“Fran Bow,” a point-and-click horror adventure by Swedish dev team Killmonday Games, just this August reached the end of its three-year and $28,000 journey, which began as an effort to make an Android game based loosely on writer Natalia Figueroa’s experiences.
Killmonday, the indie game DBA for Natalia and her husband Isak Martinsson, began making games in 2012, feeling it was a better medium for the stories they wanted to tell than short film and animation.
With a visual style combining children’s books, traditional paintings, and 1940’s art deco, “Fran Bow” tells the story of an adolescent girl caught between her parent’s deaths in the real world and several vivid alternate realities only visible to a select few.
I discovered this game about a week before its final commercial release and was so entranced I picked it up for $14.99 when it came out, which is unusual for me, but “Fran Bow” feels so painstakingly made and heartfelt it may quite literally be the mom and pop shop of indie games. Vroom vroom, here comes Fez, bulldozing your little family store to build PARKING GARAGES! Also, I am convinced Killmonday is fairly poor, either because they are actually poor or because bad things seem to happen to them. Their budget during early production stages went towards getting Game Maker Studio Professional and the Android export module, running them up some hundred dollars out of pocket before Killmonday began crowdfunding. Game Maker Studio Professional, it should be noted, is selling this week, not a month after “Fran Bow’s” release, along with the Android compiler module over at Humble Bundle for $12. You might as well give out licenses for free if you really wanted to whack them with the irony pan.
Speaking of pans, just how does “Fran Bow” pan out? (We haven’t gotten to transitions in my creative writing course yet! :D) You could look at the verdict above, or you could read more words I have written below, which I would recommend.
In the fairly brief introductory cutscene, we learn Fran Bow had an ordinary life until one night her parents were mysteriously butchered and she was sent to the Oswald Asylum, cut off from all contact with her one remaining relative Aunt Grace and her dearest companion, a pet cat named Mr. Midnight. Fran doesn’t think she’s crazy, but the doctors won’t let her leave, and the medicine she’s administered just makes things worse. Finally, a vision convinces her to escape the asylum and find her cat using a bottle of red pills which will allow her to see beyond her own reality.
The horror gimmick of course is that the pills will transform the average waiting room into any variety of horrific meat locker. The idea of two identical structures, one manifest and ordinary, the other latent and morbid, co-existing atop one another at the same time is extraordinary. The tension when shifting from real to ultrareal is
unreal palpable and exhilarating, as though each pill is a quick rush of terror ingested by the player, making the free “Fran Bow” demo, which lasts about twenty minutes, well worth a look.
Gameplay involves the standard collecting and combining of items, question-bludgeoning the nearest NPCs, and solving of puzzles, cherry-topped by the occasional run-from-the-monster mini-game.
My first run of “Fran Bow” was in Spanish. I would recommend this, as Killmonday writer Natalia Figueroa is Chilean, making English not a second but perhaps a third language. While “Fran Bow” was in fact released primarily for English-speaking audiences, the English script is what all my Spanish speakers at home would call interesante. An unnatural command of its constructs compounded with ten-year-old Fran Bow’s disjointed perception of the macabre gives the impression that the English ate some bad seafood and has a tummyache. Even proofread for spelling errors and basic grammar mistakes, the sentences often end up in the surrealist realm of
“Oh, sharpy, shiny knife! It can be good to have you.”
“Somebody was playing a dirty game around this clock.”
“Ouch! It has thorns… Well, that’s brave!”
“The red flower! It’s like warm love!”
Amazing. Perhaps I missed these sorts of cues in the Spanish translation being wired English-first — quite likely this may just be how Natalia uses any language, period.
At Killmonday, it’s batshit hour every hour. The developers are Swedish, as indie devs often like to be, and if the devlogs are anything to be believed, their work space might best be described as a Swedish-Chilean Pee-wee’s playhouse, and also they want to kill Monday. Isak, seemingly camera-shy, wears a pig’s mask and makes dial-up modem sounds at the viewers while Natalia attempts to describe development progress with frequent bouts of an ongoing sideplot(?) about a hand puppet named Mr. Red and his girlfriend (except they broke up), Princess.
One of the Indiegogo perks to be included was a Fran Bow documentary which would presumably comprise these vlog entries and other misadventures. I can only imagine what unholy sort of special features might also be included.
Fran Bow comprises five chapters in total, of which the first two are horror and the final three assume an occasionally hypnagogic high fantasy; considered as a whole is not so much a horror game as it is two people giving a warm hug to absurdism for twelve hours. Pinecone tribes, dancing wizards, and surprise flying airship birthday parties are the order of the day, and what may have began as a horror attempt over years of development grew into its own mythology based on visual associations that make no sense to anybody except Killmonday Games. When Fran Bow triumphantly diverges from the logical norm, it departs not for the perverse storybook world or hallucinogenic realm of nightmares, but the bonafide Wonderland of regular pecularities. The game plays like a miniature person venturing through a series of I Spy scenes where every found object has a face and a backstory.
There is no clumsy invocation of Alice in Wonderland, a faux-dark fantasy which has been parodied and alluded to in horror and goth culture well past the point of exhaustion, as an authority, but a sincere emulation, intentional or otherwise, of its nonsense factor, and when Fran Bow does at last make the tongue-in-cheek reference to Carroll’s Alice, it’s because she deserves it. Fran Bow does not want to be like Alice. Alice wants to be like Fran Bow. THIS IS THE REAL DEAL, GUYS.
The inhabitants of “Fran Bow’s” fantastic world are as companionable as a night-time romp with your stuffed animals — one of the game’s selling points is even the “50+ interactive unique characters with unique personalities.” Unique personalities! The story-telling friend to children Itward, who tries to fly Fran home on his magical airship, is worth standing and cheering for. Itward is all you could want from an imaginary friend and also a skeleton. I would get an Itward tattoo and not regret it. He radiates the inherent goodness of a skeleton wearing a top hat. If there is horror to be found in “Fran Bow,” it’s a horror of contrasts, certainly, but also one that is faced while holding hands with your closest friends. Some complain that the adoption of otherworldly friendship to its plot is a bait and switch for those who signed onto the experience of gruesome terror, but I argue that it’s a bait and switch in the best possible way. This is a non-genre that perhaps sells itself best by disguising as a widely beloved one. You try cutting out the horror elements and pitching me a game whose plot description includes anywhere the line, “and since she had been turned into a tree, she asked the flying axolotl doctor to give her arms and legs.”
Beside the alternate realities and adventures in magic remains the original lasting grounded plot thread of mental illness, handled all at once with abject disgust at the attempted science of it and tender sincerity in the form of the main character, as it’s very clear Fran is not mentally ill, if a bit too voracious for discovery, and, uh, biology (“The placenta is like a jetpack of blood and nutrients!”). She gets along with people, handles stress well, has healthy friendships, can trust others, and is apparently trauma-proof given the circumstances. The game never untangles the tragedy at its core into separate fantasy- and reality-based interpretations, so an unreliable tale of delusion could just as easily be the battle of good versus evil as we see it.
“Fran Bow’s” final act is weak compared to the rest of its story, though its ending no worse than any other quality point and click that realized too late there were still many many surreal plot elements to be accounted for. The way it’s set up, however, seems to imply that the grandest adventure is yet to come, it’s just right off-screen where all the characters went and you won’t get to see it.
I don’t yet know what lies in store for Killmonday Games; most likely they’ll be focusing on creating a web presence for “Fran Bow” and porting it to other systems for a while before any new projects are on the table. That’s fine, we can make up the rest of the story by pretending with our Itward tattoos. You can find “Fran Bow” on Steam and GOG.com for $14.99. However, an Itward tattoo will cost anywhere upwards of $100 depending on the artist and the size.