Paul Franzen's A Stranger Comes Calling is a game about answering your front door.
That's...not a lot to make a game about.
But that didn't stop Franzen from creating a sprawling web of choices and consequences set in motion by a knock at his door. The game creates something funny out of a tiny anxiety many people have. Through a natural instinct for humor, a smart survey of his available resources, and a hint of the absurd, Franzen has created a game that will leave some laughing (and others scratching their heads and wondering why the beardy man is talking into a Game Boy.)
"Either it clicks with you and you're into it right away, or it doesn't, and you just think it's the dumbest thing you've ever seen in your entire life." says Franzen.
Humor, in all of its forms, is a challenging aspect of games. Absurdist humor can be especially difficult. Not everyone will think that footage of a grown man cramming himself into a tiny cardboard box is funny, even when presented seriously in stark, crisp black-and-white.
Franzen says that the game's design was totally instinctual. "I knew it had to be black-and-white; I knew I had to make stupid motions with my face whenever the character 'talked'."
The origins of a deeply silly idea
"I work from home, so I'm always here to answer the door--or not--when someone comes calling," says Franzen. "Not long ago, I answered the door for a guy holding a clipboard, and wearing a polo shirt advertising meat. Another time, it was a private investigator with the U.S. Department of State. I didn't catch him, but he left a business card and a handwritten note that said 'Call me ASAP about your landlord'."
Strange things can happen when a stranger wants to talk, which Franzen channeled that anxiety and randomness in his game.
Franzen portrays the game's protagonist, Awkward Steve. In Steve's world, simple actions become extremely complicated and convoluted. For instance, shutting off the lights to make it look like no one was home involves some secret agent antics and a tense dive for the switch.
"I'd been going through a bit of an FMV kick lately (inspired by thrift stores always having random 90s FMV games for some reason--what's up, Critical Path; hello there, Quantum Gate). I thought it'd be cool to do something like that, one because I knew I could, using Ren'py, and two because there's nothing not fun about filming myself being a goofball."
The process of shooting the FMV for these sequences was somewhat like improv comedy. "A lot of it also just came up during filming," he says. "Like, 'okay, I wedged my camera into the light fixture to get a weird angle, but something's missing. What's something else dumb that I can do? Where are my stuffed animals?"
The resulting game is the ultimate expression of Franzen's class clown personality. "Everything I do inevitably turn out silly; even in school I couldn't resist slipping dumb little jokes into my tests and papers, if for no reason other than to just keep me interested in the history of salt, or whatever," he says.
The practicalities that guided the absurdity
Not all of A Stranger Comes Calling's design stemmed from Franzen's desire to crack people up. He says he was also looking realistically at his capabilities, and the limitations of his budget and resources. "I'm the only actor, because I don't know anyone else to join in; I'm filming it in my house, because I'd be too embarrassed to do it where people could potentially see me, Once I figured out my limitations, everything else sort of fell into place."
He may not have had a cast of co-stars to act in his FMV game, but he had programming skills and a phone that could record. The limits forced him to use his abilities creatively.
Is there a market for a game this silly?
Every developer feels a twinge of fear when their game hits the market. This was especially strong for Franzen. "I wanted to make it obvious that I was in on the joke, too--I didn't want people to laugh at me, the creator; I wanted people to laugh at the Awkward Steve character."
Through its arthouse look, silly choices, and a smart series of design decisions, Franzen has created something he hopes will at least make you smile. "A lot of it was just me trying to make my wife laugh," he says. "She was super into the game--she said that she almost died when she played it--so even if it doesn't sell well, I'm pretty happy."
"I enjoy laughing and I really like making people laugh," he says. "Without the comedy this would've just been a game about a guy answering the door. Which... I guess it kind of is, anyway."