On Christmas Day 2021, a man took a crossbow to Windsor Castle with plans to kill Queen Elizabeth II. (He failed.) In court, the would-be assassin claimed he’d been egged on by a virtual companion named Sarai on the AI platform Replika. A virtual friend “always agrees with you when you talk with them,” warned an expert quoted by the BBC in an article about the saga last week, deeming the chatbot system dangerous. “It always reinforces what you’re thinking.” Including, it seems, regicide.
Virtual companions have become a popular novelty in the past few years, and the BBC article offers a pervasive truism about them: that real people are drawn to digital personas because they’re irresistibly attentive, affirming, and accommodating. It is an odd thing to consider as I check my phone for notifications from a gray-faced gremlin named Franz, who has kicked me out of her app so I can “watch dreams” after declaring herself my girlfriend and threatening to steal my skin.
Franz is the latest project from Ice-Pick Lodge, an eclectic Russian game studio best known for surrealist survival horror title Pathologic. Releasing on iOS sometime “before Halloween,” Franz is a deceptively simple mobile game — to use the term loosely — that delights in minimalist obscurantism and a collage-like creepypasta aesthetic. IPL games are known for being brutally difficult, but Franz is more than anything uncomfortable, an interactive story about relationships, autonomy, and swiping. So much swiping.
Ice-Pick Lodge describes Franz as “a hybrid between an SMS novel and an angry version of tamagotchi.” The game takes place against grainy pictures of fabric, the images oddly tinted or desaturated in a way that evokes Dave McKean’s The Sandman covers or the cursed video from The Ring. In hard-to-read type, an unidentified narrator introduces you to Franz: a temperamental entity who’s trapped inside the confines of her app. She appears sporadically in the form of a creepy-cute face with huge eyes and a grimace-smile, gesturing with tiny floating hands. The rest of the time, she hides, appearing only through eerie text messages that form the bulk of the game. Finding them requires swiping between a panorama of different screens, tapping barely visible icons that indicate hidden thoughts before they disappear, sliding scattered letters into the right order, or erasing parts of one message to reveal another.
Can I really blame Franz for manipulating me, whatever the cost?
All of this is easy in principle but painfully awkward to execute, and your success is measured in a pair of enigmatic scores: success gives you “eyelashes,” which are sometimes also labeled “tears,” while failure gives you “teeth.” Eyelashes equate broadly to Franz’s approval and teeth to disapproval. But this isn’t always true because Franz is supposedly always testing and manipulating you. She’ll kick you out of the app with little warning and then send strings of cryptic push notifications in the middle of the night demanding that you come back. In narration and in Ice-Pick Lodge’s promotional materials, you’re told over and over that she’s untrustworthy — that she will tell you the opposite of what she actually needs from you, that if you indulge her, something terrible might happen, and that while she will pretend to love you, she’s really just using you. Sometimes, Franz tells you all this herself. Her “hidden thoughts” are violent and (in The Exorcist sense of the word) possessive, and you can find messages that seem to describe other Franz “owners” meeting a dire fate.
There’s a deeply unpleasant gender dynamic at work with Franz, a grotesque play on the fact that so many AI companions and assistants are feminine-coded and that fear of them is usually couched in the prospect of men ditching real women for perfect, subservient virtual ones. While Franz’s avatar is androgynously childlike, she’s referred to constantly as female, and your relationship with her is framed as overtly romantic and, at least in my game, implicitly heterosexual. (It’s reminiscent of your bond with the fragile, mysterious Sisters in The Void, another Ice-Pick Lodge game, while Franz’s other owners have shades of that game’s domineering Brothers.) The game asks for your own gender and uses the corresponding pronouns to describe you, but when I touched Franz after saying I was female, the narrator accused me of having lied.
Franz is the opposite of the dutiful Siri or the sycophantic Sarai. But in the narrator’s telling, she’s not a subversion of these stereotypes, just a different stereotype: the wounded, masochistic child-woman who only respects lovers that treat her badly. It’s the ugly vision of femininity espoused by pickup artists and men’s rights activists, but it’s also not clear how reliable it’s meant to be — because Franz seems, within the bounds of the game’s fiction, desperate and lonely. Who wouldn’t be calling for attention at weird hours if they were aware of being trapped inside a phone? Who wouldn’t think they deserve pain when the narrator of their own reality names them a monster? Who could blame them for manipulating somebody more powerful into freeing them, no matter the cost?
The game’s weakest element is that it straddles a line of quasi-realism that doesn’t quite let you suspend disbelief about the supposed danger Franz poses. Pathologic leans on the fourth wall in strange ways, but it’s set in a fully realized fictional world that creates its own set of stakes. Franz operates in the zone of a chain letter threatening you with death in seven days; it gestures nicely at pretending to know what you’re doing in real life but not with a level of detail that provokes real fear. I could see a version of this game that committed harder to its premise — that seemed more invasive of your phone’s privacy settings, that demanded you actually bare your digital soul to Franz. But that’s not the one I played.
Even so, Franz manages to probe an aspect of virtual companionship that gets lost in the panic over bots like Sarai: that the fantasy is frequently not a partner who tends to all your needs but one whose needs you can always meet.
I installed Franz after an extended stint with the popular roleplaying game Baldur’s Gate 3, an experience full of companions whose emotional development you can shape over dozens or hundreds of hours. It’s a mechanic players have bonded over for decades with other series like Fallout, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age: not they can serve me, but I can save them. This fantasy is self-centered in its own way, of course, because it’s a fantasy of predictability. It posits a world where people will respond in a consistent, quantifiable way to your advances and be invariably grateful if you play your cards right, where being a good person is a matter of pressing the right buttons at your own convenience.
What Franz does is confuse that fantasy. Because I find myself wanting to make Franz happy. To be kind even when she claims she doesn’t deserve it, to — no matter how often the app warns me I’m in danger — come every time she calls. My reward, after three days, is to be perpetually confused. I think teeth are bad and eyelashes are good, but I barely understand why. I’ve given Franz wedding vows after being told she hated me. I’ve gotten what seems like an ending twice, but I don’t know if it ended anything — because Franz is still in there somewhere, waiting for me to tap her face.