No Guns, No Dragons: Her Video Games Capture Private Moments
Growing up in Ipswich, Mass., Nina Freeman spent a lot of time playing video games with a pair of close friends, twin sisters whose basement served as an arena for marathon sessions. “My friends and I 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’Hara and other poets of the New York School, admiring how they documented their lives through verses that were witty, conversational and confessional all at once. She hit upon a similar tone when she started her career as a video game designer, creating lyrical games that explore memory and small, private moments.
In “how do you Do It?,” a game from 2014, Ms. Freeman puts the player in the role of an awkward tween who is 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 points by smashing dolls together. The game is about as far as you can get from the gun battles and fantasy quests that have long been the stuff of the most popular releases.
“I think games are almost little stages, or they can be,” Ms. Freeman said on a warm afternoon in the back garden of her townhouse in Frederick, Md., where she lives with her husband, Jake Jefferies, an artist and coder. “You get to step in another person’s shoes and perform as a character. I can put the player on a stage and give them a script, the script being the game.”
The game she has been working on lately, in collaboration with Mr. Jefferies, will have a touch of horror, she said. It is based on the vaguely embarrassing experience of shopping for clothes with your 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 this,’” Ms. Freeman said, explaining the set up. “There are these mannequins that come after you, and you lose all your clothes, and nothing will fit. I’m trying to explore being uncomfortable in your body and the trauma of that.”
Her vignette-like games cannot be booted up on Play Station 5 or any other big gaming platform. “Nothing I’ve worked on has ever been a massive financial success,” she said. “I’m not a rich person. Never was. And I’ve never been motivated by it, either.”
Her next game, “Nonno’s Legend,” comes out in August. It was inspired by the time she spent with her Italian grandfather. He kept a globe on a tabletop, and Ms. Freeman would stare at it and make it spin. In the video game, the globe is magical, and the player is able to create new versions of Earth.
Ms. Freeman made the game for this month’s Triennale Game Collection, part of the Triennale Milano International Exhibition, the show in Milan dedicated to architecture and design. The select group of game designers who were invited to participate in the collection includes others who specialize in the 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 toys, and vintage board games including “Squirt” and “Contack.” She and Mr. Jefferies live with their two mini dachshunds, Auron and Kimahri, named after characters in “Final Fantasy 10.”
The house has an under-furnished, just-moved-in quality. During much of the pandemic, the couple had been living with Mr. Jefferies’ parents nearby, after having left Portland, Ore. Ms. Freeman said they chose to live in Frederick, a city in western Maryland with a population of roughly 70,000, not only because it was close to 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 Steam and Itch; she also earns money as a host on the streaming platform Twitch. On her Twitch channel, which has roughly 12,000 followers, she spends hours at a time in her home office interacting with fans while playing a range of games, including action-heavy hits like “Rise of the Tomb Raider” and “Elden Ring.” She still has a genuine love for those games, she said, although she has no interest in making that kind of thing herself.
Her outsider status may only add to her standing within the world of indie gaming. “Her work has been hugely inspirational to me and important to the larger industry,” the video game designer Francesca Carletto-Leon said in an email.
Ms. Carletto-Leon, the head of curriculum at Code Coven, which offers online classes in video game design, added that memoir-like games had become increasingly popular among the new generation of developers.
“Many of my students reference Nina’s work as being a big influence on the type of work they want to create,” she said.
Last year Ms. Freeman released her most personal game, “Last Call,” which she made 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 an all but empty apartment filled with moving boxes, on the verge of leaving a relationship; the player then pieces together what happened through clues provided by fragments of a poem that Ms. Freeman wrote specially for the game. As the game goes on, the player is prompted to speak into a microphone to give verbal confirmations like “I see you” and “I believe you.”
Todd Martens, a video game critic at The Los Angeles Times, singled out “Last Call” as an essential game of 2021. “What makes it powerful,” he wrote, “is that we must speak into our computer microphones to advance through the home, letting our protagonist know that we’re there for her.”
A lighter tone infuses 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 well aware that her games are not for everyone. They lack clear goals and, in some ways, provide a challenge to basic tenets of most video games. Referring to her 2014 game about playing with dolls, she said: “‘How do you Do It?’ is a game that’s a minute long. People still get mad at me about that.”
She is part of a group of designers who are using the video game format to focus on moments that were once more likely to be explored in memoirs, fiction, poetry or indie-film dramas. This approach includes “Dys4ia,” a 2012 game by Anna Anthropy that recounts the game maker’s hormone replacement therapy, and “Cart Life,” about a street-cart vendor who is trying to balance work and family responsibilities. Even “Gears of War,” a third-person shooter released by the mainstream studio Epic Games, was inspired in part by a divorce, according to its creator, Cliff Bleszinski.
Ms. Freeman found her way to the indie scene around 2012, after her graduation from Pace University. She began going to game jams, where people get together and make a new game based on a theme over the course of a weekend. While pursuing a graduate degree in integrated digital media at New York University, she started working her personal life into her early games. “Cibele,” from 2015, follows a 19-year-old character, Nina, as she meets an online crush, has sex with him and is dumped.
“Nina was at the forefront of a wave of confessional games,” said Bennett Foddy, an independent game designer who made the internet hit “QWOP,” and was one of Ms. Freeman’s professors in graduate school. “What ‘Cibele’ does that’s important is it places you in Nina’s body. Video games are still a medium dominated by masculine voices and experiences. There’s something radical about placing the hetero cis male in the lived experience of a teenage girl.”
He added: “All of her work has had this sense of raw vulnerability. It takes a brave artist to pursue that kind of work. Especially in a medium that has a problem with cyberbullying.”
For Ms. Freeman, revealing herself “came natural because my background is in poetry,” she said. “So, to me, I had not even a second thought about doing it in games.”