“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.” – Philip K. Dick
Developer: Kill Monday Games
Released: August 27th 2015
Price: £6.24 – £12.29
NOTE: This game focuses on sensitive subjects, such as death and mental health, there’s also a lot of gore!
Fran Bow is an eerie adventure game about a young girl struggling with a mental disorder and an unfair destiny. After witnessing the mysterious and violent death of her parents Fran flees into the forest with her pet cat, Mr Midnight. Once there she falls into a shock-induced sleep, recovering to find herself alone in a creepy mental institution of questionable intent. Fran resolves herself to flee the asylum, find her fluffy friend and be reunited with her only living relative, Aunt Grace.
Fran Bow consists mainly of typical point-and-click, inventory-based gameplay. The puzzles are rational within the game world and the reasoning behind the use of different objects and the overall logic behind each solution is usually very clear to the player. In some instances the game can be a little too helpful, reminding Fran that she likes to ‘examine and combine objects‘ was unnecessary, to say the least.
For the most part, the game does a good job of avoiding many common pitfalls of the genre with minimal trial and error attempts and puzzle-solving, combining items at random or walking back and forth aimlessly between scenes.
The game deviates from more typical point-and-click gameplay in that Fran can use various items to enter different realities or times and view locations in a different way. A jar of red pills labelled ‘Duotine‘ exposes an often horrific alternative version of the environment and a magical clock allows the changing of seasons with both potentially revealing new objects, characters and opportunities.
To maintain some variety, Fran Bow also includes a small selection of fun mini-games including tic-tac-toe, a Pac-Man-Esque maze and a river crossing game called Toader! These break up the game somewhat, providing short breaks from the main gameplay but also provides nostalgia for some players with the retro game references and similarities.
The game has a bizarre but well-constructed narrative that takes Fran through a range of weird and wonderful environments full of beautiful and terrible creatures. She encounters a range of surreal scenery such as a colourful land of insects and sentient root vegetables, a skeleton’s rocketship, a small house sheltering a pinecone family and a well full of dead babies, complete with a placenta that is described as a ‘jetpack of blood and nutrients‘!
Fran Bow’s storyline touches on a wide range of more sinister themes such as mental health issues, abuse, murder, and loss but juxtaposes this with companionship, love, community and determination. The protagonist is also required to complete a number of morally oppositional actions such as slaughtering a beetlepig and shortly after, tenderly combing a talking rat’s fur. In this way, the clever narrative design exhibits the same contrast of positive versus negative that can also be seen in the styling and the gameplay itself, creating a truly cohesive experience.
The distinct, washed-out, painterly aesthetic of Fran Bow is marvellously adept at capturing both the pleasant scenes and the more dreadful. Some of the game’s artwork would be at home in a fantastical children’s book, depicting the colourful and jolly locations such as King Ziar’s flowery castle, and some delightfully charming characters like the flying, furry doctor, Palontras. In contrast, the scenes of murder, gore, blood and guts and the grotesque and fearful creatures that appear within are utterly disturbing. Additionally, the game also includes some black and white (and red), reverse-silhouette style cutscenes that make for cute and eerie plot-driving interludes.
The game’s music is fairly minimal but quite atmospheric and befitting of each scene with sound effects being similarly implemented, it is almost possible to forget both are there until they perfectly complement a moment of the overall experience. Dialogue in Fran Bow is generally well written with clear distinction between different people and types of characters. Fran can be a little repetitive in her speech (all the shadows are creepy) and simplistic but this serves as a crucial reminder that the witness to all the world’s wonder and horror, is a mere ten years old.
Overall, Fran Bow is an eclectic and surreal experience that will take around 7-8 hours to complete. The highlight of the title is the consistent way in which the game juxtaposes the adorable with the abhorrent across all the elements that make up the experience, from the artwork to the gameplay mechanics and, of course, the narrative design and overarching themes. However, each of these aspects alone is created and implemented well in their own right and provide plenty of reason to eagerly recommend the game to point-and-click enthusiasts and fans of the macabre.