ourselves and others.
That is why, four years on, it feels more powerful than ever. In the last few months of the pandemic, we have focused a lot on games as escapism, on Animal Crossing or Hades being the “games we need right now.” EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY, though, cannot position itself as outside of life. It is rather a deeply personal thing that asks you to engage with it personally. As Nathalie themselves said to me, “The game industry is founded on so much “pleasing” gamers, fitting in, making something that sells, it’s almost an act of rebellion to make something that’s uniquely you.” The zine is, of course, only one example of that. For another, Lawhead pointed toward Nightmare Temptation Academy. However, it’s one that has only continued to grow in significance to me. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY will continue to resonate, when games of the year and launch titles have long since faded from memory.
Grace Benfell is a queer woman, critic, and aspiring fan fiction author. She writes on her blog Grace in the Machine and can be found @grace_machine on Twitter.