Interview by Miguel Penabella
Originally conducted over two days: March 23, 2018 and April 3, 2018
Edits and introduction written May 21, 2018
Nathalie Lawhead, sometimes known by the pseudonym and Twitter handle alienmelon, boasts a vivid body of work that often frustrates the categories of what it means to be a game and our expectations of entertainment. With a background in net art, her work experiments with early internet iconography and decaying computer software in a state of collapse, complete with blown-out pixels, viral pop-up ads, and intrusive GIFs that dance across the screen. Tetrageddon, for instance, compiles a series of short “pop games” and pays tribute to the garish but earnest do-it-yourself aesthetic of 90s personal webpages, subverting “tasteful” practices in webpage and videogame aesthetics with abstract non-sequiturs and cryptic error messages. Interactive zine Everything Is Going to be OK collides short games, poetry, animation, and autobiographical elements with dark humor that cuts like barbed wire, nudging us to laugh while also recognizing the pain that undergirds moments of self-doubt and personal hardship. Together, Tetrageddon and Everything Is Going to be OK have been awarded prizes at the Independent Games Festival (IGF), A MAZE. Festival, and Indiecade.
These are thematically and aesthetically challenging works that frustrate the crass reaction videos of YouTube Let’s Plays that disregard an underlying commentary. Make no mistake, Lawhead’s work expresses many crucial issues that require parsing out: the exploitation of workers, unsustainable labor practices, support for victims of abuse, the need for empathy in a world starved of it. On her personal website, she pens a sharp polemic against inane reactions by gamers while presenting her work at Day of the Devs, in which a culture of streaming videogame reactions produces meaningless, unconstructive shock videos to the detriment of the richer conversations that game developers want to foster. “The popular dialogue around these games centers pretty much on the basis that they shouldn’t exist, and if they do, they exist to be laughed at,” she writes, “Streaming kinda comes off as a public shaming then. It’s not constructive AT ALL.” Beyond these themes, her art style stuns the senses. Drawing from an aesthetic of zines and collage art, she surgically stitches together archived and original material including laughing skeletons, glitched JPEG files, Lisa Frank bubblegum hellscapes, and tender poetry that dreams of butterfly wings amidst the disarray. Contrary to the critical disregard wrought by a reactionary gamer culture, Nathalie Lawhead’s work invites deeper critique.
These are the topics we discuss at the IGF Pavilion at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. Eyeing her station like a watchful lookout, she calmly observes as a steady stream of players filter in and out of her space. Amidst the commotion and spectacle of the many other neighboring games in competition, her station serves as a cozy sanctuary seemingly away from it all. A computer monitor sits alongside tea candles; fuzzy, pink, leopard print fabric; and the title framed by white roses that reassures passersby that everything is going to be ok. Stickers of joyful bunnies offering bubbly validation amidst scenes of self-destruction are scattered with labor union pamphlets close at hand. Nathalie and I chat in a quieter corner of the pavilion space, only to reconvene days after GDC to expand upon her thoughts on her own work and the broader game industry. We share thoughts on the importance of the alternative game scene, the necessity of forming a labor union for videogame developers, memories of Eastern Europe, her harrowing experiences overworked and exploited in mainstream game development, and her pivotal rediscovery of a more inclusive experimental game scene. Below is our interview (conducted over two days on March 23, 2018, and April 3, 2018), which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Firstly, can you introduce yourself? Where are you based, and what was your background prior to game development?
My name is Nathalie Lawhead, and I’m based in Irvine, in Orange County, California. My background is originally in Internet (net) art and interactive art, and people eventually started to call my work games. That’s how I happened to get into games, but I still don’t completely view myself as a game developer because my work is so different.
How did you get into net art? Why were you drawn to this scene?
My first project was released in 1999. I was still in high school when I was working on that, which is kind of funny because of how much it took off. People gave job offers to me… a high school student! That was cute. I was really passionate about the work, so when it was time for college, I ended up in the more traditional art area. Most of the professors were telling me that the Internet was going to destroy your creativity, and all those other old arguments. So I ended up leaving to pursue net art because it wasn’t being taught, and there was no point for me to be there anymore. I also pursued web development more professionally, so eventually, I got into games because what I was doing was very similar. People were calling my work games, and I had this big argument where I thought, “How dare you call my art a game!” Once you call something a game, it becomes associated with all this baggage and causes all sorts of confusion. If you don’t call it a game, people get it.
Where was that pushback coming from? People you knew, teachers, the industry?
It was coming from gamers. At the time, it was from the Something Awful crowd, which I guess turned into the 4chan crowd. My work was being really well received, and there was positive reaction in the more intelligent art sphere. It was amazing and blowing minds. People were like, “I’ve never seen anything like it!” When the Internet picked it up and called it a game, it caused this avalanche of reactions like, “What the hell? This is stupid! What am I supposed to do? I don’t get it! What, read? Who wants to read?” All that accumulated to outrage, which led to the typical harassment stuff. That was my first introduction to the games sphere. Once you start calling something a game, there’s this tension that it also has to entertain. This outrage didn’t really resolve, but the conversation just got more civil over time. But that was the pushback.
I read in a Gamasutra interview that you called the project from 1999 an “online interactive poetry project.” Can you tell us more about that? Where was it released?
Yeah, I was into animation and learning the animation of Disney, so it had this heavy, high-quality animated aspect to it. You explore these environments and trigger these completely animated sequences, so it’s like being inside of an animation. You also discover literature, and the words play out as you’re reading them. The idea was that instead of just reading a text, you experience the words and messages in an animated, highly interactive sense. This was released as a browser project.
“Once you start calling something a game, there’s this tension that it also has to entertain.”
I also really liked that in the interview, you likened it to a “walking simulator.” What were some of those similarities?
The people that were defending it called it “Meander Ware.” They were all like, “You just look around; you just explore.” I guess later on, the walking simulator became a term for anything where you just shut up and explore, walk around, and look at stuff. Where you don’t expect an enemy to encounter or something to solve.
And in 1999! That’s ahead of its time. I feel like we should call everything Meander Ware and not walking simulator.
I like the word because you just… meander!
I remembering while chatting at GDC, you mentioned living in Slovenia. What was the art game scene there like?
The scene was very behind, I think. It didn’t really have a strong games scene. Splinter Cell was the game people were playing, or whatever shooter stuff at the time. Any connection I had came from the web, so I basically lived there and had connection to more interesting art circles.
In a previous conversation, you also noted a zine culture in Europe, but it wasn’t called by that term. Can you explain that? What kind of content was being produced in this scene?
Yeah, the student publications. I grew up in Europe because of my dad’s work, so we travelled constantly. We never lived in a place longer than seven years. That was the maximum; usually, it was shorter. At one point, in Slovenia, I was into the whole student art and social commentary stuff, and it was very punk. Over there, it was called a different thing. We had what they called discos, but it’s more punk. The words are all different, but the attitude was the same. They met in this underground bunker that was used for the war, but the students cleared it out to use as a meeting area. They’d produce literature with anti-government, anti-capitalist content. It was like the self-printed zines here [in California]; they used staples, photocopiers, and cut and pasted things. And this punk-like student crowd influenced me with my work in terms of social commentary and standing for something.
So I got into this self-publishing scene, basically making zines. I did not know they were called that. In Europe, self-publishing was for student art or protest stuff. When I came here and discovered zine culture, I was like, “Oh my God, it has a name! And there’s people that are into that!” What always fascinated me was its personal aspect, the collage art style and how broken up it is, and all these different themes. That’s why I call Everything Is Going to be OK an interactive zine, because I feel that, in essence, the game fits as that. It’s personal, it’s human, it’s collaged together, it’s vignettes.
Because you call Everything Is Going to be OK an interactive zine rather than as a game, how would you describe your relationship to the gaming industry?
I did at one point try to get into the industry, and it was severely abusive and inhuman in terms of its treatment of myself and other creative people. In the end, I had such severe health issues. It was really bad circumstances. I basically see myself as games having rejected me, or the gaming industry having rejected me. I was not treated as a person when I worked there.
I somehow got back into it through Indiecade and the experimental games scene, and that’s where I feel like I belong. Tetrageddon got into Indiecade at E3 in 2012, which I thought was not possible because I thought games were a really abusive, male-dominated shitshow. It turned out that there’s a whole other, beautiful side of games that is supportive and interested in diversity. It has its own problems, but it’s much more different than what I was used to. So if I’m part of any game industry, I’m part of the experimental game crowd.
“There’s a whole other, beautiful side of games that is supportive and interested in diversity.”
In addition to making art, you also publish writing on the topic of game development and the pitfalls and trauma that is routinely faced on your own personal website. One of the recurring themes I found was this pushback by gamers in general towards any media that they consider “not a game.” Why do you think there’s this hesitation and even outright hostility here?
It’s an interesting discussion. I mean, it’s so much like what I’ve encountered with in my first project, except death threats aren’t so cool anymore, so they hold back on their more extreme creepiness. But the idea is like, “How dare this thing exist that doesn’t entertain me.” There’s criticism whenever there’s politics in games or hearing someone else’s message, because gamers think that games should be kept pure and only for entertainment’s sake. I think games are stuck in this limbo between entertainment and software. When software malfunctions, anger is directed to software creators, and they have the logic that the client is always right and that they should listen to their user base. Software has this mentality where you put up with all this shit and abuse because your end user is king. Games have this same mentality, but also the whole ideology that that should be kept pure without politics, emotions, and certainly not feminism. This is totally counter-productive to art, which is supposed to have a message and you can talk about things. Instead, there’s this consistent pushback whenever a game makes you feel or makes you uncomfortable. There’s a sense of entitlement and aggression when these reactions happen.
I noticed too in Everything is Going to be OK that you parody Let’s Play streamers with snippets of dismissive dialogue. They remind me of the segment on Jimmy Kimmel where celebrities read “Mean Tweets.” Were these quotes from real Let’s Plays?
[Laughs] At the beginning, I had this thing where I was trying to get money for its development, so I released an early access download on itch.io. People liked it, and this big Let’s Player found it—Vinesauce, or whatever his name is—and he played it. Some of his fans got pissed off at me because these people attract toxicity, and it goes everywhere. All of my games have had Let’s Players that say dismissive stuff, so others just copy what they say. It’s funny because that’s basically the critical dialogue you get for these types of games, specifically this super dismissive mock play as though they’re only playing it to make fun of it and not say anything constructive. That damages how these games are received because it becomes okay to hate on them that way.
And it’s awful too because it’s all monetized, so they make so much money off of basically destroying others’ work and being unconstructive.
[Laughs] They do. It’s funny to see. There’s this whole culture of hate that pays for itself too. I wrote this article (later republished on VentureBeat as: “YouTube culture is turning kids against art games”) about how Let’s Players and YouTubers are damaging how people view our games. That caused such an avalanche. Redditors and YouTubers made conspiracy theory videos against me, and what I found really fascinating watching this unfold was all the “Support Me on Patreon” links these people have. They make a living off of doing all that! It’s so weird.
It’s awful. And of course, after reading your thoughts on Day of the Devs and since we talked at the Indie Games Festival pavilion at GDC, what I thought was interesting is that there are these spaces for indie and art games, but they’re just grafted onto—or are extensions or additives to—the mainstream game industry. While there’s certainly some good will here, it almost feels like indie and art games are often an afterthought and not taken on its own merit. It’s almost like indie games are just a “stepping-stone” for people to get into the mainstream industry, which I find wrongheaded.
Yeah, that’s a good point. You go indie as a stepping-stone for being part of the mainstream industry, not as a reaction to the mainstream industry. I think there has to be some distinction made because I don’t want to be part of the mainstream industry. I don’t agree with it, I think it’s very abusive, and I think the healthy reaction would be to branch off of it. We have our own art game community, we have our own way of talking about these games, and it has its fan base. It’s ready to grow. But the industry tries to incorporate all that as a validation of how games are art now, and they wave that flag when it’s convenient, only to throw these games under the bus when it’s no longer. There’s this tension, and I don’t think it’s going to resolve as long as people try to cater to the mainstream. With IGF, what’s really interesting to see—I was there a few years ago, and it was very different to how it is today—I feel like it’s become a lot more mainstream, even in the games it validates. It validated the games that did well and had a better reaction on Steam or sold well. I think it did not reflect the games of 2017. It validated the games that everyone already agreed on. I think you’re going to keep seeing that as long as you have these events that are part of the AAA game scene. It’s not going to be resolved unless people put more focus on events like A MAZE. or Fantastic Arcade that are really honestly there to discover and provoke real, new things.
“Software has this mentality where you put up with all this shit and abuse because your end user is king. Games have this same mentality.”
This is the first time I had gone to GDC, so it was very eye-opening to see that huge tech corporation presence. I mean, I kind of expected it because it’s in San Francisco and the Bay Area, and there’s Google and Amazon and all that. But it’s very much like a recruitment event. It’s almost like, “Oh, hire me” or “Promote me” for whatever corporation like Amazon, Google, or Twitch, and all the pamphlets that they were handing out were very much for that hiring process, which I found very illuminating.
People come in thinking that they can work in games and make the next big hit, but it doesn’t work like that. You’ll come into games, and you’ll be a pixel pusher, a cog in the machine. You’re not going to make your games; you’re going to make a game that the structure agrees on making. That contributes a lot to the abuse. Really good, talented people are being used and burning out because the whole industry is structured in a way where it’ll use people up, spit them out, steal ideas, and the famous guy receives all the credit. It’s just a hierarchy, you know? The hope is in creating a counterculture where we talk about unions, where we disagree with how these games are made, and where we have our own solutions to it because it’s not going to change while it’s too convenient.
Can you talk about your experience when you worked in a more commercial, mainstream game development context? How was it working the cycle of “crunch”?
I came in pretty desperate because I thought, “This is my chance!” You hear about the baggage of being a woman, so you already have a lot to prove when entering the industry. I came in, and the first company wanted to hire me to do an alternate reality game (ARG). They had all sorts of big, important things to say about me and a lot of ass kissing to get you to sign, and once I signed, it was a year and a half or two years of crunching and working until one o’clock in the morning.
Yeah, really. It was bad. I’ll share ideas with one of the superiors, and they’ll turn around and act like they came up with that idea. It was constantly like that. And these are famous people in games. It became pretty clear that famous people in games are only famous because they take advantage of people, not because they’re the ones that are genius. They take advantage of good, intelligent people that work for them, but they’re not really capable of doing good things. By the end of that project, I was in the ambulance twice for being overworked. It was at that level. At the end, when they were sure they didn’t need me anymore, they fired me. They locked me out of all my emails and said they’re not going to pay because I ruined the project and put the company in jeopardy. This whole blame game. And then the project ended up being widely written about in places like The Guardian. So it wasn’t a failure, but they wanted to have all the credit for it. I didn’t even get mentioned, as though my work there didn’t even exist. Another guy that worked there also approached me—he was also a popular, famous game developer with big connections and all that—and the exact same thing happened again, except I worked even harder [laughs]. So there’s that pattern, right? The big, important people are big and important because they take advantage of the new talent that are super star struck and eager to work.
The one thing I warn people about is, “Don’t be star struck; don’t be eager to work there. If you have passion, save your passion for yourself and your own projects. When you work for people like that, you just do the work, that’s all.” There’s no accountability here. Maybe at this point, if I speak up, they might get in trouble because I’m someone you listen to now, but at that time, I was nobody. I mean, who would have taken me seriously? They would see me as just angry they fired me or whatever. But that’s how that works. The new people, they come in and don’t matter. As a famous game developer, you can do whatever you want to them. It’s a little bit worse than Hollywood in that women or anyone marginalized does not matter. They’re totally expendable. And they say, “You don’t need a union.” But no, this has to change. It’s unsustainable.
“We have our own art game community, we have our own way of talking about these games, and it has its fan base. It’s ready to grow.”
That was really eye-opening, especially the long hours and the ambulance. That’s really scary. What were those hours like? Was it consistent late night work, or did that happen towards the end when deadlines were approaching?
It was consistent. I stayed in Canada for the first project. I’d work when I came home, or I’d come in on the weekends and work in the office when no one was there. That was a little bit more civil because I actually had a place that I could go back to and sleep. There was a little bit of a separation between work and rest. For the second project, I worked from home, so I basically slept at my computer. I’d get three hours of sleep every few days. It was bad and not healthy at all. I was desperate because I thought that’s the only way I could make it, so I’ll do what I needed to do. They were extremely sexist too. There were painfully sexist, hazing behaviors.
I really honestly think that when you see big, important names in games, you should be careful. Half the time, they aren’t nice people. They’re people that are probably good at taking advantage of others. I feel like we’ve probably lost a lot of amazing talent to these power structures. To me, the alternative game scene that pushes art games—itch.io, Game Jolt, etc.—that’s where the future is. They can actually make a living by bypassing all this. I mean, who makes a living off games anymore? But still, it’s better than the other option. This alternative game scene is where we’ll get healing and positive, constructive conversations. The people that I worked for, they don’t give a shit. It’s an established power structure with huge egos, and they’ll use what they can to make their egos even bigger. It works for them, you know? So that’s not going to change. I really don’t think you can change the industry from the inside.
I think most people are not very cognizant of the labor that goes into making videogames, and I noticed in the IGF Pavilion at GDC that you had flyers supporting the creation of a union. There have been inklings of that forming over the past year. Can you share more about your thoughts on the unionization of videogame developers?
I think it’s absolutely important. I think what happens to game developers is wrong. It’s inexcusable, vampiric, and, immoral. It should be a crime. It should be something that you sue people over. The fact that you put a signature on a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and you can’t even talk about it, new people who are eager and just getting into games will take all sorts of abuse because they’re under the impression that this is what it takes. They will burn out. This is why videogames do not have a history. Everyone burns out too fast, so it’s constantly in a reiterative cycle of repeating itself when new talent comes in and leaves. If we were protected from that, we would have a history. We would be able to have veterans in addition to new people. And actually the veterans who are here [at GDC] are abusive. We would have a much more welcoming industry, and I would swear we would not have trouble with women getting in. Whatever hostility male newcomers get, women will get that much more severely. You can’t talk about it because of NDAs. Thus, the videogame industry is structured to be abusive, and it’s structured not to fix itself because it serves the interests and the needs of people making money. So there’s no interest in changing an abusive work environment because they’re already bad people. If there were something like a union in check, this would be fixed and we would have much better games.
“The hope is in creating a counterculture where we talk about unions, where we disagree with how these games are made, and where we have our own solutions to it because it’s not going to change while it’s too convenient.”
How important was it for you to enter spaces like Indiecade or even here like IGF? You briefly talked about it before, but what did these kinds of spaces offer you that you weren’t quite seeing elsewhere?
Really honesty and openly, at the time when I got done with my experience in the game industry, I was so dehumanized and worn out. I thought, “I have no future. I’ve tried everything to make a living for myself, and I am good.” I worked on two projects where they basically worked me to death, and in the end, they didn’t want to pay and fired me while taking all the credit. I was feeling at the end of myself from a long history of nonstop work and being attacked and yelled at. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to pour in everything that I poured into that, into myself.” If that didn’t work out, I was ready just to die. I didn’t have a future. Tetrageddon gets into Indiecade, and it changed how I viewed myself and my work. In a way, it kind of saved my life, because I was so done. Seeing that there is a community where people are supportive and capable of love and being human and not vampiric… that’s what it means to me.
I think the emotional complexity and a lot of the themes that emerge in Everything is Going to be OK are part of these ideas. What I thought was really interesting was this issue of power. In your artist’s statement that accompanies the game, you call it your “own version of a power-fantasy,” which I found very provocative and insightful. What did that term “power-fantasy” mean for you here?
When we talk about games’ power fantasy, it typically means that the character you’re playing has the gun and saves the day, and I feel that that’s very counter-productive to real life. In reality, you should not have a gun, you’re not going to save the day, and you’re barely going to survive if at all. I wanted to turn that around and recognize that being powerful is just getting by, being able to survive, going on even if you’ve lost everything, and rolling with life’s punches and somehow managing. Failure is powerful, and dignified failure is powerful. Reflecting that in a game is really important, especially with the common idea that players expect to win. I wanted to turn that around and go, “No, you’re not going to win, but you’re going to survive.” I don’t think our Western view of winning and saving the day is healthy, and I think it creates a lot of shame and oppresses victims, as though you should be ashamed of failure instead of being proud that you managed to get through it intact.
These are personal life stories, and I really wanted to talk about these topics. I thought that if I’m going to make anything, and if this were my last project, I would be proud of this having said what I said in it. The game involves my personal experiences of sexism, abuse, and trying to navigate erasure and being seen as less of a person because I’m a woman. This is a very long time, well over ten years of stuff I thought I could contextualize and talk about. There’s this veil of shame placed over survivors, and I don’t like that none of us are able to talk about our experiences. I did abstract the topic though, so it’s not about a woman and her experiences specifically. It could also be about anything, because trauma and injustice isn’t strictly gender-based. It’s evil, and it’s going to find anything to exist. It’s that behavior that I wanted to talk about and that power structure, so that’s why it exists in the game.
“It became pretty clear that famous people in games are only famous because they take advantage of people.”
What I found particularly insightful was your comment in that Gamasutra interview that during E3, people found the cartoon violence too unpleasant even though there were very prominent screens throughout the convention showing photorealistic depictions of human violence. And as you say, “If you are asked to experience violence from the view of a victim, on a much more emotionally realistic level, where you are just surviving… somehow that makes it too graphic.” I thought that was the key difference. Can you talk about that more? Why do games and gamers struggle with these specific kinds of violence over others?
You can’t separate the emotional toll from violence. I think it’s immoral to remove the emotional impact of that kind of abuse. Otherwise, you’re taking violence, putting it on a pedestal, and saying, “This is the solution. It’s amazing, and this is how you solve your problems.” I’m not about ready to get into the whole area of “games cause violence,” but the way we view violence as a solution is what creates a lot of these problems. So if we can own that conversation and talk about what violence is and the effect it has on victims—what it’s like to live with violence, get through it, and reclaim your power afterwards—I feel like that’s constructive and something I really wanted to do.
It was really interesting to see because a lot of people thought Everything is Going to be OK was too much. It’s weird because they just finished playing a game where you shoot people in the face, and now they’re playing something that talks about how it feels having that violence done to you. The reactions at IGF showed me why a lot of people attacked me for it. One guy—a “guy guy,” a total bro—was playing and said, “Wow, this really opened my eyes. I feel so bad about some of the things I used to do to people.” He felt bad about how he treated some people, and he was like, “I have to talk to a few people and apologize, I had no idea.” He didn’t react aggressively like most people do when they feel called out. I feel like that that is why games like this get attacked so much because they raise the discussion and talk about the real impact of abuse, and people feel called out.
That’s a really great anecdote. While that guy realized he was complicit in perpetuating bad things, he ended up having a more positive or constructive reaction to it rather than just dismissing it outright. I’m glad you were there to witness that. Moreover, I also really like the macabre sense of humor throughout your game, as though laughing in the face of despair. It reminds me of that comic with the dog sitting in a room on fire going, “This is fine.”
Can you talk about your use of humor in the game, why you selected this specific tone?
Humor is probably the one way where you can reclaim your power, raise your humanity, and heal, because if you can laugh at that, you’ve already taken charge of how you react. It’s a sign that things haven’t completely destroyed you. If you can use humor in a way to shed light on these issues and get people to laugh at the traumas they’ve been through, you’ve already opened the pathway towards healing. One person emailed me thanking me for saying that it’s the first time they’ve ever been able to laugh at their trigger. Right there, that’s what humor does. That’s a constructive use of humor, and that’s why humor exists: so you can laugh at something that has power over you for your whole life and finally be free from it and confront it in a way where it’s not intimidating anymore.
For me, a big, eye-opening time was when I lived in Eastern Europe. I was living in a big place, basically a slum. When it rained outside, it rained inside. The whole building was falling apart. The guy downstairs had this bar or brothel; there were drug addicts and alcoholics. One night, they were fighting really violently about the price of potatoes in Croatia. It was a really angry fight over something as stupid as potatoes, and I ended up totally laughing hard at the whole scenario. It was perfect. If this were in a theater, it would be an amazing dark comedy. This would be beautiful Balkan cinema. But in real life, you cry. So why? What’s the distinction here? If you see it outside of your situation, you can laugh at it. But if you’re in it, it somehow has some kind of power over you. If you use humor, you can remind people, “No! You can laugh at it now. It has no power over you, and you can survive it too because you can laugh at it.” So that’s how I wanted to approach it.
“This is why videogames do not have a history. Everyone burns out too fast, so it’s constantly in a reiterative cycle of repeating itself when new talent comes in and leaves.”
I’m glad you mention all this because it supports some of the thoughts I had while playing the game, that this is ultimately a game about empathy. So many of the things you do are about helping yourself and others, such as offering validation to friends, helping another to cook a meal, etc. How important was it for you to include these themes and issues?
There are a few tasks to lighten the mood, like the bot that asks you to fill out the questionnaire. That’s more just for the silliness, breaking up the seriousness of the game. Other instances go in a more serious direction, like the one where you’re cut in half and you navigate social media to get a certain amount of friends. When you reach a thousand friends, you’ve “made it,” even though you’re still cut in half. There are a few where the metaphor was really important because I feel like a lot of people are going through these situations. And then there are a few where I couldn’t really make it funny because it would not do justice to the message, like the one where the bunny gets impaled and is sliding down the spike of grass, and you have to listen to its whole self-doubt cycle. I’ve been there so many times, and I know other people have, so there’s a few that had to be in there, and there’s a handful that break up that seriousness.
In addition to all this, there’s a sense of how computing is deeply and intimately tied to our memories. How the files we accumulate, such as JPEG or MP3 files, are part of the ways we can make intimate these machines. Can you talk more about your thoughts on computers, memory, and personalization?
Computers are a place where a personal history lives, and they are an environment. We live on computers, basically, especially when we work. It’s where your personality lives, your friendships, the writing you don’t want to show anyone. It’s your personal life there. So it’s a fascinating thing to use because it’s a place where people automatically and intuitively know how it works and how things react. There’s not much of a learning curve because it’s a common agreement that when you click “minimize,” things minimize, and when you open an icon, something opens. I think it’s an interesting thing to rework and re-contextualize as a personality. It’s human, it has a story, and there are lots of stories in there.
I feel like not enough people admit that or use that in their work, and I think that if you do, it can become something very profound because it’s a very personal environment. Everything is Going to be OK is structured in such a way where you can’t really tell where your computer starts and where the game stops, and that’s why a lot of people accidentally tweet out the things because they’re not too sure if that’s the browser or the game. Then, taking these fragments from the game and saving it on your computer blurs the line even more. The game really did happen and memories of it are still here, on your computer. With this new update, there’s a fake operating system (OS) and desktop where you uncover some of my writing, just to push the idea further that computers are an environment and a space where your personality exists.
Was the game using stock footage or sounds? Did you have to go through the archives?
“No, you’re not going to win, but you’re going to survive.”
When you were going through the archives, were you looking for any kinds of images or material in particular?
Sometimes. There are some instances where I wanted a person, or some dumb kid, or a robot bashing two people together. You have these weird 1950s advertisements that are just bizarre. If it’s weird or funny because it’s so dumb, I save it. It’s hard when you’re working with public domain footage because you can’t really go out looking for a specific thing because you’re going to get a lot of random stuff. So you have to remember what you have and figure out where it might fit.
Because you were coming from this arts background and don’t strive to work within the mainstream game industry, what was your relationship with videogames on a more personal level? Did you play videogames in your free time? Do you have any particular videogame memories from years ago?
Yeah, I mean, who hasn’t grown up playing games [laughs]? Everyone falls in love with being in a place and experiencing something with which to interact. For me, there was this old adventure game called The Bizarre Adventures of Woodruff and the Schnibble. It has this really strange story, and you experience its weird world. There’s something to say about the feeling you get. I don’t see my work as making games. I see it as making interactive art, but I do draw from the same feelings of wanting to put a person in something and to feel and experience it. I think that the alternative and art game scene today, people really owned the idea that this is a game and pushing for that. There’s a lot of amazing work from queer people about coming out or queer identity, and I think that’s really profound and beautiful. It recognizes the conversation that games can allow and pushes it to a whole new level by putting you in someone else’s shoes and making you experience someone’s feelings and life. It’s powerful, and that emotional complexity is what I want to do.
Moving forward, what have you learned from the development of Everything is Going to be OK, Tetrageddon, and all the other things you’ve made, that you’re bringing with you in your future work?
With Tetrageddon, I pulled back a lot on the meaning, personal messages, or political and feminist commentary. I didn’t really include a lot of that because the first project received such an angry reaction from gamers, and I thought that if I wanted to make something, I should probably pull back and make something more fun and entertaining. With Everything is Going to be OK, I went back to what I consider my normal direction by incorporating personal messages and politics, and I want to keep that as I move forward. Saying something with your work is definitely something I want to continue even though it’s scary and aggression can be off-putting, but it’s important to keep pushing in games. One day these voices will be normalized, and not attacked.