Games with dark, mature storylines really interest me, which is why Killmonday’s crowdfunded adventure game Fran Bow immediately grabbed my attention. A young girl with her cat, trapped in a mental institution and seeing twisted and surreal things, looked right up my alley. As it turns out, the story is definitely disturbing at times, but Fran’s child-like way of seeing the world around her really balances the mood and provides a unique way of presenting an otherwise horrific tale. With a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, memorable characters, plenty of different types of puzzles, beautiful graphics and awesome sound design, this is a twisted and yet still charmingly naive tale of finding a way home while learning more about yourself and the mysteries in your life.
Fran Bow had a good life. She had the support of loving parents, her Aunt Grace, and her best friend, a talking kitten named Mr. Midnight. Tragically, all this changed when she saw her parents brutally butchered at the age of eleven. Fran herself was found unconscious in the woods near her home, and was taken to the Oswald Asylum. She thinks she’s fine and wants to go back home to her aunt, but the doctor won’t let her. Now she must escape to find Mr. Midnight and get on with her life. But the pills she's been given alter reality around her, so achieving her goals won’t be easy. Even beyond the asylum the journey home is long, through dense woods and whole other worlds populated by people and creatures that Fran is never too sure if she can trust or not.
The game takes place in 1944 over the course of five chapters, two of which are further split in half. The story touches on some very adult themes, including self-harm and pedophilia, but views it all from a child’s perspective, and as such does not go into too much depth. With the fantastical realities Fran sometimes sees, you’re left to wonder if any of it is really happening or if it’s all in Fran’s head, much like The Wizard of Oz, and leaves the answer open to personal interpretation. Other aspects of the story are never definitively answered either, like the possibility of a conspiracy behind Fran’s tragedy that are hinted at but never explained, which can be frustrating.
Compounding these plot holes, the story can be confusing sometimes because Fran is not sure what characters always mean. Fortunately, the game does a wonderful job at worldbuilding. The other worlds Fran sees have their own mythologies filled with different types of creatures and their roles in the world. From the firefly-like Luciferns to the shadow Kamalas and Grim Reaper-like Deadleeworms, they’re all memorably different and strange, never relying on standard cliches.
Fran meets many such characters on her journey, and the game does a great job of making you feel uncertain who is trustworthy and who is an enemy. Besides the feline Mr. Midnight and Fran’s Aunt Grace, there’s Doctor Deern, her psychiatrist in the asylum; Itward, a skeleton wearing a top hat and suit; and Palontras, a white- and rainbow-colored flying creature. The characters are very likable, and I found myself hoping certain ones were good guys since I became fond of them. These characters talk about things in their world that don’t make much sense to Fran, and Fran herself comes out with bizarre non-sequiturs and random observations at times. But since the story is so dark, this helps balance the mood so it is not so overbearing.
With her bulging eyes, bobbed hair, short yellow dress and striped leggings, Fran is very endearing overall, calling everyone (whether human or not) sir or ma’am and perceiving everything around her, both good and bad, in a childlike way. When a wizard helps to fix a problem, Fran asks if he can fix her parents as well. When looking at a textbook depicting adult issues like psychoses, she comments that the picture of a brain looks like a turtle. One character asks her to kill him, and her response is, “Sure! Bang bang... now you’re dead!” This kind of youthful innocence further helps counter the grim themes behind them.
In terms of controls, Fran Bow is a fairly traditional third-person point-and-click adventure. Moving to different areas is done by clicking on bloody eyeballs to the left or right to go in that direction, or by left-clicking a door or stairs to move to the next screen. Sometimes Fran has to walk back into a room to trigger an event, which can be confusing if there’s no clear reason to return to places you’ve already been. The pointer changes over hotspots that can be interacted with, and left-clicking causes Fran to describe that object and pick up any inventory items. Optionally, Fran has three different descriptions for most things around her, so you’ll want to click repeatedly to hear everything. Inventory items go into Fran’s purse at the bottom left side of the screen, and from inside her inventory those objects can be examined, combined, and used back in the environment.Continued on the next page...