I’m sorry if you were expecting a more eloquent procedure towards that conclusion, a literary handjob towards the climax, but listen. Despite – no, I’m sorry – because of tank controls that handle like a Panzer on ice, nauseating graphics, and “music” that more closely resembles the brown note than anything humanly palatable, this game transcends simply being a game. Simply put, it is of paramount importance that after you have read this piece, you immediately go to Steam and put down your money for OK/NORMAL.
Other games will merely draw from or explicate experiences of depression to punctuate their game; Silent Hill 2 has always been best categorised by the deep and penetrating fog looming over the lakeside town, metaphorical for depression. OK/NORMAL is like living within depression, and playing it feels like immersion in ice-cold water, where you will feel nothing but emptiness and shock, vibrating through your skin like a masochistic pulse.
The game is constructed through a dozen or so vignettes which are heavily detached from reality. You play as a marble statue traversing checkerboard backgrounds draped in fluorescent colours, floating in space as odd cuboids and disembodied eyes and hands waltz around you listlessly. Everything feels like an odd fever dream, and this is only enhanced by the “inferior” features alluded to in the introduction. You’re the statue, and you can only move with horridly clunky tank controls, but this makes perfect sense, it feels like shambling through life under the haze of depression, only able to mindlessly take your medicine, water, or food. There is no free will, or sense of identity for you. You are a slab of stone, a relic of the Ancient Era in a post-modern world. You don’t fit and you’re constantly questioning yourself for being here. This is the beginning of a series of revelations while playing OK/NORMAL, a pinprick leading up to a cold bliss of awareness.
The technicolour “dreamworld” that you get to inhabit is equally important. Just as it sets a benchmark in the field of post-modern games (by the concept of “the truth you understand as universal is not”), it sets the tone for the title at large; simply, that you occupy space – not even live, but occupy space – in a world that isn’t even inherently human to you any more. The music, to that end, is fairly spartan, hitting the ear as harsh and industrial, intended to inspire a sense of discomfort and the idea that you really shouldn’t be wherever you are. The cocktail is deadly.
However, the sum of the game’s parts is also hugely important. A less inspiring review will likely note that the controls don’t work, that the game looks weird, that the music is broken, and that the short run time of about 45 minutes is an insult. They simply will not grasp that this transcends what it means to be a game, that it breaks every convention of what “works” in a game, and rebuilds it in its own image to create something much stronger than entertainment; OK/NORMAL is art. It shows its artistic merit in that revokes how a video game “should” work to simply provide the creator’s representation of depression that works, “game-ness” be damned. The bold direction and psychedelic trip that the rest of the game provides is just the icing on top of the existential cake.
It seems cruel to tarry OK/NORMAL with the label “game” when it’s not quite a succinct summation of everything it does well. If anything, when it starts to indulge in too many “game” tropes, it starts to let itself down. The experience divides itself into twelve or so levels which are more like dream sequences, with no sort of game-esque objectives or overlays. You are instead asked to find the exit to each level with the only obstacle in some being to eat enough food or take enough medicine. What this feels like is a test of endurance, in that you’re trying to outlast your nightmares, your own brain, and make it through the night. You don’t win OK/NORMAL, either, you just live, and that’s exactly the feeling that those with mental health illness might endure and coldly embrace, which is enough to prolong that cold, dark feeling rising up from the pit of your soul.
The logical end is freedom, and I felt a certain peace flying through the final vignette. I will say no more, as it needs to be experienced, but after how the game made me feel so cold, so trapped, the final segment was like letting go, and I’m not yet convinced if it was in a good or bad way.
Play this game. Play this game. PLAY THIS FUCKING GAME. I will say it enough times as necessary for it to sink in. Pain demands to be felt, and I have never come across a piece of software – because the “G-word” doesn’t even do it justice even though it technically is one – as painful, as real, as equally demanding of both things than OK/NORMAL. It wants your blood, your pound of flesh, and it craves the smell of fear – once you give yourself to OK/NORMAL, allow yourself to be hurt by it, to be afraid, to lose yourself in its sense of depression, you will truly understand, and the experience becomes a vital one. OK/NORMAL is a pure masterclass in emotional storytelling, in “less is more”, in pure visual interactive art. I know 98DEMAKE might be focused on his YouTube career, but if he continues to make games like this, we’ll be a luckier, more understanding, more compassionate people. This is what depression feels like. Play this and realise you aren’t alone, play this and realise everyone is more human than you want to admit.
VERDICT: Play this game. Play this game. PLAY THIS FUCKING GAME. OK/NORMAL is a truly transformative experience that will alter how you perceive the medium of video games at large. Yes, it’s that important.