Content warning: Anxiety, depression, addiction, suicide.
Creepypastas are a relic of an age of the internet long past. In the early-2000’s you’d find posts on image boards and forums about people whose games had glitched in strange ways and, in some instances, turned into full-blown hauntings. Some golden-age examples include “Lavender Town Syndrome”, in which the frequency of music in the original Pokemon games drove children playing them to extreme actions such as suicide. Another, more story-formatted creepypasta was “BEN Drowned”, a story in which a young man finds a copy of Majora’s Mask at a garage sale and, after playing it for a bit, finds that a hostile spirit is within the game.
While both of these stories, and many like them, are obviously fake, this genre of horror story was highly influential on the internet, especially to those of us youngins browsing paranormal boards at late hours. I remember reading the BEN Drowned story as it unfolded, much in the same way I followed Slenderman and Marble Hornets when they were first coming into the foreground. It’s silly to think about now, but much like rumors of using special moves on innocuous areas of a map to find secrets would spread around the cafeteria, so would these internet ghost stories, and many have become codified as internet legends and lore at this point.
We’re not really in an era where this kind of ghost story comes to fruition and cements itself in the wider “internet lore”, but we are in an era of endless experimental games with all sorts of inspirations and themes. One such experimental title, OK/NORMAL, aims to invoke the same feelings of gaming-centric creepypastas from the old age of the internet.
OK/NORMAL is a game created by Toni, the person behind the mask of the 98DEMAKE YouTube channel. Despite how short the game is, it’s decidedly dark and conveys the more grim, frustrating sides of things like depression and addiction in a way that other games focused on the same topics don’t- by actively aiming to bore, antagonize, and frustrate the player. The trick here, is that it does so without ever becoming so frustrating that the player stops playing.
After playing through this less-than-an-hour-long experience I was left with a handful of ideas about the game’s themes and a bigger handful of questions about the process behind its design. After all, there had to be a reason to release a game like this. It was too polished in parts for the drawn-out and frustrating sections to be anything but intentional.
So, I reached out to Toni to ask some questions about its design and the history behind his projects.
OK/NORMAL isn’t the first game project that Toni worked on. Before this, Toni had a project called BVOID on Kickstarter, but when the project failed to get funded Toni “decided to look into creating something smaller and more linear, with a similar aesthetic, and that's how OK/NORMAL got its start.”
Like with BVOID, OK/NORMAL maintained LSD: Dream Emulator as its biggest inspiration, but also pulled in influence from “obscure Japanese PS1 games, in addition to having a little bit of Kula World and Kurushi thrown in.”
“The goal was to create something new and unique. Something that feels and looks like a lost PlayStation game you'd find creepypastas about.”
When looking at the various games Toni pointed to as influences for OK/NORMAL, it’s easy to see how the general creepypasta feel for OK/NORMAL was pieced together. While these games are varying levels of obscure, many of them have cult followings on estranged corners of the modern internet, and I’ve heard of a few of them at least in passing.
A quick look-up of Garage: Bad Dream Adventure and Eastern Mind: The Lost Souls of Tong Nou and you can see a lot of stylistic and atmospheric influences that were applied to OK/NORMAL. Strange, abstract environments, weird combinations of color, the general low-res nature of older software, it all feels like looking into a ghost story, and all of these aspects are present in OK/NORMAL and spread through its handful of levels.
There’s more to OK/NORMAL than its aesthetic-driven horror, though. When discussing the effects the vaporwave aesthetic had on the horror, Toni said, well, “I'm not even sure it really is a horror game — more of a bizarre, oppressing experiment.”
Being an oppressive experiment is a pretty on-point way to describe OK/NORMAL. It certainly has horror, and it’s certainly a game, but the nature of its horror is different than that of a traditional horror title. There’s only one level in which a creature is hunting you down, there are only a couple of stages that actually have failure states, and, really, when you look at it- there’s nothing in the majority if the game to actually be afraid of.
And that’s where its themes come into play. Toni wanted to experiment with the player feeling frustrated and lost, and this is made to work through OK/NORMAL’s themes of depression, anxiety, and addiction. In addition to imagery of pills, needles, and a friendly cloud telling you to “eat right and take your medicine”, Toni made use of darkness, an optional (but enticingly useful) first-person camera, dread-inducing soundscapes, and most importantly: slow, mundane gameplay.
“Depression, anxiety and addiction are the main themes I had in mind, and I wanted the game to reflect that through the mundane and boring gameplay.
You're not really having fun, you're just kinda pushing forward.
Having been dealing with depression and anxiety for most of my adult life, the themes pretty much just stem from my own experiences.”
Creating a game to be intentionally-frustrating without driving players to quit is an understandably difficult task, and the balance is incredibly hard to strike. Despite my interest in the project, there were two points in particular where I asked myself why I was playing, and almost shut the game off. I’m glad I didn’t, because OK/NORMAL has solidified its place in a list of the most interesting games I’ve played this year.
Originally, the game was going to have more levels, but “but given the oppressing atmosphere and the monotonous gameplay, I figured what it has now is more than enough.” The game was also initially far more cruel on the player, but after some feedback Toni toned it down, and even then it wasn’t enough- “After release, due to people spending up to 2-3 hours on a game that was intended as a 30-60 minute game, I had to tone it down again.”
After the tweaks to balance, player response has been relatively in-line with Toni’s expectations. “Some people absolutely love it, some people feel it's trying too hard and is just another shitty art game. To be honest I expected the latter crowd to be a far larger one, but as you can see from the Steam reviews, majority of people did like it!”
Since the release of OK/NORMAL, Toni’s released another experimental game, September 1999 on both ItchIO and Steam. A single playthrough lasts 5 minutes and tells a very interesting story while continuing Toni’s path of toying with ways to convey horror, mystery, and discovery.
OK/NORMAL is a shining example of pushing the boundaries of the emotions we allow ourselves to invoke in players throughout our games, and how we do it. The thing to remember about player frustration is that while being frustrated with events or characters in a story is easy to move past, creating gameplay that’s intentionally frustrating to a player is like playing with fireworks. Too frustrating and they’ll quit, but not irritating enough and your theme will completely fail to get across. Striking a balance takes time, effort, and testing, but when it lands, the themes land along with it.