Interview: Killmonday On Fran Bow, Mental Health, Beauty

By John Walker on August 22nd, 2013 at 9:00 pm.

You may have seen our mentioning Fran Bow earlier this month. A point and click adventure with an ongoing IndieGoGo campaign, and an available demo. Fairly standard stuff. But as Ben found when he played it, and I certainly did too, this is something incredibly disturbing. A tale of a 10 year old girl who witnesses the brutal murder of her parents, and then seemingly develops severe mental health issues. The demo, set in an asylum, shows the morbid, hideous version of reality perceived by this girl – a world of brutal death, mutilated children, and dismal hopelessness. It was too much for me – I found it very unnerving. And then I saw that one of the co-creators, Natalia Figueroa, mentioned that it was semi-autobiographical.

So it should be said up front that this interview touches on subjects of sexual and physical abuse, alongside the impact such a project might have, and indeed what else to expect in the game.

RPS: I’ve played the demo. And I’ll be honest – I found it incredibly disturbing. It was more disturbing than I was comfortable with. A girl watching her parents slaughtered in front of her, who maybe goes mad, goes into an asylum, and then with medication sees mutilated corpses of children, desecrated animals, terrible demons and all sorts of bloodshed. And it’s all approached with such a cold, sterile response. Then I hear you say that it’s based on your own life. And I’m completely thrown by that. Can you talk a bit about that, whatever you’re comfortable with sharing?

Natalia Figueroa: The game itself is a kind of screaming out what I been experienced through my childhood and teenager years. From childhood I have being experiencing traumatic events, from being witness to family violence to unfair personal treatment outside home. And as a teenager being sentenced to be part of a religious sect, being kind of a guinea pig for research with all medicines doctors gave me to try to cure the mental illness that life was giving me. There is something else, that I want to keep to myself, but that event is the one that actually detonated everything inside my mind. So yes, Fran Bow is a gathering of many events that have being crucial in my life and in a way, I don’t want to speak only for myself, but also the others I meet on my way, because not everything is about painful situations. Beautiful things has also happened on the way, and those happy event are those who really helped to battle my mental state.

RPS: So is the process of creating the game therapeutic? Has it helped exorcise anything for you?

Natalia Figueroa: I have to say that Fran Bow is purely based on painful and beautiful things that happened in my life and of course it feels very therapeutic. It is the last piece of the puzzle to, in a way, to feel free. And the making of the game is also a great step for me and Isak (the other head of Killmonday) as creators.

I never put so much love and honesty in a project. This really comes from my heart and is done with truly love. Is also a way of letting go of bad moments in life. Actually even this sounds a bit weird – all bad things that happened to me has only given me strength to see that life is about being able to open your eyes and realize that shit happens and there are beautiful things awaiting for you to find.

And making the game also gives me a chance to expose some social aspects that I am against. They are hidden in the story with the characters’ personalities, specially the grown up characters.

RPS: Do you worry about how the game will be received? Any game featuring children is always given extra scrutiny, and one that’s so deliberately upsetting as this one is clearly going to cause some sort of reaction.

Natalia Figueroa: I can’t worry because of something that I create. That would put my point of view in a unsure situation. I’m not worried at all! I’m actually amazed by the love people has given to the game and especially to Fran Bow and the cat Mr. Midnight. I understand that many can feel very uncomfortable with a kid going through so many hard things, but it is the reality many had have lived, and I’m not scared of showing that. And actually if people would be against this game, the only thing I can say is that, I’m not using a girl “figure” to reach this unconformable feeling, it’s only how things happened to me.

RPS: So do you think addressing issues of mental health in such a brutally honest way could be beneficial for people? Begin discussions, encourage people to share their own trauma?

Natalia Figueroa: There are many things untold. I have played many games that take mental illness like it’s something funny. And I have to say, many don’t have any idea of how unfair and sad it all is. Being sexually abused, being used as a research spot, being left back by family… being rejected from society and many things more that are on a torturer level. I think everybody has a trauma and many hide them because of not showing themselves as vulnerable. But hey! We are people and we feel things and we get scared… I don’t understand the need to hide things from yourself. That only makes us more insensitive and scared and creates a wall in front of us.

It would be beautiful that the game for some people can work in a beneficial way, but I can’t expect that because we are all different. And I also want to create something that can be a fun experience for some, and maybe for others a way of feeling at home… we all are so different! It’s hard to tell.

RPS: About the game itself, the demo goes as far as escaping the asylum, but doesn’t feature much of cat sidekick Mr Midnight who you describe as being very important in your IGG campaign. Can you explain a bit more about his role in the game, and how you interact with him?

Natalia Figueroa: Well, the first chapter is about knowing more about Fran Bow, so in the second chapter you will find Mr Midnight. He will be also a playable character and you can play as Mr. Midnight when Fran Bow is not “available” in some of the situations. Also you can pet him, give him food, love and talk to him. He will follow you around and be able to help you. His personality is very sweet and clever at the same time… a bit silly sometimes, so it will give a bit of sweet humor to the game.

RPS: You’ve just reached your funding, so congratulations for that! With over a week left, what further ambitions do you have? How will the game change if more money comes in?

Natalia Figueroa: Thank you! We are in shock actually… we really want to start working on the game again as soon as possible! I have a very clear picture of how the whole game will be, and that no money can change. The game will be in English, Spanish and German. And available for Windows, Mac, Linux and Mobile devices, Iphone, Android and Windows Phone. And about setting stretch goals, we didn’t wanted to do that because we have to focus on doing the game first. And the 20,000 is what we need to do the game. All that is over the $20,000 will be used to make the game available in more languages and platforms if possible. With the extra money we get we have very clear ideas, the first one is to translate for more languages like French, Italian, Russian and more if possible. If we get enough for the Wii U (developer kit cost around $3,000) we will do that too. And we will try to do it for Ouya also.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Fran Bow’s IGG campaign is still going for another nine days. You can get the demo from that page too.

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48 Comments »

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  1. Premium User Badge

    daphne says:

    This was absolutely wonderful, and you ask good questions, thanks Mr. Walker.

    “I can’t worry because of something that I create.”

    These words resonate with truth and conviction. Very respectable. I will be getting this game, even though it might end up being too much for me.

    • trjp says:

      erm – if creators can’t worry about the things they create, the only alternative is having some committee of nosy-middle-class idiots doing it for them – so that’s a bad idea surely?

      • Premium User Badge

        aequidens says:

        Nosy middle-class idiots will worry regardless of what you do. They are irrelevant.

        • misterT0AST says:

          They also decide the sort of the world through their alleged “right” to vote.

        • trjp says:

          They’re also inevitable – the only way to avoid them deciding everything is to self-regulate to some degree.

          I worry about anyone who thinks they can put-out anything they like and “not worry” about the effect it could have on people – I’m not sure anyone has that right.

          • The Random One says:

            If something is truly awful then people will speak up against it. Or, rather, if something is entirely outside what is acceptable discourse in the present society, for better or for worse. Otherwise it’s just the beginning of a dialogue.

            But if you’re doing something personal you can’t really think about it. We’re trained to hide those feelings, and the only way to work them into art is to let them flow free. Hopefully you then turn out not be the horrible freak of nature you feel like and people relate to you at some level.

          • Enid121 says:

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          • Dances to Podcasts says:

            ” I’m not sure anyone has that right.”

            Article 19: http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

    • sonson says:

      By all means people should be free to express themselves, and they should not be limited in their capacity to create, but they absolutely should consider the repercussions of their doing so and that should mould their ideas somewhat. Not thinking/caring about what other people think and not being censored are entirely different things. The former is essentially sociopathic behaviour almost by definition.

      Too many people don’t think about how what they do/say will affect other people these days, the world is not better off for that.

      Also, communication is about understanding how people consume information. It is a two-way channel. Shouting something about somebody, although vivid and obvious, might be a very poor form of communication for example. I’m not saying that this game is doing that-I have no idea, having not played it-but if the only consideration made was “I have a message to share” without considering how people might be able to digest that, and working towards a method which might have facilitated that somewhat, it runs the risk of failing to communicate it’s intended message, which would be a tragedy.

  2. S Jay says:

    Point to this article when someone says games can’t be an art form.

    • trjp says:

      Someone who knows a lot more about art than most people once said that to be art, a thing cannot be anything BUT art.

      A statue is a statue – a painting is a painting but a car is transport and a game is entertainment and thus those things are not ‘art’.

      I’m not sure if I agree with that or not but I can see where they’re coming from.

      The only thing I’m sure of is that the creator of something cannot define that thing – I believe ‘art’ is determined by those who appreciate it – not the creator themselves.

      • The Random One says:

        That person who knows a lot about art needs to be told that Architecture is one of the classical arts. I guess all those beautiful buildings aren’t really art since their designers had to worry about them not collapsing on themselves, being well ventilated, having fire exits etc.

        Likewise any art that makes you think about society, politics, prejudices and so on is something else other than art so it must not really be art.

        What a pathetic stance.

        • Trillby says:

          The actual quote is:

          “We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless”

          So no, architecture and cars can of course be seen as art. They could be built as purely useful grey boxes. The fact that we work their form so as to make them aesthetically pleasing has no function other than that we will admire them. That’s a useless act, as in it has no further purpose. By this definition, a game can very well be art, if we play it purely to admire what has gone into it.

          It’s all philosophical anyway – that defintion of art is just a pithy little quote from a Frenchman, so I wouldn’t take it as fact. “Are games art” is just an arbitrary question. If it feels like art to you, knock yourself out.

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            Gap Gen says:

            To be fair, that’s a quote from a novel, not a stated opinion [EDIT: oops, it’s a paraphrasing of what someone else said, and presumably meant]. Plus I don’t see how, say, games and music aren’t linked closely. I play music in a similar way to games – I take a piece of code and use a machine to interact with it. And it’s not like games have a utilitarian function (assuming that economic activity is the only useful thing to do in life and all other pursuits are pointless, which I would argue is fuff and stummering). Granted, I’m not sure what the link between design and art is, but then I find debates about how words should be defined are fascinating and do not in any way want to make me remove my brains from my skull using an old hammer.

          • trjp says:

            The quote I was referring to came from someone working at the UK’s National Portrait Gallery via, of all people, Jeremy Clarkson.

            I can’t actually find the article that Clarkson was referring to but I’ve no reason to believe he made it up – it’s quite possible that someone in that position would refer to the ‘uselessness of art’.

            and as someone already said better than I, a building can simply be a box with holes in it, all the fancy architecture we celebrate isn’t in any way useful and thus it can be seen as art.

            That possibly means Dear Esther is art because as a game, it’s pretty useless ;)

          • The Random One says:

            It’s still all part of a despicable mindset that demands all art be toothless. Usually by people who are comfortable and don’t want pesky thoughts to get in the way of their entertainment.

            The worst part is that, for narratives, you can’t be True Neutral – your fictional world will by necessity be a simplification of the real world, and what you choose to simplify will reveal your biases. These attempts at neutrality will produce things like Call of Duty: That Last One, where the creators’ lack of engagement with their subject matter just amplified the pro-war feelings their military consultants would naturally have. I’d have a lot more respect if they held this horrible opinion openly and not accidentally. (And of course the first Modern Warfare did quite a few rather clever things.) And don’t get me started on how B.Infinite ended up on a dark place when trying to balance “being oppressed is bad” and “violent uprisings are also bad”.

            But I’m rambling. Cool game, Nat. The demo locks up when I try to set up the clock.

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            Gap Gen says:

            That is true – as a medium that represents the human condition and provides a lens through which to view ourselves, art is tremendously important and useful to civilisation, and has a role in allowing human society to reflect upon itself. Again, I’m extremely dubious that economic development is the only goal of humanity, or that it is in of itself a moral imperative.

      • Jack Mack says:

        Even assuming that a thing must be useless to be art; Games are useless.

        • The Random One says:

          Nah. Play is very important for the social development of children, for one.

      • Grimlar says:

        I would have to disagree. Art is almost inherently useful.

        Art by its very nature is trying to do at least one useful thing, and that is convey the artists intent to the observer.

        The reception of that intent is always filtered through the prism of the observers circumstances so that what is perceived may not be what the artist planned. I would therefore argue that accuracy is secondary and the size of the effect on the observer is more important.

        It wouldnt matter if that intent was an emotion, a concept, a memory or even the absence of these things. (Absence in itself being a concept.) Whatever it is, the artist was trying to achieve something.

        ‘Art must be useless’ also doesnt work in a more practical sense either, most literature conveys a story/entertainment, many paintings contain historically useful details of the world the artist was living in and beautiful examples of the human form convey the concept of suitability of the prospective partner, in terms of desireability and indications of health amongst other examples.

        So for me the debate about computer games as art was never an issue in the first place. Like everything else, can computer games ever be art? Of course they can. Does that mean all (or even most) computer games are art. Of course not.

        This debate essentially boils down to art snobs using quotes from people who were usually dead before computers were ever created to maintain the elitist position of their preferred artform.

        • Trillby says:

          Yep, I always cringe at the “useless” quote – although it was rather meant as “functionless”, thus being interpretable for exactly the kind of things you mentioned. He wasn’t saying it had no usefulness in a psychological sense, rather that freeing something from having any function other than its existence is what allows us to treat it as a piece of art. A urinal in a public toilet is not art, its a toilet. A urinal as a museum piece is art since it is only there to be looked at and thought about.

          Anyway…

          I’d go much further, and say: Who gives a shit whether anyone thinks games are art or not?

          I think its a much more intersting debate than the semantic one. Do we as gamers in some way desire games to be seen as art by the wider world? Why? Does it legitimize our hobby? Will the opposite sex give us more respect? Do we want to be able to tell our mums “I did 6 hours of Art this weekend” ?

          I’m of the opinion that art is in the eye of the beholder. Of course the urinal in the toilet can also be art, if I percieve it as art. Usefulness is as much an attribute of the moment; if i don’t need a piss, the toilet is not fulfillng any function except stinking up the place. A game I’m enjoying at a given moment because dopamine and adrenalin are flooding my synapses and I’m pwning all kind of noob isn’t art right then. But when I’m thinking about the experience a few hours later, relating it to Nietzsche and my childhood and the wider world in general or whatever, then I guess it has become Art.

          And to get to the crux: Why would it make any difference whether someone else acknowledges that fact? Unless you guys can make some very convincing arguments, I can only (wildly narcissistically) assert that your desire to want games to be percieved as art in the wider world is due to some lack of conviction that your hobby is important enough to spend time on. And that the acknowledgment of games as art will make you say “Phew – having a massive Steam library doesn’t make me a nerd, it makes me a Patron of the Arts”.

  3. dannyroth says:

    One of my favorite games (Binding of Isaac) was also kind of disturbing. I have yet to try this one, but the idea of it sounds like it’ll be an experience.

  4. Rinu says:

    Fran Bow was a reason why I joined Indiegogo. The gore aspect discouraged me at first but it’s great to see a European small team to create something unique. I look forward to play Natalia’s and Isak’s – surely – masterpiece and pet Mr. Midnight in the progress :).

    Thank you for the interview. I wasn’t aware of Natalia’s background and how it drove her to make this game.

  5. Wut The Melon says:

    A very interesting interview, and it is encouraging (in a way) to see that a game has been chosen as a medium to tell this kind of story.

    A technical nitpick, though, if I may: I understand that Ms Figueroa’s first language is not English, but I feel Mr Walker might have taken the time to correct her mistakes here. It would not have made them any less valuable and somewhat easier to read. (Not that the interview is unreadable in its current state, but I would say correcting the interviewee’s language-related errors is just good journalistic practice)

    • John Walker says:

      Actually, many would consider it bad practice to change them at all. What I have done here is correct errors that made the understanding of the sentence unclear, but maintained the distinctive nature of Natalia’s voice, which I thought was important to preserve.

      • Wut The Melon says:

        Fair enough. I’m not a journalist after all, and I guess there are multiple valid standpoints possible. The newspapers I read (here in the Netherlands, that is) would probably prefer to correct them, but maybe different schools of journalists have different opinions on this kind of thing. At any rate, the article was still a good read.

        • trjp says:

          It’s a complete journalistic no-no to change ANYTHING anyone says when being interviewed.

          If you think something that someone said was unclear, you should ask a qualifying/clarifying question at the time.

          If you don’t realise the issue until later you have a couple of options

          1 – run it as-is – perhaps with a comment explaining the ambiguity and your interpretation of it
          2 – contact the person, ask them for clarification and include that
          3 – remove the question entirely

          If you think this isn’t a big deal – it was the basis of the downfall of Johann Hari. He swapped bits of interviews he’d done with interviews the same person had done with other people. He said it wasn’t misleading, as it was the same person speaking/answering the same question. He claimed he only did it because their actual answer at the time had been misleading, had translation issues or whatever – but he did it a LOT so that seems less likely.

          • John Walker says:

            Or you do as I did, and check with the interviewee that they’re happy with the small fixes : )

          • trjp says:

            It’s that 2)? :)

          • Wut The Melon says:

            I am fairly certain that correcting grammatical or language-related mistakes (without changing the meaning of any sentence) is standard practice in any Dutch newspaper, for the same reason you wouldn’t write down every single ‘uhh…’ or cough by your interviewee – it does not help to convey what the interviewee is trying to get across, and correcting it makes reading the interview more comfortable.

            As I mentioned though, I suspect this is simply an aspect of journalism that is different in the UK (or different in the Netherlands, if you want me to be so politically correct ; ). If I am allowed to be slightly less politically correct, I think part of this may be due to the fact that it is less common for UK nationals to speak foreign languages than it is here – see LennyLeonardo’s comment at the bottom.

  6. Eddy9000 says:

    My thesis for my clinical psychology doctorate was on mental health representation in the media, I just want to thank you Natalia for introducing so many perspectives into mental distress that are often missed in media representations. In particular linking distress to traumatic events rather than perpetuating the myth of an ‘illness’ that springs out of nowhere, and most of all linking the characters current experiences in a meaningful and symbolic way to their past experiences rather than portraying the experiences of distress as ‘madness’ that have no relation to reality.

    I’d love to see more media output by survivors with lived experience such as yourself and I can’t wait to play the game, my only regret is that I didn’t hear about it soon enough to fund it. Have you thought about letting organisations like the Hearing Voices Network know about your project? Their philosophy seems to have a lot in common with yours judging from your interview.

    I’m going to show the residents of the hospital I work at this interview for discussion I think, as well as the ideas I’m sure they’ll all be inspired by someone who has been through similar experiences to them going on to create something meaningful from it and kickstarting their own project.

    • Premium User Badge

      Rikard Peterson says:

      The campaign still have eight days left, so you can still get in on it if you want to.

      • Eddy9000 says:

        Ah so it is! I think I read “reached your funding” and blocked out the last sentence. Cheers!

    • JFS says:

      I agree that trauma as a cause for mental disorders is often overlooked in the media. However , “trauma” has become a huge buzzword in psychiatry and psychotherapy, and I feel it’s often being overused. For example, and I mean no disrespect to the interviewee, labelling “unfair personal treatment” a trauma is going a little overboard IMO.
      Keep in mind that I don’t know the case, so consider this a general statement regarding the situation of the field rather than a devaluation of anything siad in the interview.

      • itsbenderingtime says:

        You can’t really think about it in a sense of what’s “worthy” to be called trauma (in fact, it’s incredibly harmful – people suffering from any kind of anxiety tend to enter a feedback loop based on the idea that their circumstances are not extreme enough to justify their thoughts, making them feel like there is something even MORE wrong with them). Fact of the matter is, if your brain interprets something as traumatic and triggers the kind of reaction that trauma would trigger, then it’s traumatic, regardless of what it is. If my mental circumstances (or yours!) are in a particular state, then something as small as an unkind word could be quite traumatic.

        • JFS says:

          So, what you’re saying is that basically “trauma” in a formal sense doesn’t exist? That means everyone is traumatized, or no one is traumatized. While I understand your notion (and I wouldn’t want to be the one to draw the line), I don’t think this is a definition anyone can work with. At least not scientifically, which most likely is necessary to combat mental health problems.

          • Convolvulus says:

            Trauma exists and is well-defined, but you’re asking too much of the definition. There is no singular human response to a given situation, so there can be no outline detailing exactly what can cause a lasting emotional reaction.

      • Premium User Badge

        xao says:

        Without knowing what comprised the “unfair personal treatment”, discounting its trauma seems unwise. You could legitimately categorise slavery as “unfair personal treatment”, and I would certainly consider that traumatic.

    • Paul B says:

      I know trauma was one of the reasons behind my mental health problem. And I agree that anything that helps you gain insight into your condition and move forward from past events is worth pursuing. I find it interesting that Natalia is doing this through the medium of games

      I’m also glad that games like this are being made – mature treatment of mental illness, and anything which might stimulate debate or make people think deeply about this condition, should be welcomed.

      • LennyLeonardo says:

        I don’t know much about the science, but linguistically speaking, “trauma” is the wound, not the blow. So one can suffer trauma from a blow that might not harm another. Right?

  7. AlienMind says:

    “I think everybody has a trauma and many hide them because of not showing themselves as vulnerable.”
    She’s right, there are e.g. people out there who were kidnapped by their biological father against their wills just because the court decided it’s legal for example. Some have more traumatic experiences, some less, but I think everybody has one. I admire her because she is able to express a part of that through the highest art form there is. I also really like the humorous parts of the demo so far :-)

  8. aer0ace says:

    Surely this would have been the game to change Roger Ebert’s mind.

  9. ibebyi says:

    aside from the original & unsettling aesthetic, the mechanics of the game itself (as in, point and click) seem pretty cut and paste, though to be fair I’ve only seen a “let’s play” of the demo. I hope they are able to use their “two-dimensions” theme to the fullest and not just as a gimmick…

    EDIT: I have to say tho, it is really inspirational to see games like this come out of such personal places and not just some corporate cookie cutter. I guess that’s ironic given my previous complaint.. idk.

  10. Messofanego says:

    Wow, not many games tackle mental illness (Depression Quest, Neverending Nightmares, Spec Ops The Line with PTSD) so I’m glad this exists.

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    Lambchops says:

    Not sure whether this is something I want to play or not (I’ll maybe give a demo a try if one is available and see) but I just want to say that I’m glad to see that there’s some projects out there on the crowdfunding platforms that have a fully formed creative vision for their project and don’t let the idea of stretch goals interfere with that vision but instead just use the extra money to get the game available to as many people as possible. It’s a little thing but I find it rather admirable.

  12. LennyLeonardo says:

    Is it just me, or is there something really wonderful about people speaking very earnestly in something other than their first language? Like, it seems more honest, as though there’s less to hide behind. Or am I being really patronising? Maybe I am.

    • Premium User Badge

      DrScuttles says:

      I think it’s the simply the desire to communicate something deeply personal in a second language that’s most impressive. For me, discussing mental health can be distressing, awkward and nebulous and that’s in the only language I have any competence in.
      Maybe you are being patronising, and me too for even suggesting this, but there may be a slight aspect of Natalia addressing thoughts and feelings directly as opposed to wrapping them up in the fluffy vagueness a more expert speaker could.
      As for the game, I’m certainly interested in it and very happy it’s reached its target, but it would seem to be something worth investigating on one of the better days.