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.
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.
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.