Vintage Windows GUIs in Everything is going to be OK

Nathalie Lawhead’s Everything is going to be OK is an “interactive zine” that explores trauma and healing; it feels intensely personal yet unflinchingly hilarious. I think it’s a special and important work which rewards close examination.

An aspect of the work I haven’t seen discussed though is the extensive use of different Windows GUI elements from the ‘80s and ‘90s. I was impressed with how deliberate and studied these references are. Rather than the casual and vaguely Windows 95-like look of some ‘vaporware’ games, Everything is going to be OK is extremely precise in appropriating from over a decade and half of different Windows interfaces. I’d like to show the sources for these design choices and examine how they’re used in the game.

Windows 1.0

The first version of Windows isn’t well remembered because it was largely a flop back in 1985. Ironically given its name, it’s actually a tiled GUI, not a true windowed one (the windows can’t overlap). Windows 1.0 has a jaunty default color scheme that admittedly would’ve looked more muted on a contemporary CRT, but it now looks lovably garish with its mix of pastels and high contrast colors. We can see this color scheme and layout in Everything is going to be OK’s unlockable calendar, which reproduces this interface very clearly:

Though the calendar is the most overt reproduction, Everything is going to be OK prominently uses Window 1.0 style formatting throughout the experience. Windows 1.0 icons are used frequently; the crisp disk image icon is used to indicate saving your work in many parts of the game, even being mixed with other menu styles. Many of the interactive menus and prompts are directly modeled on Windows 1.0 as well:

Left: In-game menus. Right: Actual Windows 1.0

With those pleasant rounded corner buttons, you could certainly be forgiven for mistaking this style for the early Macintosh! Windows 1.0 took a lot of “inspiration” from the Macintosh GUI. Which, fair play I guess, since Apple had in turn lifted most of it from XEROX in the first place.

Some of the game’s homages are quite deep cuts. The icon used when you’ve finished painting in Page 13 is not the painter’s palette of 1.0’s PAINT.EXE, but the one from Micrografx’s vector drawing program, for instance. Or while the in-game unlockable fish aquarium is styled in a late 90s screensaver aesthetic, it is a clear reference to this cute FISH.EXE software toy (2.0 version pictured):

Windows 95

This was the first version of the operating system to have widespread mainstream success, and the famous look of Windows 95 is practically an aesthetic unto itself at this point. Everything is going to be OK uses a number of stylistic references to this famous interface, although less than you might expect. It replicates the famous error message (with Windows XP’s gradient shaded red X), both as interactive prompts, and as a static imperative during a few pages’ opening cutscenes:

On Page 12, the terrible life events you endure are, appropriately enough, modeled on the Windows 95 version of Internet Explorer:

Lastly, the game employs a Windows 95 reference so deft that it must rank as one of the greatest stealth puns ever conceived. On Page 23, two bunnies plummet endlessly to their deaths, and during the fall you can document their story after they “collide with a word processor”:

But that is not what Notepad on Windows 95 looked like! Or, not exactly. Notepad is the clear referent functionally, but the real program lacks that prominent embossed border encircling the text:

Instead, that border is lifted from a different application. It’s from the command line prompt of the networking tool HyperTerminal:

Terminal. While you’re falling to your death. Amazing! I strongly feel that the inclusion of this element alone elevates Everything is going to be OK into the sublime.

MS-DOS

The game also makes frequent use of the interactive menus from MS-DOS, the command line operating system that ran (and later, was incorporated into, and then ultimately phased out of) the Windows GUI. DOS could only render a textual character set, which could be formatted in a way to mimic a graphic interface. It’s technically a TUI, since its only drawing text. For example, the frequently used drop shadow effect is just an offset line of black square characters.

DOS styled windows are a pragmatic choice for prompts and interrupts. The various Windows GUIs lack a clear analog because the prompts of those systems are themselves interactable windows. Using DOS allows for bold, stark prompts that don’t mislead the player into thinking they’re clickable.

DOS prompts also frequently appear at the end of a page as an interactive menu, typically acting as the exit point for a given page. While Everything is going to be OK typically employs Windows 1.0 or 95 GUI menus for user input at the beginning and middle of a page, the ending is often a DOS one. Each page essentially “quits to DOS” for your last interaction with them.

Historical DOS programs largely needed to write their own menu systems, so there was no single “DOS-style”, outside a few common standards. So any given program might render a menu in slightly different ways. Everything is going to be OK simulates this as well, with slightly different border styles among its many DOS-style prompts. Some of these are common, but others are traceable to particular programs. For example, Page 1’s exit prompt mimics the border style of the Borland family of C++ IDEs (note the green square element in the top left):

Other Operating Systems

There are a few other scattered references as well. Windows 3.1 is used only in a few rare instances. While important historically, aesthetically it’s a sort of midway between Windows 1.0 and 95. A few of the icons used in game seem to be lifted from there.

Additionally, although Lawhead primarily restricts herself to systems from the 90s and earlier, the (in)famous balloon warning pop-up from Windows XP is employed a couple times:

And lastly, there’s a possible errant reference to the Macintosh System Software. Players can unlock a program which gives you access to a Twitch-like chat stream, which produces only a torrent of abuse and ridicule. The program is presented in the stark monochrome of the early Macintosh OS. The bar is vertically oriented, but uses the same striping:

It’s one of the only visual elements not from early Microsoft, and I think this divergence is intentional. It makes this window feel like an interloper; though similar in function to other mini unlockable windows, the aberrant visual style makes this one feel like something that does not belong. Like the uncaring content it contains, it is imposed onto your fictional desktop.

(updated 12/14/2017) Responding on Twitter, Nathalie Lawhead confirmed the intentional break to Macintosh styling for this part of the game:

Devil in the Details

I wanted to outline all of the above because the detail and volume of these visual references strike me as quite deliberate. The game has a jarring and off-putting aesthetic which is frequently commented upon. But I think the appearance of being rough belies an underlying intentionality. Or, to put it another way, it takes a lot of work to make it look like you don’t care like this.

Similarly, this anachronistic collage of PC interfaces isn’t accidental, but a design choice that is tied into the themes of the work. The use of specific interface elements highlights the intermediation of the game itself; it underscores the fact that you are playing a digital game. When we play games, both in the present and in the period referenced, operating system elements disappear when the game launches, hiding the familiar interface to immerse us. But Everything is Going to be Okay does the opposite. The game is an assemblage of jarring GUIs in order to draw our attention to the artificiality of digital play.

This specificity is noticeable, because when Everything is going to be OK references contemporary internet culture, it does so obliquely: the generic friends icon featured in a few pages calls to mind an interaction like Facebook or Twitter, but in an indirect way. I think this is intentional, and it’s no mistake that it’s specifically 90s Windows user interfaces that highlights the distinction. The game throughout uses childlike imagery to juxtapose the horrors of adult life. The rabbit we frequently play as, or play with, is cartoonish, pure white, and high-pitched; those childlike features draw contrast to the repeated impalings they are subjected to. The operating system choice may be doing likewise, replicating the digital interfaces of the author and audience’s own childhood. These are all GUIs from a time before widespread internet use, when digital life was more solitary but also less stressful.

When Everything is going to be OK was being presented with the Interaction Award at IndieCade 2017, the statement noted that “imaginary user interfaces” are an expressive tool for games. I think that undercuts the exquisite attention to detail Lawhead has used here, since so much of her interface is not imaginary. Instead, it’s a jagged moraine of fossilized GUIs, a fractured mosaic of digital history that enriches the meaning of the piece.


Links

(updated 12/14/2017) Nathalie Lawhead has a thread on Twitter of many great vintage GUI resources that she referenced while making the game. It includes some of the below sites and others besides. It’s a great insight into her research and design choices, definitely check it out: Old UI Resources Thread.

If you’re interested in seeing some historical GUIs yourself, the following websites are amazing resources that catalogue interface design from a variety of historical systems. Well worth even a casual look through!

And if you’d like to play around in Windows 1.0 yourself (and how could you not?) you can do so right in your browser! This virtual desktop has a number of programs you can load up and play around with:

Why not fire up PAINT.EXE and make some fan art?


Corrections

12/14/2017: Regarding the Borland IDE, I had originally identified the top-left green square as “decorative”, which while technically it is (and quite nice aesthetically), I had meant that also in the sense of ‘non-functional’. Josh Giesbrecht pointed out that it’s actually a clickable close button! I’ve amended the reference appropriately, and you’ve like to try the programs out yourself you can find them on this attractively styled site here. I hadn’t even realized DOS charset programs could even process mouse input, but indeed they can, with the mouse placement being indicated with a selection-like palette change on the appropriate character.