Fran Bow has been committed to a mental hospital. It’s 1944. Her parents are dead. She misses her cat terribly. She’s suffering serious side effects from her medication. But at least she seems to be doing better than the other children in the hospital. Or is she? How reliable a narrator is Fran Bow?
I don’t want to say too much about Fran or her unfolding predicament, because the real value of this indie adventure game is its darkening mystery. But Fran stands out for being an Alice in Wonderland without the self-aware “oh, I’m so dark and edgy” of many latter-day Alices in their wonderlands (you’ll find an amusing Alice in Wonderland easter egg late in the game).
Although the main character is a ten-year-old girl, this is an adult game. If Fran Bow was a movie, it would be rated R for gratuitous gore and extreme images. It’s more Silent Hill than, say, Double Fine. The story doesn’t shy away from Fran being a girl either. One of the adult characters you meet will give you the inventory item you need if you “sit on his knee” or “give him a kiss”. These aren’t options, of course. Fran knows it’s skeevy and she’s having none of it. But it serves as a creepy reminder that a story about a ten-year-old girl can have different kinds of peril than a story about a ten-year-old boy. Let’s move on. The game certainly does.
After the jump, child’s play
Some of the attempts to capture a childlike tone work better than others. “Spatula,” Fran muses when you click on a spatula, “It sounds like Dracula but in a spa.” Cute enough. But then along comes the occasional clunker. “The placenta is like a jetpack of blood and nutrients”? Oh my. I do love how Fran is unfazed by the grotesque. She’ll merrily chat with a disemboweled corpse, noting that he’s leaking “red milk”. She’ll ask dead babies if they feel okay. “Skulls always look so happy,” she muses at some charnel scene. “Maybe they haven’t realized that they are dead yet.”
The imagery and imaginativeness are exquisite and sometimes even heartbreaking (I played Fran Bow based solely on seeing this screenshot). This dark world is beautifully drawn as a mixture of innocence and the extreme. It’s not about budding sexuality (see Tale of Tale’s The Path for the best horror treatment of that subject), but it is about childhood and the relationship to terrible things in the adult world. As a character and a story, Fran has a lot in common with Henry Selick’s Coraline, who naturally has a lot in common with Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. They’re not bad girls to have a lot in common with. There’s some Pan Labyrinth in here as well for the R-rated violence and imagery, but Fran Bow isn’t above getting really gruesome for gruesomeness’ sake. Clive Barker meets Nancy Drew, but mostly Clive Barker.
Unfortunately, it’s an adventure game. Some of the puzzles adroitly cultivate their “a-ha!” moments. Others don’t. If the developers hadn’t included a walkthrough with the press version, I would have been stopped cold at numerous points. It’s the usual adventure game logic, but some of it is terrible for no good reason. For instance, at one point you need a blue rose. But you cannot find a blue rose anywhere. You hunt in vain. There is no blue rose. You keep hunting. There is still no blue rose. You can find a picture of a blue rose and a moon. You can also find something called a moonlight seed. You can see a patch of light at the bottom of a well, but there’s no indication it’s an interactable hotspot. None of these things is near the other, so you might think they’re unconnected. But what you have to figure out is that putting the seed in the patch of light will grow a blue rose. Left to my own devices, I never would have seen anything beyond this point in Fran Bow. There are worse examples later. Suffice to say alternate realities with alternate rules are indistinguishable from nonsense.
Mechanically, I take issue with dialogue choices that have minimal effect on the dialogue. Why am I choosing between A and B when the conversation will inevitably end at C? I’d prefer the author just provide the best dialogue and chuck the pointless alternate choices. I also take issue with having to click an object repeatedly until the text repeats in order to know I’ve exhausted the available information. Both of these problems break the flow of the prose.
Fran Bow, the game and the character, takes an abrupt turn at a certain point. It becomes a very different kind of world. I was here for the ghosts, gore, and girls with blood pouring out of their eyes, but now I’m playing some twee nod to Neverending Story? I get the purpose of this detour, and it earns its place in the story with a nicely played pun. It’s even an important part of the eventual payoff. But it still felt a bit bait-and-switch. I guess the best thing I can say is that it makes the horrific stuff feel more horrific when it finally returns. Five straight chapters of horror might get too comfortable without the third chapter to mix up the tone.
But the final chapter and resolution is well worth the trip. Isn’t that what it all comes down to? Whether the finale is worth the journey? In the case of Fran Bow, an occasionally horrific game with a memorable character and some fantastically grotesque artwork, it’s absolutely worth the journey.