Fran Bow hands-on preview

Joe Donnelly September 25, 2013 - 3:30 pm

Fran Bow is a horror game that includes mental institutions and themes of mental illness, without relying too much on the well-worn trope. Joe Donnelly explored Oswald Asylum in this very personal point and click adventure.

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I’ve always admired the point and click adventure genre for its ability to tell compelling stories. Whereas war-stained first person shooters and all-encompassing RPGs regularly force actions, story lines or subplots upon us – for example when we’re told something is how it is just because – point and click adventures introduce a story with tidbits of information here and there, and then let our imaginations do the rest.

This allows these games the capacity to weave much grander tales without overburdening us with screeds of dialogue or overly forced set-pieces. Sure, these games regularly channel us towards pre-determined outcomes, often creating the illusion of ‘choice,’ but, nonetheless, a sizable amount of our understanding comes from what we haven’t seen or experienced, at times, just as much as what we have.

It is through this shrewd manipulation of imagination that allows horror to fit particularly well into the context of the genre, because what we imagine might be is often more terrifying than what actually is. Classics such as Sanitarium and Beneath a Steel Sky still illustrate fine examples of this, and although the genre generally isn’t as popular as it once was, recent horror entries such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead have adopted a contemporary spin on the time-honoured formula, and thus have begun to restore modern interest.

Killmonday’s recently Indiegogo funded Fran Bow looks set to further this au courant trend by combining the alluring simplicity of classic point and click horror with cutting-edge, beautifully hand drawn digital animations.

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The star of the show is Fran Bow herself – a once happy ten year old girl who stumbles upon her dead parents, savagely murdered in their sleep. With only her black cat Mr Midnight as company, Fran flees into the neighbouring woods but soon after collapses in a state of shock. Reawakening within the confines of Oswald Asylum, she is told she is unwell and suffering from deranged hallucinations. From here it’s up to the player to aid Fran in her escape from this mental institution as she is forced to interact with her surroundings, her fellow patients and some watchful wardens.

Take the red pill

Early on the first chapter (of which there are to be five), Fran discovers a jar of red pills which allow her to momentarily visit an alternate dimension. Once consumed, a high-pitched scream triggers a nightmarish world where blood runs from the walls; dead animals and body parts litter the floorspace; characters who were alive and well in the ‘normal’ setting appear dead or dismembered; and apparitions of ghosts and spirits cast eerie shadows across the rooms.

Much similar to the mirror gateways of Silent Hill Origins, Fran must access information, notes and key items from the otherworld in order to facilitate her escape. Further to this affliction, Fran appears to suffer phantasmic delusions of a Death-like, Frank from Donny Darko-esque character who first appears shortly before Fran’s parents’ death, and continually threatens her wellbeing from thereon in.

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It is no secret that the survival horror genre has – and continues to use – mental illness and mental institutions to portray its terror and fear, but it would be all to easy to decry Fran Bow as yet another horror game utilizing this well-worn trope. Fran Bow is different in the sense that the developers’ personal experience lies the heart of the game’s storyline.

“Fran Bow was born from a story Natalia started writing about 11 years ago, it contains parts of her most tormented years of her childhood and teenage,” says Killmonday’s Isak Martinsson – one half of the Swedish developer husband and wife duo. “She started to draw since she was very young and with the years developed a kind of own style. The art style is chosen because it’s the nearest to her and also because the story needed in a way something dark but at the same time childish.”

Martinsson continues, suggesting that our desensitised culture has led us to forget just how terrifying personal problems can be. “The game is not horror because of [Fran’s] mental state,” he says. “The game itself travels a lot from the inside of her to the ordinary outside world. It’s about the horror you can find in everything around you. Like people, actions, thoughts… We have become so insensitive because of all the violence we are exposed to everyday that we forget the real pain and the real horror that everyday brings us.

“Fran Bow touches a mental disorder that is really painful to a terrible act like the murder of her parents and other things that are not explained in the game just yet because it’s just the beginning.”

The beautiful and quirky art style in Fran Bow allows the eccentric characters to really come to life, complete with equally brilliant facial animations – ones which seem to combine the aesthetics of Tim Burton’s work and that creepy angel/cherub stationary paper that your mum or your aunt or your weird old next door neighbour pulls out at Christmas, to great effect.

At this early stage, the game’s puzzles – the heartbeat of any point and click – are well-paced, logical, and never too obvious. During my brief play through there were a couple of scratchy-head moments, but I was never left bewildered to the point of absolute frustration. Mini-games are set to be included in the final game, such as a maze like puzzle upon first escaping into the asylum’s grounds.

Throughout, the character interactions are humourous and genuinely interesting, meaning hearing what each and every character has to say is never a chore. That said, there are some stark translation issues which will have to be addressed before the final version is ready for release.

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Fran Bow looks set to be an intriguing, solid horror point and click adventure and Killmonday should be admired for its desire, passion and commitment in exploring something so personal – something which has shone through every minute of its Indiegogo campaign and follow-up blogs.

Some developers have suggested that horror games depicting metal illness evoke fear because we are naturally scared of what we don’t understand. In one blog post, Natalia describes the nucleus of horror as the unknown. There is a subtle difference; the latter – to me at least – offering a more wholesome and realistic explanation.

For the majority of us Fran Bow will be directly un-relatable, and – for all the game is clearly fantastical – we can only imagine what any of these core experiences are like. It is through Killmonday’s imagining of these characters and circumstance, however, that we are afforded an insight into this particular unknown.

Fran Bow, from Killmonday, is set for a 2014 release on PC, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android.

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