“Let me tell you about pain”
Caroline sings from out of my laptop screen, through my headphones. Song lyrics dance across the pixelated black square light up the dark room I’m sitting in. The sun’s gone down while I’ve been watching and clicking and playing. I’m absorbed into her world, into the tiny world in the tiny screen in front of me.
All of Me was originally a stage production, written and performed by Caroline Horton, directed by Alex Swift. I encounter it as a Choose Your Own Adventure-style game, hosted on Twine. Instead of microphones and costumes, I am told a story through text. Text that moves and grows and slips out of my reach and wriggles across the screen.
All of Me is about depression and suicide, about pain and rebirth, about one woman’s impossible journey from her bed to the shower. In this restaged version, I’m the one who can’t move off the floor – it’s you – the game tells me – your lamp looks like the moon and you decide to go back to bed. What would you like to do next?
I am in her story, and she is in mine. When I’m asked what I’d like to do next, I choose the things that make me feel safe. Bed, showering, chocolate. I take a quiz, and I’m told I am a lizard. Am I?
Once I’ve reached a certain place in the story, no matter what I choose, I get the same outcome. I return back to the room with the lamp and closed window, and the bed. I try to direct this journey towards safety. I try not to choose the options that I know are damaging, the ones I know will make things worse. But, when the safe things run out, I have to choose the difficult ones. And each brings me back to the same place. The same cycle, over and over. It’s an apt metaphor, I think. Then the words on the screen are blurred and out of focus, because I’ve chosen the option to ‘DRINK’ ‘DRINK’ ‘DRINK’ ‘DRINK’
It goes like this:
You decide to leave
You can’t get up off the floor
You DRINK DRINK DRINK DRINK
At least, that’s how I remember it going.
I chose an option which takes me to Eleanor Field’s illustrations. I like these bits – this one takes me to a beach scene (I immediately feel better for choosing to go here because I love the beach, I love how alone it makes me feel, I love how it makes me feel as important and insignificant as a small wave in the sea). Her drawings are delicate and awash with colour – a welcome break from the dark grey screen and white text. They are like something from a children’s book, comforting and nostalgic. Later, I see drawings of women curled up, surrounded by scribbled blackness. A children’s book that’s not meant to be read until later. And then, a beautiful statue – lit up, adorned with robes, and crowned – this looks like it could be a drawing for a stage costume. I imagine Caroline, or this character that I’ve created to be like Caroline, standing on a stage with her sceptre and crown, looking down at me in my seat.
The dramaturgy of this piece is so clever – William Drew’s work is sharp and the journey of the protagonist (of me?) is carefully crafted. It seems that All of Me was a stage show full of mess and noise and song. This is inevitably neater, curtailed by the clean lines of code and typography. And yet, it still feels chaotic. The words dart across the screen, or repeat until they fill it all up. Some words glow and mutate, while others take me down tangents about cheesecake. It’s sometimes hard to get a grip on where I am; the endless clicking on and off something resembling a moving script is disorientating. But maybe that’s the point.
The strangest part about all of this is that I’m watching this piece which is so much about our fallible human bodies, but there are no bodies to be seen. My own hands trace the keyboard, and I can feel my back slouched over the table, but that’s all I have to remind me that I’m not floating in the void. The void that, as Horton keeps reminding me, we are all floating in. Elena Peña’s sound design engulfs me into the story – hard as I try I can’t seem to pull myself out of it. Her design comes into its own in the second half of the piece; we’ve entered into an underworld, and I stop being in control. There’s no link to click through. I am forced to sit and watch, sit and listen to this song, to this word, to the sound of your restless breath.
A small moment of hope; “I love red wine with peanuts” she tells us.
Sit in a chair, in a circle, in a grey council building and tell us why you don’t think there’s anything wrong with thinking this life is all a bit too much.
By the end, we’re back on the beach. And this thing, that sits alongside Caroline, that meant she couldn’t get out of bed, is still alive. Still breathing. But quelled. Haunting her, maybe. It will be there sometimes, but also sometimes it won’t be there. The sky will be dark. But the sky will also be light. Some things change and some don’t. That is fine.
This was not a substitute for the live show, it was something different entirely. It might seem contradictory to make a Choose Your Own Adventure game about something that often feels so out of our control. In many ways, it was a contradiction, but that friction gave the piece its spark. It felt both accessible and nuanced, and it was genuinely very moving, too. The questions that the play asks about choice, feeling out of control, and being trapped in one’s own head were all articulated in the playing of the game. Form shapes the meaning of the content, in the most exciting, theatrical way possible.