When Nina Freeman released her breakthrough video game, Cibele, in 2015, gamer culture had just gone mainstream—for all the wrong reasons.
It arrived on the heels of "Gamergate," an onslaught of online vitriol targeted at media critics and game designers, most of them women and people of color who were challenging the hypermasculinity of the industry.
Freeman had just moved to Portland from New York to work for Fullbright, the local indie game developer behind Gone Home, an early target for Gamergate ire. In many ways, Cibele also represented everything Gamergate's perpetrators were railing against. Players inhabit the role of a 19-year-old version of Freeman, and the plot unfolds in a simulation of her bubblegum-pink desktop. There's a game within the game in which the lead character develops a romantic relationship with another player. The story is ripped directly from Freeman's life: She met her first love through Final Fantasy, and he eventually flew across the country to meet her for a brief affair.
Cibele was met with critical acclaim, and Freeman—who was called "the punk poet of gaming" by The Guardian, and named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list in 2016—was often cast as a feminist crusader. But really, Freeman was just telling the story she wanted to tell.
"I was early in my career then," she says. "It's intimidating, but I wanted to make my game and had a lot of people who were excited about it and a really supportive community."
Last September, Freeman took her propensity for small, intimate games a step further with We Met in May. In the game, which takes less than an hour to complete, players once again assume a digitized version of Freeman in a series of vignettes based on real-life dates with her romantic partner and the game's co-creator, Jake Jefferies—spending a day on the beach, making dinner together—all rendered in pastel colors and bubbly animation.
Recently, Freeman quit her job at Fullbright to focus on her own projects: She and Jefferies are currently working on a narrative, domestic horror game. It sounds like a dramatic shift. But Freeman insists she's not leaving behind her love for quotidian, confessional storytelling.
WW talked to the 29-year-old designer about making personal games, ignoring internet trolls, and how gaming can make you more empathetic.
WW: Cibele was about a relationship that happened years ago. What was it like making a game about a relationship you're still in?
Nina Freeman: It was really joyful to work on, because it was about real things that have happened between us that make us laugh. We wanted to make something lighthearted that would make people smile. Sometimes I feel like there's not enough comedy in games, and I really wanted to work on something that was more focused on the comedy of love and happy moments.
It's kind of surprising you decided to follow that up with a horror game.
People are surprised by stuff like that with me. I play a lot of first-person shooter games. I definitely have more kinds of games in my back pocket you wouldn't expect as inspiration.
Do you feel you've been pigeonholed as the sex-and-relationships game developer?
At certain points in my career, I have felt a little pigeonholed. But that's part of the reason I like to tackle different things. But I also just really like writing about personal stories and about sex and relationships. Even this new game that I'm working on, I'm not going to make some crazy crime thriller game. I just don't know how to write that. I know how to write personal things about people's lives, vignettes about real, grounded life stuff.
Do you feel video games can explore personal stuff in ways movies, music or books can't?
One of my focuses as a game designer is player-character embodiment. I really like to create games that enable that feeling of being an actor almost, learning your role as you play the game. In that way, games are uniquely positioned to help people see and understand other perspectives.
You see this kind of thing becoming more and more mainstream slowly. I really like the Life Is Strange series, especially Life Is Strange 2, which really puts the player in the shoes of Sean and Daniel. In the beginning of the game, their dad is killed by cops in this horrible incident. He is Mexican, and it is about his two sons running away from the police because they're thought to be involved. The game ends up being a lot about police violence and racism in the U.S. and all these really intense issues. It's pretty mainstream and pretty high budget, so it's been really cool to see that kind of embodiment of a really specific, lived experience that's true to our country especially. I think it's a really good sign for games moving forward.
You started working at Fullbright right after the company became a Gamergate target, then released Cibele shortly thereafter. Was it intimidating to release something so personal and vulnerable into a market that was so openly hostile at the time?
I was definitely aware of that, but I was also sort of in a bubble. I was on Twitter, so I saw that stuff going on, but it didn't really affect me deeply in my day-to-day life. When you're around people who are encouraging your work, especially in person, it makes you feel a lot more confident in it.
That's part of what Cibele is about—that gaming isn't always this isolating, hostile digital sphere.
And there is a certain amount of rude people on the internet. I did an Independent Games Summit mini-talk about it where I was like, people are slut-shaming me, that sucks, and the game's not even out. I dealt with it to an extent, but that was by no means anything that got in the way of me wanting to release it, ever. I was kind of like, "Shut up, go away, you guys suck."
Is it a bubble, or is it just that most gamers aren't actually angry dudes living in their mom's basement or whatever?
There's a lot of great people who play video games, and I do really think it's a vocal minority of evil people who are sexist and awful. There's always new studies talking about how many women play video games these days. Looking at that can be really encouraging sometimes—to remember I'm not releasing games just to the vocal minority of bad men.