Cassette Tapes, Kurt Cobain, and an Austin TX Legend: The Story of Hi, How Are You
“Hi, my name is Daniel Johnston, and I’m going to be famous!”
If you were a resident of Austin, Texas in the 1980s, you may well have heard those words while picking up your fast food order. If you were particularly lucky, the young man saying them may have handed you a cassette tape filled with some unusual yet compelling music. The bigger surprise might have come when that enthusiastic musician made good on those words in the 1990s. Daniel Johnston may not have become a household name, but he certainly earned a bigger following than one might expect from the average person handing out homemade tapes to random people.
Daniel Johnston’s music and art slowly gained fans in Austin and beyond. One particular fan went on to be extremely famous and it was through him that Johnston broke out in a bigger way. Kurt Cobain of Nirvana was often seen wearing a T-shirt featuring an odd-looking frog and the words “Hi, How Are You”. He cited a relatively album called Yip/Jump Music as one of his favorites in a journal he wrote in 1993. The T-shirt, as it turned out, used art from Daniel Johnston’s 1983 album Hi, How Are You. All of a sudden everyone was very interested in this Daniel Johnston guy, and a bidding war between record labels broke out to see who could sign him. Johnston had made it.
There’s a unique quality to Johnston’s work that makes it very intriguing to process, if not always easy. It’s pure and sometimes childlike, often absorbed with innocent notions of love. It’s also deeply tied up in religious themes, with Satan trying to ruin the lives of good people. Johnston favored low-fi technology and generally shunned the cutting edge. He made a lot of artwork and generally preferred to make it using markers. If ever there were an unlikely source for a game created with the latest piece of technology, Daniel Johnston would be it. So how did it happen?
Artist Peter Franco and programmer/designer Steve Broumley first crossed paths while working at the Austin, Texas-based developer Iguana Studios. Broumley was a programmer on the developer’s popular first-person shooter series Turok the Dinosaur Hunter, and Franco joined up with the team in time to do art for 1999’s Turok: Rage Wars. Following the closure of the studio in 2004, both ended up working at the Austin studio of Midway Games on BlackSite: Area 51 among other titles. Unfortunately, Midway ran into serious financial troubles and in 2008 shut down its Austin studio. The publisher itself would follow soon after.
Before all of this went down, Broumley and Franco both had had the same idea. Each man struck out on his own as an independent. Broumley founded Smashing Studios, and Franco set up DrFunFun. They decided to put their skills together on a project and, remembering their shared love of Daniel Johnston and his work, thought that he might make a good subject for a game. Johnston was not normally an easy person to reach, and he tended to reject a lot of offers. Fortunately, Franco’s wife had been working with the Johnston family for many years and provided an in. Johnston’s brother and business manager approved of the idea, giving access to a mountain of Johnston’s works and bringing in Daniel himself.
With that hurdle overcome, all that was left was to make the game. But how do you make a game that does justice to such a personal, distinctive body of work? And on what platform should such a thing be released? At first, the team toyed with the idea of putting the game on the indie-friendly Xbox Live service, but they ultimately settled on iOS based on their own enjoyment of gaming on mobile devices. From there, the game’s particulars started to form. They wanted to make something fun and casual to appeal to the wide audience on the platform, and immediately thought back to classic titles such as Marble Madness, Q*Bert, and Frogger. For Broumley’s part, he enjoyed playing around with physics programming and technical challenges, which led to the game having 3D elements. Above all, they wanted to bring Johnston’s characteristic art and sound to life.
The game naturally centered around Johnston’s most famous piece of iconography: Jeremiah the Innocent Frog, and the phrase “Hi, How Are You”. Following on the theme of so many of Johnston’s songs, the game would be about the pursuit of true love and trying to get past the obstacles placed in one’s path by the devil. Johnston’s art was incorporated as much as possible both in cut-scenes and in the actual gameplay. This interesting fusion of low-fi art and the then-ambitious 3D graphics creates an odd sort of duck, but one that is certainly faithful to Johnston’s style. Of course, Johnston’s music is also featured. A number of tracks from Johnston’s 2001 album Rejected Unknown play throughout the game.
Hi, How Are You received generally positive acclaim when it released in September of 2009, and mainstream outlets picked up on the game enthusiastically. Eventually, the developers moved on to other projects and were no longer able to keep the game updated. Fortunately, the game was picked up as part of the GameClub library and received not only compatibility updates but also refreshed visuals and other touches. Tragically, Daniel Johnston passed away in September of 2019 and would not see the re-launch of the game, but the developers hope that a whole new generation of players can discover him and his passionate works through it.