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Author of queer, wry sci fi/fantasy books. On Amazon.
Editor of all fiction genres.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Fran Bow: A Game Review

Hello hello!

I continue to fight depression and anxiety, but I'm still here--so I'm winning, I suppose you could say.  At any rate, it's been ages since I put up a new post, but not for lack of ideas or content. This idea, however, demanded to be discussed because it was so very timely. For once, I will try to avoid


...but there will still be a few. Also, major content warnings apply to the game, for gore, ghosts, scary women's health issues, a creepy pedo-type guard, and other various scary situations. If you're sensitive to stories about children in danger, or if Pan's Labyrinth upsets you, maybe give this game a pass. For the rest of you, follow me down this dark and strange path to the world of Ithersta.

Sometimes, Disarcade (aka Andrey, the partner in crime) plays something other than DOTA 2. I've been nagging him to put up another blog for non-DOTA things, but I'll alert you all when that actually happens. Anyway, when Dantalion sent us the code for Fran Bow, I had no idea what to expect.

What I got was an indie point and click adventure game game that's basically on par with, or better than Psychonauts. It's terrifying, but easily the most in-depth and well-written game about mental illness that I've ever seen. I've complained that games about asylums and such tend to other mentally ill people in the past, and I thought I was tired as hell of Creepy Child stories, but this game totally inverted my expectations.

When? Where? 

The game is set in the early 1940s, but avoids talking directly about WWII. That isn't to say the themes don't touch on it, but it's very indirect. I can't talk about the rich mythology and symbolism and themes in the game without some end-of-game spoilers, but suffice to say that if you are educated about history and you look for hints about what Jewish people endured, you might well see them.

The game seems to be set in Europe, but I saw suggestions online that it's set in America. Everyone speaks English and it's all captioned anyway, so it's hard to tell.

Who is Fran Bow? 

You can see more about the plot here. Fran is the eponymous character, and the game is delivered through her perspective. After her parents are brutally murdered under dubious circumstances, she is brought to an asylum for mentally ill children. By putting the game entirely in her perspective, the viewer is placed in an empathetic position rather than a fearful one. Fran jokes, is polite and friendly to everyone, and is spunky and brave even when things are hopeless. Even when she's followed by horrifying, demonic shadows, she keeps her chin up and remains devoted to finding her kitty, Mr. Midnight.

Fran might be mentally ill, with schizophrenia, or the world she's in might just be very strange. The entire game might be a metaphorical way of dealing with her struggles. Which of these is true? I'm not going to tell you, of course!

What does it look and sound like? 

If you're longing for a visual feast, Fran Bow delivers. The detailed, beautiful 2-D animation is a feast for the eyes, and the horror is fucking creepy. Skeletons, strange beasts, blood, and demons? All of the above, and then some. This is weird horror that dabbles in Lovecraftian styling but without aping old tropes. The music is simple, but the sound design is haunting and creepy. It's a very pared-down game, but does not feel limited or cheap in the least.

Source. This is a scene from pretty early on...and it only gets creepier. 

Why do you like it so much? 

Like I said, it's an empathetic portrayal of trauma, mental illness, and the things people endured in psychiatric facilities until the 1970s. Hints of violence against women, the metaphorical illustrations of demons (or non-metaphorical, depending on what you think about the game), the cruel experimentation...all of it is done in an empathetic but fair way, and it's still scary as hell. This is easily the scariest game Disarcade has ever played, and I've sat through both of the good Dead Space games. Fran Bow doesn't really rely on crappy jump scares, but uses atmosphere and scary ideas to get the scares across. The story is frightening on many levels, and boy does it work. The best part is that even with Fran's simple, brave point of view, the story retains its scariness. It's never stupid, childish, or condescending to either the audience or Fran, and Fran isn't overly sexualized in weird ways. 

Final Verdict

Play this game right now. I don't usually give games such emphatically positive reviews, but games are almost never as exceptional as this one. It took us around four or five hours to get through, so the game doesn't wear out its welcome. I'm still thinking about its implications, the worlds it offers, and the way it portrays both inner demons and Fran herself. 

What's next? 

I've been having trouble getting anything done, for reasons mentioned above, but I'm hoping to write a post about a game called "Don't Starve Together", one about JK Rowling's not-so-hidden fatphobia, and to catch up on some of the old idea posts that have been sitting in my queue for a while. What do you want me to write about? Leave a comment if you have questions or ideas!


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