“Concise and clear” – PAIDIA in conversation with Nina Freeman
Unterhuber: Could you introduce yourself a bit to our readers? Maybe talk a bit about your academic background?
Freeman: My name is Nina Freeman, and I'm a level designer at Fullbright on Tacoma. Before I started working at Fullbright, I attended Pace University for my BA in English, and New York University for my MS in Integrated Digital Media. In my undergraduate career, I focused on poetry – both sci-fi poetry and the New York School poets. Then, when I went onto grad school, I'd become interested in making games, especially from a narrative standpoint, and tried to bring what I'd learned from poetry to my game design practice. My thesis project for my Masters was a game called Cibele, and I made it as a way of thinking about player-character embodiment, and how to help players embody stories that depict experiences very different from their own. My team, Star Maid Games, and I are currently finishing Cibele for a commercial release.
Unterhuber: Would you like to elaborate a bit more what Cibele is about?
Freeman: Cibele is a game about a girl who has a relationship with a guy she met in an online game. The player plays as this girl, Nina, as she becomes close with her lover, until the two decide to meet up in real life to have sex. The game is built to help the player perform as Nina, sitting them down at her desktop as if they were her, having full reign over her desktop and the game. Players can browse her files, look at her selfies, read her poetry, as if they were her. The player then may log into the online game and play alongside the lover, overhearing the conversation between the two characters, receiving IMs from friends, and engaging with the computer interface as if they were Nina. By the end of the game, players are meant to come away feeling as if they were able to step into Nina's shoes for a moment, and thus hopefully better understand her relationship and her as a person.
Unterhuber: It seems a lot of your games are concerned with the topic of coming of age and growing up. Cibele as well as How do you Do it? or Space Dad are all examples of that. Besides your games and Gone Home and Life Is Strange Coming-of-Age-stories are still pretty rare in the context of videogames even though it is one of the biggest topics in other forms of media. Do you see a reason for that? Is there something about games that might actually help to convey the experience of growing up?
Freeman: I think that coming of age stories have existed in games – the Final Fantasy series, and many other JRPGs, come to mind. However, the dialogue around games has not often focused on narrative as seriously as they are now. Games have been a largely commercial enterprise, but now that game making tools are more accessible, and different kinds of creators are joining the mix, you see different kinds of conversations about video games growing in mainstream culture. That's when you see games like Life Is Strange being made, because those kinds of stories are more and more part of the mainstream games dialogue, thanks to the success of other games like Gone Home. I'm looking forward to seeing narrative games see success and recognition more often, because that will encourage new developers to tackle that kind of design.
Unterhuber: I've never thought about Final Fantasy as coming of age-stories but you are absolutely right! But as you also said the discourse on games seems to have changed: The perspective of games just as "being games" seems to start to vanish. Is the current state of videogames one of figuring out the forms and structures of its own specific mediality and its artistic potential? Could the increase in coming of age-stories even been seen as a contemplation on the "growing-up" of the medium?
Freeman: Games are certainly in a state of flux, but I am not sure if it's because of any major discoveries in artistic potential. I think people have been doing experimental things with games, and have been challenging expectations of game for as long as games have been around. I think that what is changing is the visibility of those kinds of games – the ones that challenge our expectations of games as a culture. With both game making becoming more accessible, and self-publishing becoming more feasible, you're seeing people more able to discover lots of different kinds of games. I think that the exposure to such a wide variety of games is changing our perception of what kinds of games can and will be distributed. That opens up major opportunities for formerly "experimental" or "weird" games to become financially viable, and thus part of the main stream conversation.
Unterhuber: But doesn’t that also mean that there is an audience now for ‘weird’ games that has not existed before? Or was it (maybe) always there?
Freeman: I think that the audience was always there, it's just that they couldn't access those games because they were not as visible or available. It would not have been financially viable for many individuals to manufacture and distribute their games when distribution was more commonly done using physical cartridges or discs. Now, with digital distribution being more common, you see different kinds of creators, many who don't have budgets, releasing games because that is a more accessible platform for them. With a lower barrier of entry, you will see more kinds of games, and more unexpected, experimental games because people are able to take more risks given the lower barrier of entry. I'm not an expert on any of this, but that's what I see happening.
Unterhuber: So would you say games have become not just a broader medium to be consumed but also one to express oneself?
Freeman: I think that creators have always been expressing themselves through games. I often think back to how Shigeru Miyamoto drew from his childhood spent exploring the forest in Kyoto when he was working on the Zelda games. It's easy to forget that hugely commercially successful games sometimes come from very personal places. So, I think people have been using games as a form of expression for as long as there have been games, and they will only continue to do so.
Unterhuber: In other interviews you said you see your games as poetry. Could you elaborate on that? What does this include for you?
Freeman: My games are less like poems, and more inspired by poetry. My background is in poetry, and I like to embrace the things I learned from writing poetry as a part of my game design practice. For example, through poetry I learned the value of writing about ordinary, everyday life experiences, especially in a personal context, through writers like Elizabeth Bishop and Langston Hughes. I also learned from poetry that being as concise and clear as possible is important to me – I find it more interesting to write clearly using normal, everyday language that you may use in conversation. We spend so much time talking to each other using ordinary language, which makes that vocabulary very rich. These values I learned from writing poetry have very much carried over into my games work, which is why I'm often making concise, clear games about ordinary, often personal, life experiences. Of course, I don't think these are the only interesting ideas to pursue in games, but they're what I'm excited about right now.
Unterhuber: It sounds exciting and for me as a literary scholar (with kind of a focus in contemporary poetry) it also makes a lot of sense. Being concise and clear gives you the option to get a message across to the players (like other forms of media and art), something bigger and longer games might have problems with. Also it sounds like you have your own poetology of videogames, don't you?
Freeman: My undergraduate poetry professor Charles North taught me some things about writing that I have carried with me into games. Things like being specific, using clear details, providing sufficient context, and being as concise as possible. I think these are good writing practices, and I have learned that they are applicable to any kind of writing in any medium, because they have certainly worked for me in video game writing. I don't think good writing practices differ very much across mediums, but you do need to use some more than others depending on your goal with the piece... as with any writing, really. It all depends on what you want to communicate, but I think having those practices as touchstones is really helpful.
Unterhuber: So the restrictions and possibilities of a medium don’t have that big of an impact on the writing?
Freeman: I think that good writing is good writing, regardless of the medium. Details and clarity are always going to make a piece of writing stronger. Of course, different mediums have their strengths, but I think that the aspects of writing that I mentioned are effective across many mediums.
Unterhuber: How important is the notion of fun for your understanding of games? Especially a game like Freshman Year is not a fun experience. Is the idea that fun is the determining factor for games actually a limiting one?
Freeman: I think that making fun games is a particular pursuit with its own value. I think it's important to remember that games, like other mediums, can be fun, dull, inspiring, exciting, sad, intense... they can really evoke any feeling, and stimulate any sense that the designer wants to pay attention to. Games are a really rich medium. I like to take advantage of that by making games about lots of different kinds of stories, from something silly and fun like How do you Do It?, to something more serious like Freshman Year. The multiplicity of life experiences that games can help players explore is endless, which is amazing for me, as someone who wants to explore the complexity of everyday life experiences.
Unterhuber: I agree! Fun can be a part of videogames but it is definitely not the only one. Would you say that games can help us understand the world by letting us explore possibilities? Or by helping us experience different perspectives on life? Are games the essential form of "What if..."-questions?
Freeman: Games are really good at a lot of different things. In my personal practice, I like to explore how well games support performance, which definitely can help players explore possibility spaces, other life experiences, and even themselves. It really depends on the game's design – does it want the player to be more introspective? I think some games do that – Emily Is Away comes to mind. Cibele asks players to set their own experience aside, and think about another life experience that may be very different from their own. I think games are good at helping players explore possibility in all sorts of ways, whether it wants to involve the players own experience or not.
Unterhuber: Does that mean you see video games as a form of roleplay in the basic sense of the term (not as RPGs) which allows us to step into the perspectives of others?
Freeman: I don't think all games help players roleplay, but games can be used to support that kind of performance. In fact, I think games are really good at supporting roleplay and performance that can help a player see the game story from a different perspective from their own.
Unterhuber: For me Freshman Year is a good example of that. Putting you into a character and into a situation in a really short time and then hitting you really hard. It was one of the more intense game experiences I ever had. Despite or maybe because of its shortness and preciseness. Would you say the shortness of a game helps you to convey a message to the audience?
Freeman: It's maybe a bit easier to really dive into the nuances that make character's and stories feel more human and real when the game is concise enough to support that level of detail. You can certainly have that level of detail in a larger game, but it can be hard to keep track of everything, and it's easy to get overwhelmed by information. So, I think that concise, vignette style games are really good at helping players understand the nuances that make characters feel real.
Unterhuber: Let’s get back to Cibele. In my own experience I found the game extremely personal and intimate. Like a look, a step into someone else’s life. Not unrelated to the feeling Gone Home gave me with the big difference that I played as the protagonist of the story instead of her sister. Especially if you want to convey complex feelings like love this seems to be a very hard thing to do as a writer or designer. What helped you to get such complex topics across? Was it the game structure, playing as Nina sitting on her computer, being able to look at her files, being immersed in her daily life?
Freeman: When I start working on a game like Cibele, I ask myself what the core interaction is at the heart of the story. For Cibele, the main action that the character takes throughout the story is interacting with her computer. After all, her relationship with the Blake character really forms and grows via the online game they play together, and in a more general sense, through her computer and the internet. So I developed the mechanic in order to support that player's performance of the character. The rest of the stuff – things on the desktop, Valtameri, etc., are all there for context in order to support that mechanic. So, in my process, story always comes first and the mechanics are there to contextualize and support that.
Unterhuber: Does that mean Cibele is a game about how our usage of technology and media informs our relationships?
Freeman: It's less about that and more about how and why the two characters decided to meet up in real life, and how their relationship led to that. The technology aspect of it is certainly part of the narrative, and it's what I drew on in order to develop a mechanic that would help the player perform as Nina. Her relationship with Ichi was developed through an online game, so it was important to let the player perform that specific experience. The technology is really there for context. Ultimately, it's more focused on the relationship itself, rather than the means through which they communicated.
Unterhuber: Cibele at the one hand reminded me of my own online experiences as a teen but on the other hand I felt like an intruder. Witnessing something that was not meant for me. At first this might seem contradictory, feeling immersed into a character’s experience and at the same time feeling like an intruder; but I think it makes the game so much more fascinating. It captures the weirdness of growing up and looking back at your past self. Was this something you were aiming for?
Freeman: I was actually pretty surprised to see how many people considered the game to be „voyeuristic“, because that wasn't my intention at all. I just wanted to tell a story about an online romance with detailed, complex characters. Part of making a character feel real is through exploring details of their life. However, the exploration of those details is done through things like the desktop and the fake online game. I quickly learned that people have a lot of anxiety about accessing computers that don't ‘belong’ to them. That's why all of our phones and laptops are locked, in real life, right? So, people feel like they're doing something wrong or voyeuristic at first because of that cultural norms around computers and privacy. However, I find that often, as the player becomes more aware that they're performing as Nina and Cibele, they start to think of the desktop as their own, and feel less voyeuristic. That was my ultimate goal – to help the player feel like they're rifling through their own things, as the character. Because, by including these things in the game, I am giving the player consent to look at them... so there isn't actually any intentional voyeurism going on.
Unterhuber: It might also have to do with the discrepancy that we only listen in to Ninas and Blakes conversations like listening in on a phone call. But what you said about cultural norms fits here, too.
Talking about your current game brings me to my last question. Besides Tacoma have you any new projects on the horizon?
Freeman: I am focusing most of my energy on Tacoma these days. However, I am still periodically doing smaller games and commissions. I recently made a game for parties called Bum Rush. It's an eight player racing game about racing your college roommates home so that you can use the apartment to have sex with your date. It's silly and fun! I hope that we can find the time to release it soon. Otherwise, I definitely plan on making some vignette games on the side, and doing game jams when I can.
Unterhuber: Thank you so much for the interview! It was a real pleasure to talk to you!
Freeman: Yeah! It was a pleasure talking to you as well.