Last Updated on March 10, 2021
OK/NORMAL is a lo-fi experience by 98DEMAKE, an independent solo developer known for making PSX and VHS horrors for the computer. I am familiar with this scene of solo development, where fanatics of the 90s J-Horror video game renaissance vie to make their own tribute or create a universal revival, but I’ve never actually had the chance to play one.
OK/NORMAL is my first venture into the genre, I discovered it by pure coincidence through a retweet on Twitter. I saw the price tag, length, and graphics, and decided I would give it a quick spin during the holidays. I didn’t expect much from the game. At first, I thought it was just going to be a quick scroller with some memes here and there.
My Cursed N64
Despite the graphics of OK/NORMAL being primarily associated with PSX, one of the first throwbacks you see is a wavy tile flooring, reminiscent of the various platformer games on the N64, such as Glover. The home screen and various levels use the checkered flooring as the player’s playground, even the control help menu has N64 button icons. The game mechanics are much like Glover, except you, who takes upon the body of a forsaken heavenly figure, doesn’t need a ball for transportation. The screen dimensions of OK/NORMAL are cut with a blurred overlay covering the rest of the surface to make it feel like you are gaming on one of those small, black Sony TVs back in 1999.
But this one N64 cartridge seems wrong. The colors are not a part of the warm and vibrant palettes you would see in Super Mario 64 nor in Banjo Kazooie. Intense purples, reds, and blues filters, tiling, and orbs plague your eyes, with occasional films of whiteness and waterfalls of sky blues. There’s a warning for blinking and flickering lights. Your companion is a cloud who speaks like an Animal Crossing villager thrown down a well, with Silent Hill font style subtitles as its interpreter. You can’t even tell who you are at first. But it seems like you’re a Roman angel statue?
If this game were to appear on your childhood shelf, you’d want your parents to return it. If it were me though, I would’ve assumed Mom bought a bugged knockoff of Glover from an eBay seller.
Eat Ramen Then Take Your Meds
OK/NORMAL is actually quite a lot like its platformer ancestors. All you have to do is slide across the tiles, jump on platforms, and collect bowls of ramen and stray pills. When you fulfill the comfort limit, a cylinder blue beam takes you to the next stage. If it’s red, you didn’t consume enough pills and ramen. On occasion, you have to escape from nightmares such as a floating pink head with raging eyes of blue fire and the howls of oblivion as the omniscient camera decides to switch perspectives and you can no longer collect comfort items.
OK/NORMAL is not really a difficult game to play. But don’t be like me and not fully read the instructions, because you will spend some time complaining about how slow the statue is, and then realize you can dash during one of the last levels of the game. Since OK/NORMAL is intended to function like an N64 game, you will have to endure the misfortune of craning the model in the right direction before moving forward, a type of movement I often considered the bane of retro gaming. I fell plenty of times and I even got the Steam achievement for jumping in the abyss unintentionally as the cloud floats around and disparages me.
In OK/NORMAL, you’re not really sure what’s happening. You’re a statue and the cloud is your shepherd, who’s really bad at giving directions by the time you hit the 5th or 6th level. It gives you a tutorial for the first couple of stages, then eventually tells you that you should’ve completed a stage by a certain time, despite only being there for just a moment. It warns you not to get too intimate with horrifying, floating creatures with no name origin. And it wants you to merely fill yourself with noodles and pills to get the traveling done.
From the surface of the story, you know that OK/NORMAL is about being in hell. As you go through the game, our cloud friend tells you that we are almost “there”, which means that “there” is revealed to be nothing more than white walls and a sky blue sea of pixelated water. But the player doesn’t know how they got into this nominal space, all they know is that they must leave. Hell is depression and mental illness. This game doesn’t tell you this though. But pills and instant ramen is a fairly typical diet of the depressed millennial.
You could say OK/NORMAL is a satire of moving on and escaping the existential tunnel or that it is about the journey to our finale before we’re finally full of our macabre obsession with death and suffering. The horror story of OK/NORMAL is that there are many questions but the answer is not enough. The relief of escape leaves with the desire to return for one more glance.
OK/NORMAL is a contribution to the vaporwave genre, as cliche as it is to say this. But the art movement didn’t end in the mid-2010s. It continues on in the niche corners of narrative adventure and platformer games. As long as solo developers lovingly create beautifully disastrous lo-fi models, vaporwave aesthetics will always haunt it.
But OK/NORMAL doesn’t take itself too seriously. And it wants to be just what it is, a visually ghastly game that doesn’t try too hard. Even the soundtrack is drones and muffled beats, mechanically suppressed by a filter or plug-in. However, I was honestly too busy trying not to fall off the stage to pay attention to the music.
I haven’t explored 98Demake’s other creations yet. But I did enjoy the 40 minute ride of OK/NORMAL. I think if he decided to make a physical cart with additional levels, I would consider getting one or giving it to a friend. But it isn’t a game I’d recommend for hardcore players of the genre who are greedy for longer games or want traditional story telling. I find OK/NORMAL to be beautifully chaotic though, and it serves its purpose as a glitched traumatized piece of data ready to be discovered.
Wei Yuan Lee is a interactive fiction writer and game dev. He enjoys spooky interactive fiction, quirky platformers and RPGmaker games. He checks Itch.io religiously.