No guns, no dragons: your video games capture private moments

Growing up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Nina Freeman spent a lot of time playing video games with two close friends, twin sisters whose basement served as an arena for marathon meetings. “My friends and I were nerds,” she recalls. “We played a lot of of games. ‘Final Fantasy 11’ was like a second life for me.”

Years later, while she was a student at Pace University in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Freeman was drawn to the works of Frank O’Hara and other New York School poets and admired how they documented their lives through witty, conversational verse and confessional at once. She struck a similar tone as she began her career as a video game designer, creating lyrical games that explore memories and small, private moments.

In “How do you Do It?”, a 2014 game, Ms. Freeman puts the player in the role of a clumsy tween desperately trying to figure out how sex works while playing with dolls. There are no levels to complete, no dragons to slay, and the player scores by smashing dolls together. The game is as far removed as possible from the gunfights and fantasy quests that have long been the stuff of most popular releases.

“I think games are almost little stages, or they can be,” Ms. Freeman said on a warm afternoon in the back yard of her Frederick, Md. townhouse where she lives with her husband Jake Jefferies, an artist and programmer. “You can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and act as a character. I can put the player on a stage and give them a script, with the script being the game.”

The game, which she’s been working on lately in collaboration with Mr. Jefferies, will have a touch of horror, she said. It’s based on the slightly embarrassing experience of shopping for clothes with my mother.

“You’re in the dressing room and your mom wants you to try on these clothes, but you’re like, ‘Oh, I hate how I look in these,'” Ms. Freeman explained to the facility. “There are these mannequins coming after you and you lose all your clothes and nothing will fit. I’m trying to explore the discomfort in your body and the trauma that comes with it.”

Your vignette-like games cannot be launched on Play Station 5 or any other major gaming platform. “Nothing I’ve worked on has ever been a massive financial success,” she said. “I’m not a rich person. it never was And I was never motivated by it either.”

Her next game, Nonno’s Legend, will be out in August. It was inspired by the time she spent with her Italian grandfather. He had a globe on a tabletop and Ms. Freeman stared at it and made it spin. In the video game, the globe is magical and the player can create new versions of the earth.

Ms. Freeman developed the game for this month’s Triennale Game Collection, part of the Triennale Milano International Exhibition, the annual fair in Milan dedicated to architecture and design. The select group of game designers invited to participate in the collection also includes others who specialize in offbeat: Fern Goldfarb-Ramallo, Llaura McGee, Akwasi Afrane, and the team of Yijia Chen and Dong Zhou.

Ms. Freeman creates her games in a home office filled with her collections of Japanese manga books, Disney Tsum Tsum stuffed animals, and vintage board games like Squirt and Contact. She and Mr. Jefferies live with their two mini dachshunds, Auron and Kimahri, who are named after characters from Final Fantasy 10.

The house has an underfurnished, freshly moved in quality. For much of the pandemic, the couple had been living with Mr Jefferies’ parents nearby after leaving Portland, Ore. Ms. Freeman said they chose to live in Frederick, a western Maryland city of about 70,000, not only because it was family-friendly, but also because it was an affordable place for freelance artists.

She said she made a modest living by selling her games through sites like Steam and Itch; She also earns money as a presenter on the streaming platform Twitch. On her Twitch channel, which has around 12,000 followers, she spends hours at a time in her home office interacting with fans while playing a range of games, including action-packed hits like “Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Elden Ring.” . She still has a genuine love for these games, she said, although she has no interest in doing anything like this herself.

Their underdog status may only add to their standing in the indie gaming world. “Their work has been tremendously inspiring to me and important to the entire industry,” said the video game designer Francesca Carletto Leon said in an email.

Ms. Carletto-Leon, the curriculum director at Code Coven, which offers online courses in video game design, added that memoir-like games are becoming increasingly popular with the new generation of developers.

“Many of my students cite Nina’s work as a huge influence on the type of work they choose to create,” she said.

Last year Ms. Freeman released her most personal game, Last Call, which she developed in collaboration with Mr. Jefferies. It arose from experiences she had when she was in a physically and verbally abusive relationship about six years ago, she said.

The player begins “Last Call” in a nearly empty apartment filled with moving boxes, about to leave a relationship; The player then piece together what happened using clues from fragments of a poem Ms. Freeman wrote specifically for the game. As the game progresses, the player is prompted to speak into a microphone to provide verbal confirmations such as “I see you” and “I believe you.”

Todd Martens, a video game critic at the Los Angeles Times, has singled out Last Call as a must-have game of 2021. “What makes it so powerful,” he wrote, “is that we have to speak into our computer microphones to get ahead home and lets our protagonist know we’re there for her.”

A lighter tone pervades another recent game, We Met in May, a wistful, humorous re-enactment of four scenes from the early days of Ms. Freeman’s relationship with Mr. Jefferies.

Ms. Freeman is aware that her games are not for everyone. They lack clear goals and in some ways challenge the core principles of most video games. Referring to her 2014 game about playing with dolls, she said, “‘How do you Do It?’ is a game that is one minute long. People are still mad at me because of that.”

She is part of a group of designers using the video game format to focus on moments that were once more explored in memoir, fiction, poetry, or indie film drama. That approach includes “Dys4ia,” a 2012 game by Anna Anthropy that tells the story of the gamemaker’s hormone replacement therapy, and “Cart Life,” about a street cart vendor struggling to balance work and family life. Even Gears of War, a third-person shooter published by mainstream studio Epic Games, was partially inspired by a divorce, according to its creator Cliff Bleszinski.

Ms. Freeman found her way onto the indie scene around 2012 after graduating from Pace University. She started going to game jams, where people come together and create a new game based on a theme over the course of a weekend. While earning a degree in Integrated Digital Media from New York University, she began to work her personal life into her early games. 2015’s “Cibele” follows a 19-year-old character, Nina, who meets an online crush, has sex with him, and is dumped.

“Nina was at the forefront of a wave of testimonials,” said Bennett Foddy, an independent game designer who made the Internet hit “QWOP” and was one of Ms. Freeman’s grad school professors. “What ‘Cibele’ does is important, it puts you in Nina’s body. Video games are still a medium dominated by male voices and experiences. There’s something radical about putting the straight cis man in the lived experience of a teenage girl.”

He added, “All of her work had this sense of raw vulnerability. It takes a bold artist to pursue this type of work. Especially in a medium that has a problem with cyberbullying.”

For Ms. Freeman, it was “natural because my background is in poetry,” she said. “So for me, I didn’t even have a second thought about doing it in games.”

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