A Crystallized Version Of The Most Essential Elements Of This Actual Experience:
An Interview With Nina Freeman
Some poets work as editors; some poets survive by teaching. Nina Freeman discovered another option: make video games instead. A trained poet, Freeman floundered after college until falling in with a group of game developers who introduced her to the burgeoning scene of indie games. She was amazed to find that there were so many games about “very human, honest characters.” Freeman was a former protege of the poet Charles North, had worked at the Poetry Project, and had written poetry exclusively for years. She didn’t know a single programming language. Enrolling in a master’s program at NYU, most artists with her background would have been joining the Creative Writing department, but Freeman opted to study in the Integrated Digital Media program, hoping to make a career out of video games. She has since become one of the most prolific artists working in the medium.
Freeman believes “games can and should be about anything,” and accordingly has devoted her career to exploring what is still a new genre for the medium: autobiography. In her games you play as Freeman. Her work includes Ladylike, which simulates a series of trips to the mall; Hokuto no Huchen (Fist of the North Karp), based on a fishing excursion with her father; A Pretty Ornament I Made, based on a holiday outing with her mother; how do you Do it?, in which the player takes the role of a girl mashing naked dolls together in an attempt to figure out how sex works; and Freshman Year, a game that documents a sexual assault her first year of college. Freeman has confessed that when talking about the protagonist of her games, “I’m never sure if I should refer to myself or the character, because it is about me, but it’s also a character.”
Her ultimate goal for each game is to elicit what she calls “player-character embodiment,” and none of her work better exemplifies that than her latest game, Cibele. As a teenager, Freeman was a devoted player of Final Fantasy Online, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. She became close with another player she met in the game, and the pair eventually decided to meet in real life and have sex. Cibele is based on that relationship. Set during her college years, the gameplay alternates between exploring files on a simulated version of her desktop and controlling her avatar in a fictional MMORPG. As a result, the game is perhaps the most realistic first-person experience ever produced in the medium. In most games, you click buttons to control your character: click this button, your character jumps; click that button, your character crouches; you’re moving your fingers, in other words, when the character is moving their legs and their arms. In Cibele, however, players embody the character not just mentally but even physically: like the Nina in the story, players are sitting at a computer, maneuvering the cursor on the screen.
As a storyteller, it can be difficult to get an audience to care about characters playing an MMORPG. The usual solution is to make the stakes life-or-death: in Sword Art Online, if a character dies in the game the character is killed in reality; in .hack//Sign, a character in a coma is trapped in the game; in Ready Player One, the characters are being hunted in reality and periodically get bombed and tossed from balconies. In that sense Cibele is also innovative narratively: Freeman managed to make a story about an MMORPG deeply compelling without resorting to those life-or-death stakes. Produced with a team of collaborators operating under the name Star Maid Games, Cibele has received wide recognition within the industry, including a nomination for a Game Award, the industry equivalent of an Oscar. Along with designing her own games, Freeman recently took a position at Fullbright, developer of the critically acclaimed Gone Home, to work on the company’s forthcoming title Tacoma.
Like a couple of people playing an MMORPG, we spoke over our computers. Freeman had dyed her hair bright blue to commemorate her move to Portland. I was three time zones away, in a house on the coast of Lake Michigan, but I quickly forgot that we weren’t in the same room.
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Interviewer: You helped found the Code Liberation Foundation, which provides game development workshops to women in New York, free of charge. Do you have a sense that the gender disparity in the industry is diminishing, or has the work only just begun?
Freeman: Technology-focused industries at large definitely have a gender problem. Because historically technology has been men’s work. Even in high school, there’s always going to be some girl who’s had this experience, where they were like, “Oh, you’re not smart enough to program, or do that kind of thing—but probably your brother could.”
We’re certainly not there yet, and things could be a lot better. But game-making tools are becoming more and more accessible and distribution is becoming more and more accessible. As those barriers to entry lower, you’ll see more gender and racial diversity coming into the industry, and into all these technology industries. You definitely see that happening now. But it’s a slow-moving process, that’s for sure. [laughs]
Interviewer: I think the title of Details’ interview with you is interesting: “Meet the Girl Who Makes Video Games About Her Sex Life.” You’re obviously an adult, and yet the interview didn’t refer to you as a “woman,” but as a “girl,” subtly infantilizing you. In contrast, it’s difficult to imagine a Condé Nast publication would ever refer to Phil Fish or Sam Barlow as “boys.”
Freeman: Yeah, that’s true. [laughs] I don’t know who wrote that title. I didn’t really feel offended by it because I refer to myself as a “girl” all of the time. And I still feel pretty young. So I guess it didn’t really occur to me. But for me, with my work, it’s a little complicated. Because I work on things that are really feminine and I’m really excited about expressing hyper-feminine stuff in my games. That’s why Cibele is full of pink things and anime girls and all of this traditionally feminine stuff. So I’m not surprised that I would be referred to as a “girl,” given that I make the kind of work that is more girly.
So I don’t know, none of that surprises me. But I don’t really feel offended by it. That title doesn’t really bother me at all. The thing that bothers me is when people refer to women as “females.” [laughs] I don’t know why that even bothers me, but it somehow sounds gross.
Interviewer: You’ve written about a lack of playable mother characters in the industry. Are there other roles that seem notably absent in contemporary video games?
Freeman: Definitely a lack of mother figures. Another thing that isn’t seen often in games is what I try to do, which is girly characters. And I think that that is bad to do if you’re trying to make a universal girl character, because obviously women are all very very different. But there’s a lack of specifically very feminine girly characters that are into dolls or pink stuff or whatever. That’s always been my experience, so I identify a lot with those kinds of characters, and basically never see them in video games. Except for Final Fantasy games, which is probably why I like them so much. [laughs] So embracing that specific kind of femininity, I’d love to see more of. Because I don’t think interesting women characters have to be dark or brooding or tough… They can be more traditional too, and if they’re treated with specificity and thoughtfulness, then those characters can be really interesting.
Interviewer: What was growing up in Ipswich like?
Freeman: I would talk about it differently if you were from Massachusetts. [laughs] So, Ipswich is a town in eastern Massachusetts, a little bit above the Cape, and thirty minutes-ish east of Boston. So it’s a suburban town but it’s connected to Boston pretty closely. A lot of people commute to work in Boston from Ipswich. So it’s one of those kinds of towns. And it also is a beach town. There’s a really major beach there called Crane Beach.
Interviewer: Was beach culture a part of your life?
Freeman: I don’t know if I would call it a culture necessarily, but I did go there a lot. Because when I think of beach culture, I think of L.A. beaches, where there’s a ton of stuff going on. But this place was a reservation beach, so it was a lot quieter. There weren’t buildings nearby. There’s actually a castle on the beach, which was kind of interesting.
Interviewer: Who built a castle on a beach in Ipswich?
Freeman: [laughs] It’s a really weird story. I forget if he was like an early person involved in toilets? Like he was one of the people that invented a kind of toilet or something like that? So he was really rich from that, and this is a super super long time ago, so that was when you apparently built summer homes that were like castles. It’s not like a European castle. It’s in the style of one, and that’s what they call it, but really it’s just a giant stone mansion with gardens and grounds. It’s actually really gorgeous. I had my prom there, which is kind of funny. I guess that’s a tradition in my town.
Interviewer: You’ve said that you identify a lot with your Finnish heritage.
Freeman: I didn’t even think about being Finnish until I was older. I only really connected with it when I was in college. I was working as a student aide in the computer science department, and they were organizing this program to send some students over to a university in Finland called Aalto University. Basically to do a university partnership, where we would go over there and participate in this yearly project they did that was sort of tech-oriented. And they ended up inviting me to go on that trip, which was really cool, because I wasn’t even a computer science major. I didn’t do programming until after college, so this was in college, before I was really doing that. So I got to participate in this big project, and part of that was going to Finland, and we went to Helsinki, and I have some distant-ish relatives that live out there, so I got to go meet them. I don’t know the terms for how we’re related, but I just call them my Finnish grandparents, even though they’re not technically my Finnish grandparents. They’re, like, related to my grandmother in some way. But they were really nice, and my Finnish cousin came and picked me up, and she was translating for me so I could talk to them because they only spoke Finnish. And they had me over to their home, and showed me old pictures of people, and told me about where they had come from, from northern Finland. It was a really crazy experience to meet relatives out of nowhere like that, that I wasn’t even aware of before. So that experience was pretty amazing. Ever since, I’ve had a fondness for Finnish culture and for Finland, because of my relatives there.
Interviewer: Sounds like there might be a game in there.
Freeman: [laughs] Yeah, maybe… My one thing that I have from it was, my Finnish grandmother wove me this handwoven tapestry-type thing. Almost like a runner that you would put on your table, but way nicer than that, because it’s handmade. And I have it hanging in my room, and it’s really pretty, so that’s how I remember Finland.
Interviewer: You’ve mentioned that when you were a child you spent a lot of time hiding: behind curtains, in the attic, under the bed. What were you hiding from?
Freeman: I guess there are a lot of reasons. My family, just as much as a lot of other people’s families, would fight and stuff. And my parents have been divorced since I was really little. So there was that kind of thing to deal with. Yeah, I don’t know, there was always just a lot of family strife and drama. Since I was the youngest kid in the family, I spent a lot of that being the only kid, for the first ten years of my life.
So I would try to avoid all of the adults arguing with each other. And yeah, I would hide under things. But also, I wasn’t always hiding to escape family drama. I think that’s something kids do. But I also for some reason really liked hiding under my bed while I was playing. But I wasn’t really hiding. I just went under there. In retrospect, I guess it felt almost like going into a dollhouse. It was a way to play in my own world or area or whatever… I used to build little forts under the kitchen table, and would literally put up blankets so it would be like I was like isolated inside with my toys. So I guess it was a combination of trying to avoid my family when they were arguing or trying to be playing in my own little world.
Interviewer: So even at that age you were building mini narrative environments.
Freeman: Yeah, I was always role-playing as a kid. Sometimes with me playing a character, but a lot of times just having Barbie dolls or Beanie Babies or whatever, and I would set up little scenarios and be like a puppeteer and puppet them around and have them talk to each other and stuff. And I didn’t do it alone either. I had friends that would come over and do it with me too. We did that together a lot as kids. We would do that at recess too. And everyone made fun of us.
Interviewer: Do you remember the first video game you ever played?
Freeman: People ask me this a lot, and sometimes I give different answers, because I can’t 100% remember. [laughs] But let’s see. The first video games I remember playing are Myst and The Sims, and Scholastic games on the computers at the mall. Honestly, the first first ones were probably the Scholastic games, because I must not have had a computer until I was, like, maybe not quite ten… I didn’t have a computer for a while, or any video game consoles, but when I was at the mall with my mom she would leave me in the Scholastic store and I would play on their computers there because they had games on them. You could just sit and play for free for as long as you wanted. So I did that a lot.
Interviewer: Was there an arcade in Ipswich?
Freeman: No, I never played on an arcade machine until I was way older. I guess there was probably a Pac-Man machine, but I don’t think I really cared, or paid attention… There was probably one at the pizza parlor, but I didn’t play it.
I would also play games on the library computers and stuff too. Usually I was just finding computers to play on.
Interviewer: So wherever you were, if there was a computer, you were on it.
Freeman: Yeah, and I had friends who had video game consoles too… I remember playing Super Nintendo at one of my friend’s houses. I must have been in elementary school, but it was later than I was playing computer games, for sure. My first console was a Sega Genesis.
Interviewer: I’d read that when you were a kid you spent a lot of time playing video games in your friends’ basements. It interested me that there was a social element to your gaming even before you got involved with MMORPGs. What type of games did you play with your friends? Were these multiplayer games or were you taking turns with the controller?
Freeman: I have two friends from when I was younger, Brittney and Melanie. We would go to their basement, and I remember we played a lot of [The Legend of] Zelda: Ocarina of Time specifically, and [Super] Mario 64, and those bigger Nintendo games. We played a lot of those single-player games together, just switching off and taking turns. But we were also playing Super Smash Bros. a lot, and Donkey Kong 64 had a multiplayer mode that we played a lot. So we were doing a pretty good mix of local multiplayer and single-player games.
But yeah, we often played together. I think I played more games just switching off with them than I even did alone. Which was always fun, because we would get to talk about it while we were playing. And we would often get kicked out of the basement by their parents. They were like, “Go play outside for a while, you’ve been down there for a long time.” And we would go role-play those games outside. [laughs] So it wasn’t even like we were stopping playing the game. We would just go think about it, and talk about it some more, and make up scenarios about it, or write fan fiction or whatever together.
Interviewer: You’ve written that your first job was in a video game—when you were fifteen you landed a gig working for a guild of gamers in Final Fantasy Online.
Freeman: [laughs] Yeah, I guess that was kind of my first job.
Interviewer: And you were paid?
Freeman: Well, it’s complicated. In the game there’s currency, like for your character to buy stuff in the game. Not real-world money, but in-game currency. So you’re in the game, and you join [the group], and in Final Fantasy Online it’s called a linkshell, but it’s like a World of Warcraft guild. And you do events and runs and stuff with your linkshell. You know, you beat a monster thing, and it drops stuff, and you can get items from that, and you sell them. So there’s a whole economy in that game, as with a lot of online games of that nature.
I was really really into that whole endgame linkshell stuff. Basically it was like a job, but not for real money or anything. And it wasn’t like I was earning an hourly wage or whatever. But you go do events with your group and you get rewards distributed to you by the leadership that run those events. So it was similar in a lot of ways to working in the real world. [laughs]
Interviewer: When you moved to New York to enroll at Pace University, you initially planned to study theater. Were you involved in theater when you were younger?
Freeman: Yeah, basically my entire middle school and high school life was spent either playing Final Fantasy Online or doing theater stuff. I started being involved in theater toward the end of middle school, and that was my main focus when I was that age. I did every single play every single year. That was like three or four plays a year with my school. I was really serious about it… And my whole social life was all theater kids. And practice for theater was every day after school for a pretty long time. So I spent a lot of time doing theater. I was an actress, so I was doing specifically acting stuff. I was pursuing that for a long time really seriously, and then I was going to do it for college, but the scene in college just wasn’t what I was interested in. Because in high school… I just really liked getting into the plays themselves and learning about the characters. Because a lot of what you do as an actor is reading between the lines, to understand motivations, so that you can perform the character to the best of your ability. You really have to delve pretty deep into the script to get a sense of who this character is.
So that was always what was interesting to me, was the literary side of it, even though I did a ton of performing… So that’s I think why I ended up doing English in college instead of acting.
Interviewer: You studied poetry under Charles North while you were there. Was that when you discovered poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Langston Hughes, or were you reading poetry when you were younger?
Freeman: I definitely wrote poetry when I was younger. I don’t know if I was reading it as much. I was interested in it when I was in high school, but I didn’t get nearly as into it as I did later. And I was into it through theater stuff too. I did a lot of Shakespeare plays, so I read a lot of Shakespeare when I was in high school. But I really got excited about it because of Charles North. I had a lot of professors in college, but he was the one I was closest with and took the most classes with, and he introduced me to those poets you mentioned before, and a lot of others, specifically the New York School poets.
Interviewer: What was working at the Poetry Project like?
Freeman: Charles North introduced me to them. I forget, it must have been my sophomore year. That place is really incredible, because it’s one of the very historic New York poetry spaces that’s been around for a long time. It’s a non-profit, and it’s in this interesting church that houses a bunch of local arts organizations… And it also is just a normal church. And Allen Ginsberg read there, and a lot of the Beat poets were really active back in that day, and the New York School poets, so it had a lot of history associated with it. And sometimes poets from those generations would even come back to read. They had a regular reading series, which I was involved with… like working at the door, or making flyers. I was doing interney stuff. But it was cool because I got to meet a lot of interesting poets. I stayed with them for like three years.
Interviewer: You’ve said that with poetry you eventually “hit a wall.”
Freeman: Basically, I did poetry all throughout college and it was really rewarding and I loved it, but then when I graduated I didn’t see any specific work in that field that I passionately wanted to do. I just wanted to write. And a way to do that is, you know, to write your own chapbooks and get published and blah blah blah. But I didn’t want to do that for some reason. I just wanted to keep writing stuff on my own. [laughs] Then I was working at a job I really didn’t want to be at, for a while, and I was like, “Okay, maybe I’ll be an English professor.” So I started grad school at CUNY, in science-fiction literature specifically, because that’s what my undergrad thesis was about, was sci-fi poetry. So I started going in the academia direction, because I thought that would help me write what I wanted. But I realized that that wasn’t really exciting to me either… So it was this weird time of transition. I wrote this one really long poem, and that was the last big thing I wrote. It’s this poem I put on GitHub. After I wrote that poem, I kind of just stopped. Not so much because I lost interest in poetry, because I still read and am very interested in poetry actively. But I got super ill, I got diagnosed with this chronic illness, so I didn’t really have the energy to do much of anything.
Interviewer: I’ve read you decided that you wanted to make games after playing Dys4ia.
Freeman: Dys4ia is one of the early ones. Dys4ia and Kentucky Route Zero and Gone Home were probably the three that really drew me in… But I also met a bunch of game developers and became their friends and was part of this social circle of game developers. So I think the combination of being around people who were making games and seeing these interesting games contributed to me being really attracted to working on them myself.
Interviewer: I’m amazed that you’ve never formally studied programming. How long did it take you to learn enough code to be able to make your first game?
Freeman: The very first game I ever made was literally the day I started trying to program, because it was a super simple game and I did it as an exercise to learn about programming. I wrote it in Python. It was a little text-adventure Zork-style game. I basically transplanted one of my old sci-fi poems into this format and tried to make a game out of it.
I don’t know, being a self-taught programmer, it’s probably more common than people think. I think a lot of programmers are self-taught. Because in the end, if you have access to a computer and the internet, all of the knowledge is there, and really it’s just a matter of banging your head against the wall until you finally learn it. Programming is really hard, and I don’t think I’ll ever have learned enough about it to call myself “a good programmer.” It’s just something that you have to do a lot. So I started doing a lot of projects. As much as I could. You know, it’s a lot of trial and error, and you just start to remember things and recognize the patterns.
And because I fell into that social group of game developers, I had people there to work with and support me and learn from. So I had a lot of mentors too, which definitely helped. Emmett Butler, who is my partner, like my boyfriend, and also a programmer—him and I have worked together a lot, and he’s taught me a lot about programming. It was really because we worked on stuff together and in parallel. Being able to talk to another person as you work through those problems for me was always a good way to learn. So I did a lot of it all at once and I tried to do it all the time. I did game jams a lot, that first six months. [laughs]
Interviewer: You describe your games as vignettes: “a character study, or a game that focuses on one scene or one character or one focused experience.” There are very few games beside your own that fit that description. Does that create any design challenges, working in what’s essentially a new genre for the medium?
Freeman: Yeah, there’s definitely not many games that do the specific stuff that I’ve worked on. And I say that as in “standalone games that only do that”… But you see this vignette style in larger games, as parts of the game. One thing I refer to frequently when I talk about this is Final Fantasy X, and actually [Final Fantasy] X-2 as well. There’s one moment early in [Final Fantasy X], this part where you’re running around, and you see this kid who’s jumping up and down in this ruined-hut area, because it’s in this city that has recently been destroyed. And you can go walk up to the kid and talk to him, and that triggers this little scene where you rescue him, the kid, from the collapsing structure. You take him out of there, and he’s like, “Oh my god, thank you,” and then he runs away. But you can totally follow that kid and then go trigger another scene with him and his sister. And it’s not relevant really to the plot at all. It’s just this cool little series of events that you can follow along with if you want. And it’s not all just a cinematic [cutscene]—you actually go from place to place and have to follow this kid around in order to see this whole little vignette. So I think you see these vignettes in these larger games, whether they’re in that form [and] it happens pretty organically, or if it’s just a specific quest or mission or whatever. Like in Final Fantasy X-2, it has a lot of missions, and there’s the funny one, where the whole mission is to give a massage to this lady. And that’s a little vignette game… I’ve always been attracted to games that have a lot of that kind of thing, which I think is why I love Final Fantasy so much, because those games often incorporate that kind of thing.
So I’m inspired by that stuff. But also, you know, poetry is a big influence. I spent a lot of time practicing writing in this style where I was writing about really specific stuff. So I take that approach to writing and think about how it can be applied to games.
Interviewer: Your games offer such an unusual experience for the medium that the games can be jarring. For A Pretty Ornament I Made, I kept playing the game over and over, convinced that if I made enough ornaments I could somehow beat the game, that the outcome would change; for how do you Do it?, I did the opposite, playing through over and over in an attempt to lose the game, again out of this desire to change the outcome.
In that sense, maybe it was successful player-character embodiment—the experience was almost like going over a memory of an unpleasant or confusing incident again and again, trying to sort out my feelings.
Freeman: Often my goal is to do that. A lot of these games that I’ve worked on are based on actual experiences I’ve had. So there really isn’t alternate endings to that, because it’s my life, it’s already happened. How do I give the player agency without making the game about them? How do I give the player agency while making it still about the character and not about the player’s perception of the character or how they want the character to be? Because ultimately for me it’s about helping the player understand a specific character. So I have to tell these linear stories, but it’s not just a cinematic [cutscene]—I’m not trying to make movies, I’m trying to make games. [laughs] So I have to find, like, what’s the most essential interactive element? Or what can I find in this story that I could let the players interact with in order to better understand the character or the story? Because I think a lot of game designers want to make games that help the player feel like they’re in control, or that the game is about them, [that] they’re making their own character and their own story. Whereas I’m like, “This is not the player’s story; it’s the character’s story.”
Interviewer: The vast majority of video games use one of two narrative structures: either a linear structure, like Portal and The Last of Us, in which you advance from chapter to chapter along a predetermined route; or a sandbox structure, like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls, where you are provided an open world and left free to choose when and even whether to explore different arcs. Your game Ladylike, however, has a peculiar structure that defies all expectations. After opening on a conversation with your mother in the car on the way to the mall, there are a variety of possible outcomes once you arrive—you might get dumped in a toy store, you might have to try on clothes in a dressing room, you might get to play cootie catcher with a stranger in the food court—but the choices you make during that initial conversation have no effect on the outcome. Instead, the outcome is randomly assigned each playthrough, and ultimately you end up back where you started: in the car with your mother, having another conversation. Do you have a term for that structure?
Freeman: I usually call it “the web structure.” Because the way the choices affect how you move through that scene is like—you can actually move between different branches, depending on what you choose, so it ends up looking like a spiderweb. You’re not changing the outcome; you’re just exploring different parts of different conversations. Which is kind of hard to write. It’s hard to make that feel natural. But I tried. [laughs] So yeah, it’s more of exploring the possibility space of this conversation than affecting the outcome. The mall sequences at the end—or you can also get kicked out of the car—all of the different endings are randomized. Except for getting kicked out of the car. That one’s not random—you have to get to that specifically.
So it’s mostly random except for that. And that’s because it doesn’t really matter where you end up… This is a game about driving somewhere. It doesn’t really matter where. It’s just what happens there, and how the conversation you had informs your understanding of what happens there. So it’s more of a web in that way.
Interviewer: Cibele has a unique structure too, alternating between sections where you explore a simulated desktop and sections where you play a fictional MMORPG. How many prototypes did you have to develop before finally arriving at that setup for that game?
Freeman: I started the game in class when I was in grad school. I made a Flash prototype that was basically just a single screen with some enemies and a little scrolling chat log at the bottom. And you could click around, point and click, to control the character. And it had voiceover dialogue in the background. So that was the kernel of the idea, was like, “Play a faux online game, and overhear this conversation, and somehow feel like you’re playing as this specific girl.” So that core stuff was there from the beginning, minus the pop-ups and the desktop. And then—when did the pop-ups and the desktop come in? I did that prototype and basically scrapped it right away because it was just for class. But I knew I was going to keep going with the game. I gathered a team and we tried to start making it in GameMaker, and that didn’t end up working out, because it doesn’t really have video support. Early on I was like, “I’m going to have short films, because this game is about real people and human bodies, and I need to show that.” I didn’t think it would be genuine if I had an animator come in and do an animated sequence. Even though that’s a way we could have done it, that just didn’t feel tonally correct for what I was trying to do. Especially because I was like, “I want it to have real chats and stuff in it,” and that led to having real pictures and files. So it all evolved out of this kernel of being like, “How do I make a game where people literally are me at the computer playing an online game?”
Interviewer: Cibele is a collage made from a variety of different forms: there’s a playable video game; there are photographs and drawings; there are written documents in the form of poems and blog posts and emails and chat logs; and there are filmed cutscenes. In a sense, you were uniquely qualified to make a game like this, given your background in writing and acting.
Freeman: It was fun to be able to give myself a chance to do some acting. I wasn’t sure if I was going to have it be me, at first. That was never really the intention. But I quickly realized that I would save us a lot of time and money if I just was in it myself and used actual ephemera from my life. Because that’s more interesting, but also producing all of that stuff would have been a huge amount of effort when I just had it all at my fingertips.
But I didn’t do the short films myself by any means. I was lucky. It’s less me being good at a lot of different things and more me knowing a lot of people that are good at a lot of different things. [laughs] And being able to work with them. Because my roommate at the time was a film major when we went to college together, and she did the short films. And I had a friend of a friend who was a voice actor who ended up playing Ichi. And I had worked with Decky [Coss], who ended up doing the music… So I gathered a bunch of friends together to do it.
Interviewer: For a book, an author is typically required to identify the book as either fiction or nonfiction. I’m fascinated by the way Cibele blurs that boundary. The protagonist of the game, like you, is named Nina. The photos of her are photos of you. The drawings by her are drawings by you. Some of the blog posts are actual entries from your LiveJournal. How did you choose what to use and what to keep, given the great wealth of autobiographical material you had to work with?
Freeman: When I work on these games, I start out with the idea, which is often, you know, a memory or whatever, something that actually happened. And then I’m like, “Okay, I have this memory, but this relationship I had with this guy went on for a while, and all this different stuff happened.” It wasn’t just what happened in the game. There’s obviously more to it than that. But I was like, “I can’t tell everything. That’s not really interesting. That’s just, like, a lot, and probably bad writing if I try and write every single thing that happened to me with this guy.” [laughs] Maybe not bad writing, but not my style. Because, you know, biography gets into the nitty-gritty, but I’m trying to tell stories that are more structured than that, or are more concise. So for me, I’m like, “What’s the kernel of this story, of this relationship I had with this person, that is the interesting part that I want to show people and that I want people to try and understand?” In this case, what I was interested in focusing on was, how did we decide to meet up and have sex? Because that was always the thing that came to mind when I thought about my relationship with this person. That was the big event between us. So I filtered out all of that extra stuff that is important to me as a person but is not important to the story. So these stories, I put them through that storyteller filter, where I’m like, “What is the most important stuff that will communicate this experience as clearly as possible?”
So even though it’s all based on real stuff, I still treat it more like a story, more like fiction, I think, than people would expect. That’s why I don’t often use the term “autobiographical” anymore. It’s more “based on a true story.”
It’s almost a crystallized version of the most essential elements of this actual experience that I had.
Interviewer: I’ve heard that you originally planned to try to tell the story through a chapbook of poems.
Freeman: Yeah… And with poetry I had a similar approach. Almost all of my poetry is based on real stuff. That’s something that I learned largely from taking Charles North’s classes, because he always encouraged us to do that. So I’ve always been doing that kind of storytelling… And this event that happened has always been interesting to me in that way, in that I wanted to explore it further. So it was always in my back pocket, and then when I was making games, in this class the theme for the week was “sex.” Actually that theme was voted on by the class, and I’d always wanted to explore this story, and I finally saw a good excuse to. My friend in that class and I were like, “We should have the theme be sex. We want to see what our classmates would make given that theme. That might be interesting.” [laughs] And in the back of my mind I was like, “And I could make something about that story that I’ve been holding onto for a long time.” So I decided it was time to run with it. And I saw that it is a story about playing a video game. So I was like, “There has to be a good way to tell this through a game.” I was like, “That sounds kind of meta, but I’m going to go for it.”
Interviewer: Sometimes the impulse to try to make a game as fun as possible actually seems to detract from the overall experience. Playing BioShock games, for instance, I’m always far less interested in the combat than in simply exploring these strange imaginary societies. The combat is fun, but also emotionally and intellectually empty, so for me the most boring stretches of those games are ultimately the sections that require me to shoot at things.
I’ve been thinking about that because Valtameri, the MMORPG in Cibele, features almost none of the addictive elements typically found in an MMORPG. No items, no gold, no leveling. How did you arrive at such a minimalist design?
Freeman: One of the main reasons I wanted to tell this story via a game was because of the performance aspect of video games. I’m interested in how good games are at helping players perform and as an extension of that embody characters. As a designer, embodiment and performance come first and foremost. And in order to help players embody and perform—that doesn’t always mean that something is going to be FPS-style fun, or Tetris fun. It’s more about the specific story, and like, “What is the thing that one does, that a player can do, that will bring them closest to performing that experience?” And that’s not always a fun thing. Like in A Pretty Ornament I Made, that’s not a fun mechanic, but that’s what I was doing, and it’s about the motion of doing something repetitive while you’re trying to ignore the arguments happening around you. I saw that that was the core thing that that character was doing during that specific story. Similarly for Cibele, I was like, “What was I actually doing when this happened? What are the things that I need to let the player do in order to bring them closer to performing this specific experience?” And for that, I was like, “I was sitting at a computer playing an online game.” That’s what I was doing. As a more general extension of that, I was sitting at a computer, using it. So I saw that as the game mechanic. You know, using a computer is a pretty mundane thing. We all do it every day, we’re so involved with computers, and they’re specifically designed to be as easy to use as possible. User experience is a huge field for a reason. So I was like, “Okay, I have to make an interface that feels pretty minimal, something that mimics a Mac interface with a desktop, so people can feel like, ‘Oh, I’m at a normal computer, so I know how to interact with this naturally.’” And then with the MMO, obviously traditionally MMOs have a lot of mechanics and a lot of UI and a lot of chaos. Which is fun—like, obviously, I played MMOs for a long time, so I love that stuff. But it wasn’t essential to performing as the character. Because really the story is about a relationship and is about using a computer while being in a relationship and how that stuff all flows together. So I was like, “I don’t want to make anything that will distract the player from what’s important, which is the relationship between two people.” So because of that, I decided to strip away all of the extra for-fun stuff from the idea of an MMO and just leave the core elements, which are: just clicking around to move, clicking on enemies, and just clicking around and chatting with your friends. Those are really the only things you need to communicate that a thing is an online game. I also had other forms of context, through pop-ups and emails talking about how it’s an online game, and the whole logging-in sequence. But it’s not really about logging in to an online game. It’s about going to chat with this guy. So I had to have that stuff there for context, but that’s not what the game is interested in going deep on. It’s more about the people, which is why the desktops are much richer content-wise. The online game sequences are there just to give you a sense of, “Okay, I’m playing this thing, and chatting with this guy, and chatting, and multi-tasking,” because that’s what I was doing. That’s the core experience I wanted players to perform, so that they could feel like they knew what it was like to be her.
Interviewer: Since deciding to become a game designer, have you made a point of playing games that predate you? Games that were somehow groundbreaking for the medium, like Moondust or LORNA or Deus Ex Machina? The way a filmmaker might study Battleship Potemkin or The 400 Blows?
Freeman: Yeah, I started playing as many—ugh, I hate using the term “indie games”—but as many indie games, quote unquote, as I could when I very first started. Because everyone in my social group was playing them, and I wanted to be able to be part of the conversation. So I played a lot of those, Gone Home and Kentucky Route Zero and Cart Life, that stuff early on. Then when I started working at Fullbright, that was actually when I went back and started to play some of the older stuff like BioShock and Half-Life and System Shock… a bunch of games I wouldn’t have normally been interested in. But I wanted to play them because I was like, “I’m going to go be a designer on a first-person narrative exploration game that is in this line of work, historically.” I always feel like I need to contextualize what I’m working on.
Interviewer: I’ve been trying to find a somewhat affordable copy of the original Half-Life, but the game is so rare at this point that copies sell for upwards of $100.
Freeman: I guess I’m spoiled, because Emmett has a huge video game console collection. And he has a lot of old ones. So I have access to a lot of stuff.
Interviewer: So you live in a video game library.
Freeman: [laughs] Yeah, there’s a lot of old games in this apartment.
Interviewer: I’m always fascinated by—and deeply jealous of—storytelling moves that are possible in certain mediums that are impossible to do in prose and poetry. For instance, how filmmakers can alternate between black-and-white and color scenes to achieve different narrative effects, like in The Wizard of Oz and Memento and Schindler’s List. Or the way the graphic novelist Chris Ware includes pages in Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories that take the form of a closed loop, like a flow chart with no beginning or end, which the reader can enter and exit at any point.
Something that appears to be unique to video games is the ability to trigger social emotions, whether the player is socializing with artificial intelligences in titles like The Sims or with human intelligences in titles like Second Life. I know that social element of Final Fantasy Online was an important part of the experience for you. How do you think socializing in a video game compares to socializing in person?
Freeman: In the end, if you’re in an online game, you’re still just talking like people. Obviously there’s a layer of mediation there, but I think we’re constantly trying to break through those layers of mediation… Having layers of mediation there adds some complications, like you don’t actually see people’s bodies necessarily, body language is a big deal, and you don’t always get that. But now we have Skype, or video messaging, so we are getting that too.
People want communication via technology to be just like real life, and it’s going to get closer and closer to that. It’s obviously not perfect yet, but that’s what people want, and I don’t think that there’s anything inherently different about flirting with or talking with someone online versus real life. Because we’re trying to make it be as real as possible.
Interviewer: There’s another emotional ability that seems unique to the video game. As Anna Anthropy has observed, “A video game lets you set up goals for the player and make her fail to achieve them. A reader can’t fail a book. It’s an entirely different level of empathy.” A related concept is what Andrea Phillips has called emotions of agency: “These are feelings you only feel when you’ve had a hand in causing a situation. Books, movies, plays, TV shows can make you laugh and cry… But a game can—and probably has—made you feel frustrated or proud. Games can also make you feel guilty… Or betrayed… That’s because you’re the one calling the shots. You’re the star, the protagonist, the hero. When there is a difficult decision to make… the one making it is you, and the one who has to live with the consequences? Also you.”
But you don’t seem interested in eliciting those emotions. Your games can’t be lost, and even when there appears to be an element of choice, the ultimate outcome is never affected. Instead, you focus on creating that experience of player-character embodiment: “I want them to embody me. I don’t want to give them control. I want them to feel like they’re me. So I have to help them understand what my particular experience is like without them controlling or changing it.” Is there an emotional component to that?
Freeman: I definitely am less interested in eliciting specific expressions of emotion from the player. I’m more interested in helping the player understand why or how a character would be feeling that way. And sometimes actually that act will then elicit that emotion in the player. [laughs] Especially, people get sad really easily, so if they think a character is sad they’ll often get sad too… But for me, my focus is, how do I communicate how and why that character feels that way? And how can I bring the player as close as possible to that experience?
My ultimate goal is just to have them understand the character. Which maybe seems counterintuitive to wanting to design games that allow them to perform characters. But I think those two things work together. If it’s the player playing as a character, it’s less about eliciting emotions in themselves than it is performing as a character that is feeling those emotions. I think those things are subtly different.
Interviewer: Here’s a quote from Scott McCloud: “Storytellers in all media and all cultures are, at least partially, in the business of creating worlds. It’s a mark of their success when those worlds are so vivid that we forget they aren’t real. This can be done through a medium as simple as text or speech, but the reproduction of sight and sound in the minds of the audience will often be outbid by new technologies that reproduce them in full. And at the first sign of a technology that can deliver vivid, uncompromising immersion, few will be able to resist its spell, and many may even trade in the world they’re given at birth for the new worlds that technology and imagination will combine to create. The promise implicit in the idea of Virtual Reality is the final destination for the collective journey taken by storytellers throughout history… the journey toward the creation of a world so real it can make us forget the one we live in.”
With Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR releasing this year, there’s a sense that humanity is about to reach that “final destination.” What do you think—is virtual reality the ultimate storytelling medium?
Freeman: Maybe. Right now there aren’t very accessible tools to make VR stuff, so I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. There’s nothing that I would want put the effort into using. I’m interested in telling stories. I don’t want to be using a technology that I feel is too restraining. VR is still too early to feel as freeing as I would want it to be.
Interviewer: So virtual reality is going through the same phase that video games were forty years ago, when the technology was still so primitive that designers were limited to making tennis simulators, crude racing games, and pixelated shooters.
Freeman: I think there’s a lot to be said for the human imagination. We spend a lot of our lives just daydreaming and thinking about things. Spending time in one’s head is more what I would imagine to be the ultimate storytelling method… I don’t know if anything can compete with the human imagination in that way.
Interviewer: In the United States, comic books weren’t taken seriously as an artistic medium before the 1970’s. Comic books were dismissed as childish, juvenile, superficial—and that’s not much of a surprise, considering the medium was referred to as “comic books.” By definition, the entire medium was limited to a single emotion: comedy. Of course, in practice, the medium had already displayed a wide emotional range, but what you name something, what you choose to call something, has a profound effect on the way you think about that thing. Even many people who made comic books, including some of the most revered cartoonists in history, didn’t consider the medium to be a form of art. Then, in the 1970’s, something radical happened. A select group of artists including Will Eisner began publishing long-form comic books under the name “graphic novel.” It suggested, “This medium isn’t defined by a single emotion—this medium is defined by the fact that it consists of sequential images.” And the public perception of the medium began to shift.
To me, the term “video game” seems similarly problematic. The Oxford Dictionary of English defines a game as “a form of competitive activity or sport played according to rules.” That definition fits games like Halo and Age of Empires, even games like Braid and Shadow of the Colossus—there are rules and obstacles and objectives. But Cibele, Freshman Year, Ladylike, work by other designers like The Graveyard and Proteus and Depression Quest, those have nothing to do with winning or competing. Merriam-Webster defines a game as an “activity engaged in for diversion or amusement”—but again, your work is meant to offer players something greater than mere diversion or amusement, and you don’t seem to be alone in that.
Freeman: I’ve always been more of a proponent of reclaiming names and changing the definition. But obviously that kind of thing, I don’t know, it might be futile. [laughs] But I actively refer to my work, or the things that I work on, as games, because that’s how I think of them. Certainly not merely as a diversion or something that’s for fun necessarily, although some of them are. But I’ve always thought of games as—I mean, there are whole books written about trying to define what a game is. It’s impossible. What is poetry? What is any art form? That’s always a losing battle if you try to define it. Because the kinds of things that those terms represent is always changing… definitions are fluid and language in general is fluid and often when we’re talking we’re not even thinking of words as meaning one thing. We’re thinking of their meaning in terms of all of the things that we associate with them that aren’t necessarily in a definition.
So I don’t know if I would even want to present another name for video games. I have faith that the cultural conversation around them is changing. Especially as you see more mainstream outlets talking about games that don’t fit that traditional definition.
Interviewer: Talking about his own games, Jenova Chen has said, “Essentially, artists, they break themselves, they spill their blood and souls onto their work. It’s important to know that the work can actually be seen.” How important is having an audience to you? You’ve called the process of making your games “cathartic”—would you still make them if you knew nobody would ever play them?
Freeman: I think I would… But it’s hard to say if I would or not, because I’m not in that situation. Honestly, I might just move on to a new medium if it seemed like it wasn’t doing anything for me. Because also something that really is important to me is connecting with other people. Games did that a lot for me, very quickly, and I found that to be really rewarding. The fact that I knew people were out there playing my stuff felt really good, and feels really good.
So having an audience is very important to me personally. But I don’t think that’s necessary to make games. I know a lot of people that make games that are primarily for themselves. They don’t even share them that widely. They keep them private, or they just send them to friends or whatever.