There are few games like Well This is Awkward, which tackles the discomfort of buying condoms from a teen’s perspective. Yet, as lead designer and University of Baltimore senior Emma Kidwell told Polygon, this free-to-play comedy about contraceptives is actually quite mundane.
“It’s relatable, which is the goal,” she said via Skype earlier this week. “I wanted to make something really weird and relatable.”
Well This is Awkward definitely fits into the latter camp. Kidwell — who writes for Kill Screen and has written for Polygon before — designed it in Twine, a format popular with narrative designers. It tells the story of one uncomfortable night when a couple just wants to get it on ... except they’re missing just one important thing.
It sounds like it could border on preachy — Don’t forget protection, teens! — but Kidwell insisted that her intention was to make a funny game first, and that’s exactly what Well This is Awkward is. She created it for a college class project, where the prompt was simply to use Twine in making a game. Going back to an idea she shared on Twitter earlier this year, Kidwell decided to go with the “teens having sex” idea for what stands as one of her first publicly available games ever.
game idea: a text adventure where you have to buy condoms from a drugstore w/o being super awkward about it— Emma Kidwell (@EmmaKidwell) August 30, 2016
The game is set over the course of just a short time. Realizing she’s without condoms but about to get down to business with her boyfriend, a girl heads to the local convenience store to buy a box of condoms as discretely as possible.
As the story of Well This is Awkward unfurls, the comedic tone bleeds through. There are jokes about sniffing dirty T-shirts, texting typos and at least two instances of the infamous eggplant emoji. The player has some agency — no spoilers, but let’s say the ending doesn’t always see them making it out of the store without any embarrassment — and there are choices to be made. Although the implicit message is about the importance of safe sex, it’s the subtle decision-making that drives that home more than anything else.
“I tried as best as possible to have every choice that you made line up with if this would actually be awkward in real life,” she said. “If you did throw your disgusting, ratty T-shirt at your partner and ask them to smell it, that would be a little weird. So I would punish the player and say, ‘That wasn’t cool of you, stop being weird.’”
But what’s most striking is that Well This is Awkward is such a simple game that the inherent awkwardness of its premise doesn’t extend to the title itself. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable to play it in the company of others; it doesn’t feel strange to be playing a game about buying condoms. The comedy heightens the mundanity of this practice. Nothing about the events of the game come across as some ultra-important, dramatic moment. They’re just, well, awkward.
But that easy suspension of disbelief is not true of everyone, of course, Kidwell said.
“[My mom] is very supportive, and every time I show her a game I’ve made, she’ll make these funny comments like, ‘Are you sure that’s a game?’” Kidwell said of her family’s response. “You’re used to looking at triple-A titles and seeing that as the norm. Trying to talk to my mom about the game, she knows that it’s good because it’s getting attention, but she thinks it’s weird.”
Kidwell’s college-age peers also find the game weird, but in the exact way the game design student intended.
“People that I’ve shown it to in person have been weirded out, and I think that means that it’s good,” she said. “Not weirded out in the bad way — seeing them cringe and their faces twist up is really rewarding.”
The self-proclaimed “lazy scholar” told us that getting a good grade on the project was important to her as well, and she assured us that her professor was also a fan. She’s also caught attention from other people of influence, like several publications and designer Nina Freeman. That’s a fitting sponsor: Freeman won acclaim last year for her narrative work on games like Cibele, which similarly tackles familiar topics rarely tapped for video games.
It’s Freeman’s games, some of which also use Twine, that helped paved the way for Kidwell, she told us. Other favorites are unsurprising: She loves Gone Home and Firewatch, each of which prioritize unique, affecting storytelling over all else. (She’s also a big Mass Effect fan, which speaks to her interest in mining life’s physical pleasures for narratives.)
“When you’re 18 and really worried about the future, just sitting down and playing something that really resonates with you, that is very narrative-driven, is something that you really really really want to contribute to,” said a reflective Kidwell, who’s 22 now, “that really continues to inspire me.”
Moving forward, she plans to keep working in Twine, as well as 3D development engines. She’s still got a semester left in school to wrap up. She’s producing her senior class group project, a game called Eden, which combines sci-fi narrative with puzzle elements. After that? Who knows, but Kidwell is hoping to continue making a name for herself with games writing.
“I want to continue writing/designing (trying to get my master’s [degree] after I graduate, stay a student forever!) and definitely pursue making niche Twine games but also expand and grow so I don't pigeonhole myself into 1 genre,” she told us later in an email. “I just want to do a lot of stuff and learn as much as I can and make things that are different.”
Well This is Awkward is available on Kidwell’s itch.io page. Although it’s free-to-play, she accepts optional donations. The price is set at an appropriate 69 cents.