The Awkward Steve Duology, by game developer Paul Franzen, is a wonderfully weird creation. It's basically an FMV game—two games in one, actually—where the protagonist, an awkward dude named Steve, tries to exist. He has to deal with such existential crises as "what to do when there's an unexpected knock at the door" and "what to do at a party." It's all about social anxiety and trying to be a normal human, whatever that means.
The game will be part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum's SAAM Arcade exhibition later in the summer.
I caught up with the game's sole developer, Paul Franzen, about FMV, the recognition that comes with the SAAM exhibition, and hiding in the bathroom at parties.
Have you always wanted to do an FMV game, or was FMV just the right fit for this sort of project?
Franzen: It was a combination of a lot of things, but yeah, I was definitely going through an FMV kick at the time!
I'd recently acquired my in-law's circa 1992 Gateway computer, and was playing all kinds of weird old games from the thrift store on it. Games like Star Trek: Borg and Critical Path (seriously, every time I'd go to the thrift store they'd have like four more copies of Critical Path) that didn't have "puzzles" so much as they had decision points, and if you made the wrong move, you died instantly. As someone who's generally Bad at Video Games, I was into it—the campy acting, the simple gameplay, the silly storylines that are taken way too seriously.
Meanwhile, I'd been brainstorming new game ideas with a friend, and one of the ideas that stuck was a game about a person who's just minding their own business when they hear a loud knocking at their front door, and they're wholly unequipped to deal with this situation. Do they pretend they're not home? Do they inch behind a wall so the person can't see them? Do they call the cops?
I enjoy mundanity like that. When I was a kid, I made my parents take me to the vacuum cleaner museum. I once took a road trip to Massachusetts to see "the world's most nearly perfect sphere." I don't even like spheres. So the mundanity of a game about answering your front door—that's it; that's the whole game—appealed to that weird part of my brain.
I was messing around with Ren'py at the time, so originally the game was going to be a visual novel. And then I realized that Ren'py could play video files, very easily. And that was that.
Content-wise, the game feels pretty grounded in feelings of social anxiety (the party, or being scared to answer the door). Is that something you wanted to tackle directly?
It was always going to be a game about dealing very badly with social situations, mostly because I tend to deal very badly with social situations. It's sort of like that old pro-wrestling adage about how the best characters are the performers' own personalities, turned up to 11. That's what Steve is for me—I definitely, definitely start to freak when someone's knocking on the door and I'm not expecting anyone (and sometimes even when I am). I think a lot of people do.
I tend to put personal themes into my games like that. The first game I worked on, Life in the Dorms, was essentially an adventure game about how much I hated my roommates. The Beard in the Mirror (at least the parts I wrote) has strong themes of not understanding where your life was going and not liking where it was, because that's where I was at the time. Awkward Steve, then, is a game by someone who works from home and doesn't have a lot of day-to-day interactions with people, and the sorts of things that can do to your brain.
Can you talk about how the project was chosen for the Smithsonian exhibition?
So I'd actually submitted three of my games for the exhibition. Of the three I figured this was dark horse candidate, with The Beard in the Mirror being the much more traditional, clearly-identifiable-as-a-game game, and Cat President: A More Purrfect Union (my dating sim about cat politicians) perhaps sneaking in as a political-themed game—a perfect fit for a convention being held in D.C.? Maybe? But really I didn't think any of them would get accepted. I mostly just submitted because it's the Smithsonian, and I have family in D.C., and why not; it would be ridiculous and amazing if it actually happened.
And then it did—they actually accepted one of my games! And it was the WEIRD one!! And after I picked myself up off the floor I had this exchange with my mom (because of course the first thing I had to do was call my mom and tell her one of my games was going to be featured at the Smithsonian):
Mom: "And you're sure it's going to be at the ART museum?"
Me: "YES, BECAUSE IT'S ART MOM!!"
Mom: "But the ART museum???"
I'm actually pretty nervous about it, to be honest; I already have trouble clearly explaining what the game is to people when I'm behind a keyboard, let alone when I'm in person, and they're sitting down to play it, and they're in a museum, and I have to justify why this weird dumb thing is in a museum and why they should play that instead of the VR game next booth over where you hug a teddy bear to jump. After dozens of Steam Greenlight comments about how this is "hipster trash" that "isn't even a game" and you're hurting Steam" it feels weird to get this kind of recognition. Gratifying, and exciting, but also very weird.