How an underrated Final Fantasy game inspired 2022's quirkiest indie
Nothing ever goes wrong here.
Want to fight a Hell Knight, a bomb with human legs, or the number three?
You’ll either have to take some powerful hallucinogens or try Franken, the new indie RPG taking the internet by storm. Developed by Samanthuel Louise Gillson, who goes by the internet moniker Splendid Land, the hour-long title is more than worth the (free!) price of admission.
“Franken really came from a place of ‘I want to make something, who cares if it ends up good or not!’” Gillson tells Inverse. “If I made it expecting to make money off it, it wouldn't have been as fun to make.”
Franken was uploaded to itch.io on May 2 but didn’t become popular overnight. It wasn’t until a week later, when YouTuber Jason Gastrow, known online as VideoGameDunkey, posted an 11-minute video about the game that Gillson saw a surge of interest. According to Gillson, Franken received 17,000 downloads after Dunkey’s video came out, a 90 percent increase compared to the previous week.
“I didn't know who Dunkey was until like two days ago,” Gillson says. “I didn't like that his video spoiled the ending before many had the chance to play, but there's a lot of stuff that isn't shown in it as well.”
With more than seven million subscribers, Gastrow is one of the most popular and influential gaming creators on the platform. His May 1 Overwatch 2 review has more than four million views in less than two weeks. It likely played some role in cooling hype and Twitch viewership for the long-awaited sequel to Blizzard’s hero shooter. It’s fairly common for indie titles to be thrust into the spotlight on the backs of a YouTuber’s video. Five Nights at Freddy’s, Bendy and the Ink Machine, and Undertale are all indie darlings that soared in popularity after exposure from popular Let’s Players on YouTube.
A quirky beginning
In Franken, you take control of a typical RPG hero looking to save a world full of oddball NPCs from certain doom. Equipped with nothing but a sword, you’ll fight your way through lobsters that look like scorpions, a dragon who likes to make soup, and a number of wonderfully weird bosses we wouldn’t dare spoil. The familiar comforts of retro pixel art and a charming soundtrack lure you into the world.
Franken lovingly riffs on the occasionally awkward storytelling and clumsy foreshadowing of classic SNES RPGs. You’ll enter a town where every resident tells you how wonderful and safe it is to live there. It can’t possibly end well, and sure enough, it doesn’t. It’s a fun throwback to Final Fantasy IV, where you’ll see at least three wonderful and safe towns bombarded to smithereens.
Gillson has been creating offbeat internet RPGs for nearly a decade, each with a distinct sense of humor that’s undeniably hers. In 2012, she gained notoriety for the outlandish Megaman Sprite Game, which takes a group of oddly drawn Capcom robots on a quest to find “magic b-balls” to save the world.
Franken takes that same absurd approach to lampoon early ‘90s role-playing games, having a very deadpan sense of humor that Gillson specifically designed not to “punch down at the genre.”
“I didn't know who Dunkey was until like two days ago.”
The lore, world, and visual design of Franken were developed over the course of a few months — Gillson worked on the game in secret while she worked on other projects. First, she created the rudimentary fighting system, where one button swings a sword in nearly every encounter — the game was just an excuse to test it out. She developed around 15 unique monster designs, a few overworld characters like the charming Leopard Men and boastful king, and everything just started falling into place.
“Creating characters is pretty easy for me so they all came about fairly naturally,” Gillson says. “I put a lot of myself into my work.”
Any keen-eyed video game connoisseur will notice that Franken takes a fair bit of inspiration from games of yore. Frowny-face sprites, smiling mice, and fourth-wall-breaking dialogue are nods to Earthbound, but FFIV was Gillson’s main source of inspiration here. She says it’s a game she likes “quite a bit” and thought it would be fun to try and condense down. The evil Hell’s Knight is a parody of Golbez, while the hero Balghus is a direct homage to Cid.
Gillson also pulled from some more obscure sources of inspiration for Franken, including Grow RPG, a flash game that has you place various environmental objects with the aim of to leveling them up to defeat monsters on a floating rock. For Frog the Bell Tolls is a Japanese RPG from the ‘90s that never made it stateside but has a similar visual vibe as much of Gillson’s work.
“If I made it expecting to make money off it, it wouldn't have been as fun to make.”
Franken’s dialogue and character portraits also harken back to the work of Japanese anime and manga artist Leiji Matsumoto, best known for groundbreaking series like Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Space Battleship Yamato.
Franken is best enjoyed without knowing anything about the plot or story, as Gillson intended. She says when she creates games, she starts at the ending first and then works her way backward. She writes as she goes along, adding unique and quirky aspects of the story throughout the process.
Creating a world and characters that are both funny and compelling isn’t easy, but Franken manages to make it look like a breeze. If you don’t chuckle at least once through your playthrough, then you just might not have a sense of humor. But Gillson just wants her players to have a good time.
“It's mostly just a collection of things I think are cool or funny,” she says.
You can download Franken on the Splendid Land itch.io page for PC, Mac, and Linux.