The Bloody Ambiguity of Fran Bow


Ambiguity binds the bloody heart of Fran Bow. Written, drawn, and programmed by two people and funded through an Indiegogo campaign, Fran Bow is a psychological horror/fantasy game that bridges Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum, and gory mystery stories. What makes it notable beyond its beautiful visual and aural construction is its unabashed morbidity and, I must add, its titular protagonist.

Its gameplay engine works like most point-and-click adventures, presenting the player with a series of puzzles to be solved with inventory items and interacting with virtual manipulatives. Those, like me, who are more interested in advancing the plot and inhabiting the lavish world of Natalia Figueroa’s art, will be gratified to learn that none of them can lead you into unwindable situations and, though they might look intimidating at first, don’t take much time to solve once the logic of the puzzle becomes clear.

Helpfully, each chapter is also accessible from the main menu once it’s been completed, meaning that replaying the game to scour for clues or to relive crucial story moments is trivial. The game also saves the player’s progress automatically, meaning that any software instability or power outage will not set you back. It also removes the ability to maintain multiple save files, but making each chapter selectable makes returning to past areas fairly easy. All that is truly lost is the charm of making up witty names for save files and chuckling about them later

That technical detour complete, I want to spend a few hundred words tantalizing my readers by selectively revealing some of Fran Bow’s intelligent story decisions. My hope is to both encourage more interest in the game as well as to sort out some of my initial thoughts on the aforementioned ambiguity of the game.

Taking place during World War II somewhere in the United States, Fran Bow begins in an asylum, as does its titular character. Imprisoned for a mental illness that has either been aggravated or incited by the gruesome murder of her parents, Fran is given a new, blood-red medication that induces psychotic states. Similar to the various treats and trinkets in the Alice books, these pills reshape the world, peeling the curtain back and revealing a gore-drenched world that often offers Fran more opportunities for escape. Which is not to say that the mundane is any less disturbing; the asylum appears to be using its young patients for surgical experiments.

One of the milder visions Fran experiences.

Eventually, the story takes a number of diversions that complicate the idea that the game is just about mental illness or the link between the body and the mind. More overtly fantastical and whimsical happenings abound in the middle part of the game, coming right after a sudden and unexpected fall. Still, as others have pointed out, the spectre of mental illness never stops haunting Fran’s steps even in the sanctuaries into which she is welcomed. One of the central problems that Fran Bow refuses to solve, therefore, is the question of whether the fantasies are real or whether they are hallucinatory artifacts.

What’s most important, however, is that the story, despite its forays into inter-dimensional weirdness and speculative intrigues, remains anchored in Fran’s emotional and internal journey. Every locale is revealed to be eminently changeable. Bodies are easily destroyed. Fran’s own emotional state varies considerably between her usual ferocity, doggedness, and curiosity to a state of overwhelming depression and sadness. Haunted by an incarnation of falsity and depression called Remor, she attempts to make sense of her own trauma in a world that is unrelentingly hostile and untrustworthy.


Upon first finishing the game––a few minutes before starting this post––the theme I grasped most strongly was that of skepticism and the value of one’s own internal intelligence and strength. Fran’s ultimate virtue is her self-reliance and her refusal to trust too easily. At the same time, she is not catatonic or paranoid no matter her (unresolved) relationship with the mundane reality of the game. Her openness to change and to the bizarre, seeing the initially frightening as potentially helpful and offering her aid to those in need regardless of their strangeness: these are what the game values the most. Even the most sinister figures from the start of the game might (not to reveal too much) have the potential for a small redemption. Her primary enemies are fear, lies, and deception, the abuse of science and the dark manipulation of the imagination. Those with power over her who seek to use her for their own ends, trying to drive her to self-destruction and despair. As someone who struggles with creeping depression and anxiety, the game’s unflinching aspects evoked just the right mix of attraction and repulsion.

Fran (right) standing next to her school friend Alice (left) in the most explicit of the game’s references to its girl-centred fantasy ancestors.

More and more, I’m fascinated by the study of emotions and the ways in which we internalize the world we inhabit. Fran Bow takes that dialectic, that process of metamorphosis and emotional processing, and gives it an aesthetic shell and narrative logic entirely appropriate for such a slippery topic. My thoughts on the game are still unsettled, but that’s partly the nature of the game. It’s one of the strongest games in the current adventure game revival, and I can give it my highest recommendation.

Sam and Max: Freelance Kitschmongers

Sam and Marx Cover

Human beings seem to have this idea that, if animals could talk, they would be terribly cynical about everything. One of the archetypal examples of this is Hobbes from the Bill Watterson comic strip. Even though Hobbes is a bouncy, joyous character, his view of humanity is pitch black. I bring up Calvin and Hobbes because those title characters make an informative comparison to Sam and Max.

Both are duos of comic characters created in the 1980s who have a great deal of cultural prestige despite not being as popular as, say, Snoopy. Where the two diverge is in tone. Calvin and Hobbes certainly had a satirical streak, overtly parodying Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, and Superman‘s overheated prose styles and flashy artwork. Wattersons’ characters also often took opportunities to mock disposable American consumer culture, conveying their creator’s well-known aversion to commercialism. The comic strip could also have a genuinely curious spirit to it, mocking hypocrisy but openly celebrating creativity and the wonder of nature. Sam and Max, however, descends from the Looney Tunes lineage. In all of its incarnations, the characters are manic, frequently self-aware, and almost totally amoral, committed to causing chaos and raising Cain. It’s not hard to see the deranged, sharp-toothed lagomorph Max as a 1980s update of Bugs Bunny with an appetite for destruction and a craving for stomach-churning junk food.

But now I want to focus less on the characters of Sam and Max themselves and more on their relationship to that junk food. And cheap toupees, celebrity-shaped gourds, circus freaks, and the world’s largest ball of twine. Yes, this is another salvo in my ongoing discussion of kitsch, the commoditized lifeblood of the American art market, the river of tripe that New York galleries blissfully glide over like unicorns in a summer meadow. One of Sam and Max’s defining characteristics is their prostration before almighty plastic doodads and greasy processed foods. They are head-over-heels ironically in love with everything chintzy and pandering. In many ways, they are the ideal post-Fordist consumers: ironically detached and able to mock the hell out of knick-knacks and fried foods but only too willing to purchase tons of it. In the comics, games, and the television show Sam and Max: Freelance Police (the first game being our main topic for the evening), the characters have an ambivalent relationship to filth and junk. They are “skeptical hedonists,” savants of the known-to-be-bad. Observe the following typical exchange:

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Text: Sam says, “It’s one of those impossible-to-win carny games that have been ripping off the American consumer for decades!”
Screenshot 2014-12-08 23.15.32
Text: Max says, “I love capitalism.”

 This conversation happens early in the game and serves to establish the tone of the piece. Sam, the more moral one of the pair, sports both a faux-Bogart voice and a withered sense of duty. Max, on the other hand, is more like the aforementioned Bugs Bunny mixed with the Tasmanian Devil. His heart is in it for the anarchy, with any attachment to the cause of justice being tenuous at best. Jokes like this function in a specific way: they call attention to social problems, trite tropes, or other unpleasant business, but lacking any kind of critical edge. There is no imperative to the punchline because the jokes are subsumed in a text that dissolves everything into a cartoon triviality. The pace of such lines works differently in an adventure game than in a television show, of course. In a TV show, episodes develop themes and incidents over time in a linear fashion, which means that jokes can play off of one another and relate to each other in time in a very specific way. In a game, on the other hand, every joke is its own self-contained bit.

The little gag shown above happens when the player inspects a carnival game, which may not ever even happen. Of course, for the joke to work it still has to be in-character and have good internal timing, but the flow of language in the game is not predetermined or holistic but highly contextual: click on something and be rewarded for a joke. It’s a different kind of humor, and because of that these “political” jokes have even less impact than they would in the show. Lines like this pertain to a single situation, producing a witty retort or maybe some back-and-forth leading to a punchline, after which the player clicks on something different. There is a flow, and themes and plot lines do develop, but there’s nothing incisive or biting about it; it’s parody but, ironically given Max’s grin, toothless.

Chuck Kleinhaus notes that parody is “persistent under conditions of advanced capitalism. Parody stands as a means of accommodation to things that people think they cannot change.”¹ Sam and Max are almost utterly unprincipled, which is a winning trait for cartoon characters because they can embody a pleasant fantasy of consequence-free mayhem. It would be wrong of us, though, to mistake wry jokes as being in any way subversive. Let’s look at another gag to see another example of what I mean. The setup is that Max is appalled by the fact that the Siamese twins who own the local carnival are technically naked since their skin just grows as green vinyl––it makes little more sense in context––whereupon Sam reminds Max that he is also naked. Max responds:

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Text: Max says, “Yeah, but I’m cute and marketable.”

I have to concede that, of the two technically naked characters in this scene, Max is easier on the eyes. More to the point, what we have here is a self-aware commodity. Not only that, but the mascot characters in this capitalist entertainment product are fully aware of their being shills for a game company. What’s notable is that not only are Sam and Max utterly at peace with their kitschy American world, they are knowingly kitsch themselves.

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Pictured: the kitschy world of Sam and Max: Hit the Road.

To delve once more into the scholarly realm, let’s quote Kleinhaus one more time:

The characteristic parody of self-aware kitsch promotes what John Fiske has called “skeptical hedonism” in audience response to much mass-culture documentary, that is, we all know this is a fantasy, but we want in on the fun of such phenomena, for example, as television wrestling or supermarket tabloid headlines. In this duality of response, self-aware kitsch is related to, or overlaps with, Camp.²

What we have here is an explicit example of what modern advertising thrives on: its ability to convince its audience that it is in on the joke. At this point, satires of advertising are often actually advertising themselves, showing to me that satire is ultimately toothless as a tool for social change. As long as capitalism needs to stoke consumer demand to absorb its immense surplus and avoid crises, advertising will evolve in response to culture’s attempts to render it impotent. People become aware of advertising ploys and, like in Sam and Max, call attention to them and make a show of being unaffected. Coincidentally, Bill Watterson provides us with an apt demonstration of this process:

Text: Calvin says: “Another thing to remember about popular culture is that today’s TV-reared audience is hip and sophisticated. This stuff doesn’t affect us. We can separate fact from fiction. We understand satire and irony. We’re detached and jaded viewers who aren’t influenced by what we watch. ” Hobbes says: “I think I hear advertisers laughing.” Calvin says: “Hold on. I need to inflate my basketball shoes.”

Ultimately, Sam and Max make for weak satirists because they rarely draw connections between the obvious shortcomings of their daily lives and deeper social determinants. That doesn’t make them unfunny or bad cartoon characters, but as parodies or satires go, they seem distinctly lacking in substance. There’s no edge to them, which makes them, as Max astutely points out, marketable. But that tends to mean the opposite of critical, and Sam and Max tend to want to have their cake and eat it too a little too often. Though, with sweet teeth like theirs, I’m sure that sounds delightful to them.


1. Chuck Kleinhaus, “Taking Out the Trash: Camp and the Politics of Parody,” in The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer (New York: Routledge, 1994), 171.

2. Ibid, 160.