No guns, no dragons: her video games capture intimate moments

Growing up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Nina Freeman spent a lot of her time playing video games with a pair of close friends, twin sisters whose basement served as an arena for marathon sessions. “Me and my friends were nerds,” she recalled. “We played a lot of games. Final Fantasy 11 was like a second life to me.”

Years later, when she was a student at Pace University in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Freeman was drawn to the work of Frank O’Hare and other New York School poets, who admired the way they documented their lives through poetry that was both witty, colloquial and confessional. She hit upon a similar tone when she began her career as a video game designer, creating lyrical games that explore memory and small, personal moments.

AT “How did you do that ?, “ 2014 game, Ms. Freeman puts the player in the role of a clumsy teenager who is desperately trying to figure out how sex works by playing with dolls. There are no levels to complete, no dragons to kill, and the player scores points by breaking the dolls together. The game is so far from the shootouts and fantasy quests that have long been part of the most popular releases.

“I think games are almost small stages, or they can be,” says Ms. Freeman said on a warm afternoon in the garden of her Frederick, Maryland townhouse, where she lives with her husband, Jake Jefferies, an artist and computer programmer. “You can step into the shoes of another person and play the role of a character. I can put a player on stage and give him a script, and the script is the game.”

The game she’s been working on recently with Mr. Jeffreys, there will be some horror, she said. It is based on a vaguely embarrassing experience shopping for clothes with his mother.

“You’re in the locker room and your mom wants you to try on these clothes, but you’re like, ‘Oh, I hate how I look in this,'” Freeman said, explaining the setup. “These mannequins come after you and you lose all your clothes and nothing fits. I’m trying to explore the discomfort in your body and the trauma of it.”

Its vignette-like games cannot be downloaded on Play Station 5 or any other major gaming platform. “Nothing I’ve worked on has ever been a huge financial success,” she said. “I am not a rich person. Never was. And it never motivated me.”

Her next game, Nonno’s Legend, comes out in August. It was inspired by the time she spent with her Italian grandfather. He kept the globe on the table and Miss Freeman looked at it and made it spin. In the video game, the globe is magical and the player can create new versions of the Earth.

RS. Freeman made a game for this month Collection of Triennial gamespart International Exhibition Triennale Milano, an annual show in Milan dedicated to architecture and design. The select group of game designers invited to participate in the gathering include others who specialize in unusual games: Fern Goldfarb-Ramallo, Llaura McGee, Akwasi Afran, and the team of Yijia Chen and Dong Zhou.

RS. 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 including Squirt and Contack. She and Mr. Jeffreys live with their two mini-dachshunds, Auron and Kimari, named after Final Fantasy 10 characters.

The house is unfurnished, just occupied. For most of the pandemic, the couple lived with Mr Black. Jeffries’ parents are nearby, having left Portland, Oregon. RS. Freeman said they chose to live in Frederick, a western Maryland city of about 70,000, not only because it was close to the family, but also because it was an affordable place for self-employed artists.

She said she made a modest living by selling her games through sites like cook for a couple and itching; she also earns money as a host on the streaming platform. twitch. On her Twitch channel, which has about 12,000 followers, she spends hours in her home office chatting with fans, playing various games, including hits like “Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Elden Ring”. According to her, she still truly loves these games, although she is not interested in doing such things herself.

Her underdog status can only solidify her position in the indie game world. “Her work has inspired me a lot and is important to the entire industry,” says the video game designer. Francesca Carletto-Leon said in an email.

RS. Carletto-Leon, head of the curriculum at Code Covenwhich offers online courses in video game design, added that memoir-like games are becoming more popular with a new generation of developers.

“Many of my students feel that Nina’s work has been a big influence on the type of work they want to create,” she said.

Mr. Freeman released her most personal game last year.”Last call”, which she made in collaboration with Mr. Jeffreys. According to her, it arose from what she went through when she was in a relationship with physical and verbal abuse about six years ago.

The player starts “Last Call” in a nearly empty apartment filled with moving boxes, on the verge of a broken relationship; The player then piece together what happened using clues provided by fragments of a poem Ms. Freeman wrote especially for the game. As the game progresses, the player is encouraged to speak into a microphone to give verbal confirmations such as “I see you” and “I believe you”.

Todd Martens, video game critic at The Los Angeles Times called “Last Call” important game of 2021. “What makes it powerful,” he wrote, “is that we have to speak into our computer microphones to move through the house, letting our protagonist know that we are here for her.”

A lighter tone fills 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. Jeffreys.

RS. Freeman is well aware that her games are not for everyone. They don’t have clear goals and in a way they defy the basic tenets of most video games. Referring to her 2014 game of playing with dolls, she said, “How do you do that?” this is a game that lasts a minute. People are still mad at me because of this.”

She is part of a group of designers who use the video game format to focus on moments that were once most likely explored in memoirs, fiction, poetry, or drama from indie films. This approach includes “Dys4ia“A 2012 game by Anna Antropy that explores the game’s creator’s hormone replacement therapy, and”basket of life, ”About a street cart trader who tries to balance work and family responsibilities. Even Gears of War, the third-person shooter released by the popular studio Epic Games, was partly inspired by the divorce. according to its creator Cliff Bleszinski.

RS. Freeman entered the indie scene around 2012, after graduating from Pace University. She started going to game jams, where people get together and make a new game on a certain topic over the course of a weekend. After earning a master’s degree in integrated digital media from New York University, she began to invest her personal life into her early games. “Sibele“From 2015, follows 19-year-old heroine Nina as she meets an online lover, has sex with him, and gets dumped.

“Nina has been at the forefront of the wave of confessional gaming,” said Bennett Foddy, a freelance game designer who has become a hit on the internet.QWOP,“And was one of Ms. Professor Freeman in graduate school. “What Sibele does is important is that it puts you in Nina’s body. Video games are still a medium dominated by male voices and experiences. There is something radical about putting a heterocis male into the life experience of a teenage girl.”

He added: “There is a sense of raw vulnerability in all of her work. It takes a brave artist to do this kind of work. Especially in an environment that has problems with cyberbullying. ”

For Ms. Revealing Freeman “felt natural because I do poetry,” she said. “So I didn’t even think about doing it in games.”