September 29, 2015 6:00 AM | Joel Couture
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. That still didn't stop Franzen from creating a sprawling web of choices and consequences surrounding a knock at his door, making something funny out of a tiny anxiety many people have. Through a natural instinct for humor, a smart look at available resources, and a hint of the absurd, Franzen created a game that will leave some laughing while others scratching their heads at why the beardy man is talking into a Game Boy.
"I think A Stranger Comes Calling is the sort of game where 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 for games. What makes one person laugh won't necessarily work on another, and absurdist humor can be especially difficult. Not everyone thinks a grown man cramming himself into a tiny cardboard box is funny, even when presented seriously in stark, crisp black-and-white.
Still, this humor, and the direction of the game in general, felt natural for Franzen. "So much of this game's design was totally instinctual. I knew the game had to be black-and-white; I knew I had to make stupid motions with my face whenever the character 'talked'. It was never so much a question of 'What should the game be?' as it was a statement of 'This is what the game is', period." Franzen didn't spend hours laboring over whether a joke would work with a set audience, but rather let a natural feel for silliness guide his work.
How silly can answering the door be, though? From Franzen's own life experience: very. "I work from home, so I'm always here to answer the door (or not) when someone comes calling. 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'." Franzen says. Strange things can happen when a stranger wants to talk, which Franzen channeled into a natural anxiety about answering the door in his game.
Ignoring the knock, pretending you're not home, and sneaking to a window to peek at who's there aren't especially rife with humorous possibility, though. Again, a natural instinct and desire to make people laugh got Franzen through. "So much of A Stranger Comes Calling's design was me writing on impulse, following whatever garden path of dumb ideas I strayed to. A lot of it also just came up during filming. 'Okay, I wedged my camera into the light fixture to get a weird angle, but something's missing. What's something else dumb I can do? Where are my stuffed animals?" Franzen says.
Still, Franzen was making a game about choice, and that required that he branch out into other responses. Part of the humor of the work stems from the serious arthouse look of the game, using striking camera angles and a deadpan look on his face to create an experience where the absurd stood out by contrast. The contrasting tones and the need for more choices gelled into the creation of some strange activities that came out of nowhere to surprise the player, as well as some funny interpretations of what seemed like normal responses.
One such surprise came from the protagonist, Awkward Steve, taking a soothing drink of soda tea, a life experience Franzen felt like sharing. "The 'soda tea' specifically was based on a real-life experiment that I would not say went especially well. There's a reason why God keeps Lipton's and ginger ale in different aisles in the supermarket; let's just say that." said Franzen. This was an option that became available when you could calm the player down with a drink of tea, but was just another example of how Franzen would slip something goofy in to make the player laugh through sheer surprise and through the absurdity of the action.
Other actions, while seemingly more normal than soda tea, involved hamming it up a little for humor. Shutting off the lights to make it look like no one was home involved some secret agent antics and a tense dive for the switch, all of which made a normal action that much more fun. Even at its most quiet and straightforward, A Stranger Comes Calling usually involves Franzen acting goofy in some minor way through small gestures or other small jokes. Franzen was not interested in filler scenes to keep the game going, instead using his sense of humor to keep the game interesting and fun for his players as well as for himself as a developer.
"Everything I do inevitably turns 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. (Some teachers appreciated this more than others, if you can imagine.) I enjoy laughing and I really like making people laugh; and I mean without the comedy this would've just been a game about a guy answering the door. ...Which I guess it kind of is, anyway." Franzen says.
Not all of A Stranger Comes Calling's design stemmed from Franzen's desire to crack people up. Much of it actually came from looking at his capabilities and the limitations of his budget and resources. "Once I figured out my limitations--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, etc.--everything else sort of fell into place." Franzen says.
This was important, as while Franzen really wanted to make an FMV game, he looked at what he would be most capable of doing and set out to do that. Could he work within his limitations and still make his vision occur? "I've 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."
Knowing the limits of his budget, programming skills, and resources not only meant that he could make his game easily and effectively, but it also helped guide the narrative and the gameplay. Franzen could play to his strengths, and the limits forced him to use his abilities creatively. He may not have had a crew to act in his FMV game, but he had himself and his instinct for humor and desire to make people laugh. He may not have had the equipment to film the game exactly as he desired, but he had programming skills with Ren'py and a phone that could record. He looked at what he had and made it work, creating a fun, silly game in the process.
Every developer feels a twinge of fear when their game hits the market. This was especially strong for Franzen, who was a little nervous that people would think he was being serious about all of this silly stuff. Again, absurdist humor doesn't click with everyone, and when you're hiding under a table while avoiding opening your front door, you do run the risk of people thinking you're just a ridiculous person - especially when you've gone out of your way to make your game look serious as part of the joke.
"My biggest concern was 'How are people going to take this? What in the world are they going to make of this dumb, dumb thing I'm making?' 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. Relating to him is also acceptable. I used the goofy Abe Lincoln splash screen to try to set the tone for the game; I was really concerned that otherwise I'd be seen as taking myself too seriously, which is sort of the opposite reaction I was going for." says Franzen.
Through its arthouse look, silly choices, Franzen's instinct for humor, and a smart series of design decisions, Franzen has created something he hopes will at least make you smile. Whether it does or not, though, he's created a work that makes him happy. "A lot of it was just me trying to make my wife laugh. She was super into the game ("I almost died when I played it"), so even if it doesn't sell well, I'm pretty happy."
Can you really aspire to anything higher than being happy with something you've created?
A Stranger Comes Calling is available for $1.46 on Itch.io, and is looking for votes on Steam Greenlight. For more information on the game, Paul Franzen, and Oh, A Rock! Studios, you can head to the developer's site or follow them on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.