At a certain point, the story in Fran Bow becomes a tangled mess with no clear indication on what is or isn’t real. This doesn’t ruin the game, but expect a muddled ending.
Genres: Adventure, Point n Click
Developer: Killmonday Games AB
Publisher: Killmonday Games AB
Release Date: 27 August, 2015
I became aware of Fran Bow (FB) when I saw Markiplier do an LP of it, and I found myself entranced by the dark, mortifying world of the game. A mental health hospital, particularly one for children, is a great place to build an unsettling environment. It’s easy to mess with player’s heads, contrasting ghastly specters and sights with childlike innocence, never making it crystal clear if this is a peek behind the curtain of reality into a hellish dimension, or they’re sadly just psychotic and disturbed. Neither of these are comforting thoughts, and it’s how the game starts you off. Having watched the LP before playing it did spoil it somewhat, but it’s been 5 years and I haven’t rewatched it. I thought enough time had passed for me to take the driver’s seat.
FB is a point and click game, and though it’s painted over with multiple coats of disturbing, bizarre imagery, it plays out in a mostly normal fashion. You’ll interact with the environment around you, finding obstacles you’ll need to get past, and trying to gather up tools and seemingly random junk that will help you do so. Talking to NPCs will give important information and open up potential trades, as finding them an item they want will be needed to get the tool you’ve been looking for, or their actions might take care of a situation for you.
The main game changer comes in the form of red pills, which you’ll take to switch back and forth between two views of your environment. These different perspectives play out as overlapping realities, usually of the same place, but with stark differences. This means that what was impossible in one might be simple to do in another, and you’ll have to switch back and forth as you go. Another section also plays around with seasonal changes, with a similar mindset to it.
As a point and click game, everything is done with the mouse, and it all works out just fine. There were some areas where it seemed kind of touchy, such as solving a puzzle here and there. Another thing to get used to is selecting an item from your inventory before using or combining it with something else. However, these are minor issues, and didn’t harm FB any.
Things start off rather grim for titular Fran Bow, with her parents being killed by… something, and her being sent to an inpatient mental health facility for minors. In some aspects, I think the story in the game works well mainly due to how Fran was written. It’s not realistic, as she’s both too fearless and naive to make sense. This is no dig at her being a girl though, as I would have been paralyzed with fright as a young boy in her shoes. However, though her personality doesn’t mesh with her age and situation, she’s a very likable character. Fran’s concern for others is endearing, and her situation makes her very sympathetic. Plus, she doesn’t take kindly to bullies, fighting back as needed, but giving scary-looking individuals the benefit of the doubt. If they’re nice, she’s not perturbed by their visage.
On the other hand, we play through Fran’s perspective, with nothing to ground her experiences in reality. There’s a range of possible ways to interpret what she witnesses and how events play out, let alone the motivation of those involved with her. Considering some of the motifs, some of it could be symbolic more than literal as well, such as childhood trauma and the stark difference between facilities helping and abusing their patients (and how the patients interpret mandatory treatment). This means that after you experience the game, you won’t have a clear idea of what transpired, and have to fill in the gaps for yourself.
In some ways, the art style is like Fran, as it tends to look innocent and simple, not quite the same as a children’s book, but perhaps like a kid’s drawings. These visuals create an atmosphere that can look harmless, if not creepy, but will suddenly take a sinister turn with visceral gore and disturbing imagery. The game doesn’t often go to a place where it’s scary necessarily, yet playing it leads to feelings of unease and being disturbed because nothing is sacred or wholly innocent, there’s always a dark, twisted reality beneath the visage.
The tone of the game is overwhelmingly grim and moody, which is amplified by the soundtrack and eerie sound effects. I do think this kind of music has more difficulty sticking with you, since you most likely won’t be freaking out over what goes bump in the night throughout day to day affairs. However, while in FB, it looms over you and doesn’t let you feel at ease for very long, which is impressive with how simple many of the songs are. There’s not a wide range of instrumentation or variance, but simplicity can work well. You’re allowed some breathing room and a few glimmers of hope, but they tend to be fleeting.
- Adults won’t acknowledge what you see, and the other children share what they know, but nobody can explain what’s going on. The unknown tends to be scariest, and this is well played out in the early game. When first playing, you don’t know how harsh FB may be, and whether making a mistake, talking to the wrong person, or not reacting quickly might suddenly kill you.
- Not all NPCs are great, but many of them are memorable, with Mr. Midnight being a solid friend to Fran through thick and thin. The developers showed a great sense of taste not making her pet Doggie.
- The story loses steam and falls apart towards the end. It’s as if it became too weird and perplexing for the developers to track, or they weren’t sure how they wanted to tie up all the loose ends: are the children insane, who’s involved with the nefarious deeds, etc. The story is strongest in the early half.
- Certain images have a different art style, and it looks considerably worse than the rest of the game.
- It’s possible to get all the achievements in a single playthrough, but you can block yourself from some if you aren’t careful. There’s a guide available, which doesn’t spoil anything.
- Be meticulous in what you check. Since there’s two perspectives to look through, it’s easier to miss something important.
Due to the nature of the game’s narrative, there’s several interpretations on what took place in FB, and how much of it is reality vs the hallucinations of a traumatized, mentally ill girl. From a writing POV, I wouldn’t be surprised at the use of symbolism or metaphors to convey themes about mental illness. However, games tend to treat their subject matter as more concrete, as some kind of alternate reality where weirdness is just part of the equation, so I’d interpret most events as genuine. Having said that though, there were inconsistencies in the last act that makes me question the human NPCs.
For instance, Fran’s aunt Grace was quite concerned about her early on, and near the climax doesn’t want any harm to come to her. When she’s severely injured though, Grace immediately turns cold and apathetic, which is a significant heel turn. Plus, why did she want to take Fran out of the facility, if she just wanted her to be experimented on by the founder of the place? The other odd duck was the helpful doctor, who started having doubts about his place of work and how things were going for Fran. In spite of these concerns though, he not only includes Fran in a bit of grave digging, he gives the honor of cracking open her own parents’ coffins to her. As opposed to showing a bit more compassion and concern by not having her so directly involved with something so sensitive. He also knows his employer sewed two sisters together, which could never be justified anyway, simply because he could and might learn something from it. After they died, the body is ditched in a well unceremoniously, and this doctor doesn’t seem even slightly concerned by this event. Gotta sew together a few sisters to crack the DNA sequence, as they say.
These behaviors are so loony that the final moments of the game don’t seem real, but with no clues to distinguish these events and everything else, it calls into question if any of it was. That’s why I found the earlier part of the game stronger, because the line between reality and hallucination was blurry without suggesting it was clearly all nonsense. However, the climax strains believably so much that I’d be incredulous at the idea that everything happened as shown, without significant explanation and perhaps mind-altering influences. Due to this, I find that the game doesn’t end strongly, in contrast to the opening segment. It’s still worth playing, but by the end of it all, the story becomes muddled.