This Low-Fi Homage to Nancy Drew Captures Why We Love Detective Stories

The Francy Droo series shows what good puzzle design and mastery of the visual novel medium can accomplish.

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Dec 13 2017, 5:55pm

Screenshots courtesy of Oh, a Rock! Studios

Sub-15 is our regular look into smaller games (that go for $15 or less) with great ideas. Think of it as Free Play , on a little bit of a budget.

Contemporary video games love to solve mysteries. Geralt of Rivia uses his Witcher senses to discover the murders and mischief of his world in The Witcher 3. Bayek investigates sundry events in Assassin’s Creed: Origins by tracking objects and people from location to location. The Batman of the Arkham games, the detective of comics legend, has a special vision that’s just for parsing out what the hell happened at any given time and place. While I’ve enjoyed all of those, none of them hit the same high notes of investigation and discovery that the little-known but amazing Francy Droo series manages.

Francy Droo is an obvious reference to the Nancy Drew mystery novels that most of us read in our youth, and the two Droo games, The Mystery of the Missing Mother-in-Law and The Secret of the Shady Midnight Caller, commit pretty strongly to the general themes of those Drew novels. Droo is a young woman with a knack for solving mysteries, and as her friend Kate remarks in the first game, those mysteries have a way of appearing whenever Francy is around. She’s a walking troublemaker. The world breaks around her. It makes for good entertainment.

She’s also poorly-drawn, which is clearly a creative decision made on the part of the development team. The Francy Droo games seem influenced by Home Movies and Frisky Dingo in that the effort, and the value, is coming from the dialogue and the design more than it is coming from visual polish. And, to be frank, it doesn’t need visual polish. The games are hilarious.

Francy Droo is not a parody of Nancy Drew. These games are not just in-jokes. Both of the adventures are clever, concise stories that take about an hour to investigate your way through. Just like the Nancy Drew novels, Francy Droo is built from character tropes, familiar settings, and the strange juxtaposition of criminal mysteries with the boring, humdrum daily activities of going to a wedding or getting a new cell phone.

From a gameplay perspective, Francy Droo is a visual novel balanced out with some puzzles. Following vaguely in the footsteps of the Phoenix Wright games, Francy Droo understands that a good mystery is made from good characters. The beauty of a Sherlock Holmes story is not the logic puzzle, as charming as they are, but rather the clashes of fiery personalities that make up the context for the logic puzzle.

There are, however, logic puzzles in the games, and they’re elegantly designed. Francy Droo’s creators are some of the best minds at this. I had fun failing at figuring out a seating chart at a wedding, and filling out a form to ask for a bank loan has never been more intriguing. Crucially, these puzzles are not simply plopped down into the plot. Puzzles are wrapped into the narrative elements in a logical way, and failing to solve a puzzle correctly appears to have implications for how Droo interacts with the world around her.

After all, Francy isn’t a Witcher, a superhero millionaire, or a death-dealing assassin. She works at the lost and found booth in the local mall. Her friend Kate interns at the local studio that produces a prominent soap opera. Craiggers, her burger-flipping buddy, works at a fast food restaurant. These are regular people, leading regular lives, and they depend on Francy to help them navigate the puzzles and problems that they encounter in those lives.

While Francy might occasionally make up (and make you play through) a scenario where someone attacks her with a knife or where an alien appears to give her superpowers, the events that take place in the Francy Droo-verse are decidedly everyday. Someone is trying to screw a travel agent out of money. A mother-in-law is missing on the day of the wedding. She’s accidentally cast in a soap opera and has to improv a scene. Any of this could happen to you.

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The most striking things about these games is that there aren’t more of them. For the life of me, I don’t know why shorter visual novels in familiar genres aren’t coming out left and right. The accessibility of tools like Ren’Py or the Fungus plugin for Unity means that the ability to create these genre-specific games is at our fingertips, and if Francy Droo is anything to go on, we would be having an infinitely better time in the world if more people were creating and experimenting in this space.

Francy Droo is for you if you want a short, rewarding mystery game with multiple endings and jokes for days. You can get both games in a bundle with several other games on Steam for $5.99, or you can buy them individually on itch.io