Written by T. Blake Braddy, @blakebraddy
The development for point-and-click adventure horror game Fran Bow began not with the first sketches of its main character or even back in August of 2012, when Natalia Figueroa and collaborator Isak Martinson – who is also her husband – came together to work on the game. It stretches back over a decade, to writer / artist Figueroa’s childhood in Chile. (She has lived in Sweden since she was 17.)
Although the game deals with weird and fantastical elements, Fran Bow is, at its center, an autobiographical experience. “It is a compilation of things that I have been through in my life, good and bad,” Figueroa said via Skype. “And it felt natural to mix it with all my fantasies from when I was a child.”
In the game, players take on the role of Fran Bow, an orphaned ten year old being held indefinitely, it seems, at a mental hospital. She has violent, recurring visions about the death of her parents, and her only wish is to get out and see both her aunt and her cat, Mr. Midnight.
The demo – available online at the KillMonday site – deals with the prologue of Fran’s pre-psychiatric ward life and her attempt to escape so that she may come to find her only living relative, an aunt named Grace.
Though the game is based loosely on Figueroa’s experiences, she admits freely that she experienced a lot of family problems and “many visits” to a mental hospital as a child. The game is a mixture of dark humor and just darkness. It is the sort of warped story – parentless child goes in search of meaning with an anthropomorphized animal – that could be the stuff of Disney, if it weren’t so caked with blood.
Indeed, one of Fran Bow’s more horrific elements are the delusions she suffers whenever she takes some form of anti-psychotic medication. They are ridiculously, unrepentantly gory, and it is in these visions that truth is revealed to Fran. The world is not a drab place filled with bored and frightened people, but a dark place, looming with spirits, monsters, and death. Violent death. The mental patients (who are the same age as Fran) are in denial, and the adults are boringly complicit in keeping them imprisoned.
But the game is not without a certain humor, either. Fran herself is acerbic and witty, which cuts the sharp edges of this otherwise depressing narrative. She is sarcastic but still avails herself of childlike indulgences, much like Figueroa herself. “That my humorous part didn’t die on the way [through childhood] is something for which I am thankful,” she said. “And also, with so much bad stuff happening, you kind of start liking laughing at dark stuff, black humor.”
To put a finer point on this, Figueroa sees Fran Bow not as a surrogate for herself but in large part how we all see our own lives. “She does really think like a 10 year old,” she says, “and one big thing for me when writing those dialogues is actually to realize when I was a child I never thought of myself as being a little girl. You are always the person you are.”
This philosophy on the ruggedness of youth is perhaps a great one, considering what is at stake for the character. Fran Bow is without parents, without direction, with only a talking cat and determination to guide her, so thinking of her in terms of being a fully-developed person is necessary, considering the utter horror of the world surrounding her. Without some combination of strength and ironic detachment, the character at the heart of the game would be overwhelmed literally and figuratively by the violence and blood surrounding her. She is the part of the world that makes sense, even when her surroundings do not, so it is important for her to be grounded.
Though the game is based on real life, interactivity is still one of the main focuses of the games. Fran Bow does not exist to further just a narrative. There are puzzles throughout the five-part experience, and Figueroa says that she and Martinson obsess over them, sometimes for days on end. “Sometimes we brainstorm and and come up with solutions, and sometimes it feels like, ‘Nah, this is rubbish,’” she said. “Until we get it and the lights go on in our heads. It’s hard to explain…Being really open to changes, [it’s] like living in a game.”
Figueroa and Martinson are lifelong creatives, but through writing plays and short films, Figueroa says that she saw something missing in her ventures: the element of interactivity. “I mainly do games because I think it is the most complex way of creating, and the gamer is the final touch,” she said. “And then also because it is super fun.”
This is the general sense that emerges from even a brief conversation with her. She is thankful to be making games, and utterly gracious for the attention the game is receiving. “We just want to hug everybody,” she said, punctuating the sentence with a smiley emoji.
In fact, to show their appreciation for all of the support for Fran Bow, KillMonday put together a game in under three days and released it for free, just in time for the holidays. Mr. Red’s Adventure in The Missing Balls is a “super hard” Christmas-themed platformer available on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. It’s a lighthearted-but-bloody affair that features permadeath, and it appears to be part of the design and aesthetic choices indicative of KillMonday games.
“We also needed some fresh air,” she added.
The story of Fran Bow and its creators can be summed up best by Figueroa herself, from a blog post released back in July, well before the Indiegogo campaign was even over: “The only thing I can be sure about this game is that, Fran Bow is not only about the horror, [it] is about life, about how a little girl will confront a huge world, that is a painful one and also a funny one…that, in a way, is pretty close to all of us.”
Their hope is to release the full version of the game July 25, 2014, which coincides with their anniversary.