Few who have played Fran Bow would think it’s a game born out of chaos. It’s a remarkably well-realised game where the themes and ideas come together to create something organic and coherent. It feels like a very deliberate game. But the actual creation of it was the first stumbling steps for a pair of beginner developers who didn’t know the first thing about how to make a game. They had a strong vision and a dream of creating something meaningful but realising it proved harder than they thought.
Natalia Martinsson was born and raised in Chile and has always been inclined to create art. She was always painting. If not on paper or a canvas, then on the walls or whatever she could find. In time, she came to specialise in digital art. All this was self-taught. It wasn’t until she came to Sweden that she studied animation for two years, in Stockholm.
She became really good at animation and loved it. After her studies, she also worked as an animator for a while. When this job ended, she began thinking about what to do with her life and career. She had already done a few short films and music videos with her husband, Isak Martinsson. They were both interested in narratives and telling stories (Isak’s background is in film studies). Then, one day, they watched a movie, and everything changed.
“We watched Indie Game: The Move, and it was a revelation. We were so inspired by it,” says Natalia.
Natalia had not been a big gamer all her life. She played a bit of Atari as a child, but it was an expensive hobby in Chile. She leaned more heavily on the art side and didn’t play much for many years. But Isak was a lifelong gamer, and after being inspired by the documentary, they decided to use their individual talents and try to make a game. It would not be an easy task.
Learning by doing
Natalia founded Killmonday Games with her husband Isak Martinsson, in late 2012, and the pair began working on their debut game in 2013. It was to become a great success, but getting there proved even more challenging than expected. It’s not that she was naïve about how hard it is to make a game; it’s just that making a game is a challenging and complex process where a lot can go wrong — even if you try to make it easy on yourself. And Natalia did not make it easy on herself. Neither she nor Isak knew how to programme, for example. But they really wanted to do this, so they decided to learn as they went along.
They divided up the work so that Isak would focus on learning the programming end, and Natalia would handle writing, animation and adapting her aesthetic sensibilities to an interactive medium. According to Natalia, it was a struggle. To put it gently.
“It was the first time we undertook such a complex project and there were so many things to keep track of,” Natalia says. “The whole first year was just a long learning process where we had to start over repeatedly to get it right. In the beginning, the game looked terrible, but eventually, things started moving forward as we learned more. In the end, we completed Fran Bow in this manner of learning by doing. But we were working around the clock, and we had no resources at all, really.”
Since both Natalia and Isak wanted to work on the game full-time, they needed to find some funding to make ends meet. A successful Indiegogo campaign proved to be the saviour.
“This was even before Kickstarter was available in Sweden, but we managed to crowdfund 28,000 dollars through Indiegogo,” Natalia says. “It was scary because now it had to work out. We had to finish the game, and it had to sell because we had no other jobs to fall back on. Our plan was to move back with our mothers if things didn’t go as planned, but this was something we really wanted to avoid, of course.”
They had almost no money left in their account when the game was released. It was a nervous time for Natalia as she awaited the initial response to the game — and the sales figures, of course.
“When the game was released, we were basically broke. We only had 2,000 kronor left and no real income. If the game didn’t sell, it would be a disaster. But in the first month, the game sold 10,000 copies. We didn’t have any PR budget, of course, but we were lucky that a few popular streamers showcased the game and then word of mouth made more people aware of the game.”
Natalia’s goal was not just for the game to sell well. She wanted to tell a deeply personal story inspired by her experiences of grief, abuse and self-harm. These subjects are not easy to convey in a video game or art. Learning how to make a game by just doing it was tough in and of itself. Still, the game’s autobiographical themes also demanded much from Natalia during the long development period. It was both a professional and emotional trial by fire to get the game not only finished but to get it right. After all that work, Natalia wanted the game to say something.
“Many people really responded to the game, and the feedback was amazing,” says Natalia. “It was really cool. We received an e-mail from families who had played the game together and bonded through it. Others have said that they could relate to the game’s depiction of mental illness, grief and trauma. That’s when I felt we had succeeded and that people understood what we were trying to do. We didn’t want to do a typical horror game. We wanted to depict something that is not talked about enough in society in general. In a sense, a game can act as a sort of therapy. Since you are an active participant when playing the games, you can get the game characters’ perspectives and experience it in a meaningful way.”
It was a game born from both passion and pain, but for Natalia, the end result was worth the struggle and hard work. She would have preferred an easier process, of course, and would have done things differently today if she could do it all over again with the knowledge she has now.
“It was tough, being so honest and raw with myself when writing and designing the game, and we worked way too much,” says Natalia. “So I would not advise anyone to create a game the way we did. It was chaotic. But In the end, all the hard work really paid off. And we didn’t have to move back in with our mothers.”
Building a world
A Killmonday game is very recognisable, especially in visual design and writing. It’s all a sort of twisted mix of blurry childhood memories, cute naivety and dark, often disturbing imagery used as metaphors for various emotional themes. Fran Bow does contain a lot of bloody body parts, but it’s not really a game about gore. It’s all about what it represents in relation to what the characters are going through.
But creating a distinctive and coherent style takes time. What would eventually become Fran Bow was a long process that began as something completely different. The idea of telling relatable stories about real issues through a dark, fantastical lens was always there but became more refined in time.
“It started as a story I was going to make a movie using animated dolls in the style of Coraline,” says Natalia. “I was working on the project for six months but never finished it. The reason for this was that some people broke into the studio where I had my dolls and destroyed them. It was too much work to start over, so I abandoned the project. But I used the groundwork I laid with the story when creating Fran Bow, even if it expanded significantly during development. I kept the basic premise, with a little girl looking for her cat in a strange world inhabited by odd characters and creatures. When making the game, it became more developed and more in-depth and more focused. I want to tell stories about real things, but in an indirect way with otherworldly fantasy elements. I also love playing around with perspectives and borrowing inspiration from both philosophy, old religions, science and especially nature. I love mixing all sorts of things.”
Emboldened by the success of Fran Bow, Natalia wanted to try new and more advanced things for the next game, Little Misfortune. They wanted voice acting for the dialogues, and Natalia herself took on the role of the title character. They also switched from GameMaker, which had been a good tool for Isak to learn programming, to Unity — a significantly more complex engine. However, they had learned from the complicated process of making a debut game and didn’t want to make the same mistakes again. To do more, they had also to do less.
“We wanted to take the next step, but in order to do that, we had to adjust and limit the scope of the game,” says Natalia. “We took what we had learned from our first game and tried to make the process easier in our next one. We also hired more people to handle the workload since it wasn’t sustainable to keep working as much as we did on the first game. “
Natalia wanted Little Misfortune to also be deeply personal, with autobiographical themes inspired by childhood memories and traumas. So in that sense, the emotional process was as demanding as the first game.
“Bringing up old memories and processing them is hard but valuable,” says Natalia.” And it has become a vital part of our expression and the world we have created in our games to mix darkness with cute or funny elements. The games do different things, but they all exist in the same universe.”
After finishing Little Misfortune, the studio’s third game would, true to their formula, also represent a step forward. When finished, it will be their first 3D game. By now, the team has increased even more; there are currently 13 people at the studio. This has brought new possibilities, such as attempting a game in 3D, but also new challenges.
New possibilities, new challenges
As a designer and an animator, getting to grips with 3D graphics is a whole process in and of itself. Natalia talks about how the game’s scope got too big and the difficulties of maintaining her distinctive style in 3D graphics.
“I never want to make something generic,” Natalia says. “If it becomes generic, it’s a failure. With this third game, the scope became too big, I think. So we have to go back and focus to get it back on track. Right now, we have paused the 3D game until we complete another game — which is really an extra chapter for Fran Bow. We will finish the 3D title as well, but we want to work on one thing at a time right now. We don’t want to get stuck doing too much and not getting anywhere.”
Learning to manage a larger team is also demanding, and something Natalia has had to adapt. We all have our way of thinking, with different references and ideas, so making sure everyone is on the same page can prove challenging. Plus, human language, for all its complexities, is still fraught with the constant potential for misunderstandings. There are always new mistakes to make and problems to handle. Eliminating this from game development is probably impossible, but Natalia emphasises that she tries hard to minimise any friction and find the best possible way forward.
“Every game is its own learning process,” says Natalia. “I try to think positively that all the work that does not lead to actual progress in a project is still valuable in the long run since you learn from it. You get better. It’s fantastic when you think about it!”
Good ideas and visions can carry you a long way, but in the end, game development is a complex process. During our conversation, Natalia stresses several times that others should not follow her example when creating their first game and that people should try and plan and not work themselves half to death. Following your dreams and trying to realise your vision is all good, but a dream is not good if you burn yourself out. So you also need to save some strength for realising the next dream.
Listen to Natalia this coming Friday, and grab your ticket for the free and remote event!
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