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 recalls. “We played a lot games. ‘Final Fantasy 11’ was like a second life for me.
Years later, while a student at Pace University in Lower Manhattan, Ms. Freeman was drawn to the work of Frank O’Hara and other New York School poets, admiring the way which they documented their lives through witty and conversational verse. and confessional at the same time. She adopted a similar tone when she began her career as a video game designer, creating lyrical games that explore memory and small, private moments.
In “How do you do? a 2014 game, Ms. Freeman puts the player in the role of a clumsy tween who desperately tries 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 it gets from the gun battles and fantasy quests that have long been among the most popular releases.
“I think the games are almost small steps, or they can be,” Ms. Freeman said on a warm afternoon in the back yard of her townhouse in Frederick, Maryland, where she lives with her husband, Jake Jefferies, an artist and coder. . “You can put yourself in another person’s shoes and play the role of a character. I can put the player on stage and give them a script, the script being the game.”
The game she’s been working on lately, in collaboration with Mr. Jefferies, will have a horror twist, she said. It’s 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 there,'” Ms Freeman said, explaining the set-up. “There are these models that come after you, and you lose all your clothes, and nothing fits. I try to explore being uncomfortable in your body and the trauma that comes with that.
Her tile-like games can’t be started 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 I was never motivated by that either.
His next game, “Nonno’s Legend”, will be released in August. He was inspired by the time she spent with her Italian grandfather. He was keeping a globe on a table, and Mrs. Freeman was staring at it and spinning it. In the video game, the globe is magical and the player is able to create new versions of the Earth.
Ms. Freeman created the game for this month’s Triennale Game Collection, part of the Milan Triennale International Exhibition, Milan’s annual exhibition dedicated to architecture and design. The select group of game designers invited to participate in the collection includes other offbeat specialists: 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 plush toys and vintage board games, including “Squirt” and “Contack.” She and Mr. Jefferies live with their two mini dachshunds, Auron and Kimahri, named after “Final Fantasy 10” characters.
The house has an under-furnished quality, just moved in. For much of the pandemic, the couple lived with Mr. Jefferies’ parents nearby, having moved from Portland, Oregon. Ms Freeman said they chose to live in Frederick, a town in western Maryland with a population of around 70,000, and not only because it was close to family, but also because it was It was an affordable place for independent artists.
She said she makes a modest living selling her games on sites like Steam and Itch; she also earns money as a host on the Twitch streaming platform. On her Twitch channel, which has around 12,000 subscribers, she spends hours at a stretch in her home office interacting with fans while playing a range of games, including action-packed 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 doing that stuff herself.
His underdog status can only add to his standing in the indie gaming world. “His work has been hugely inspiring to me and important to the industry at large,” said the video game designer. Francesca Carletto-Leon said in an email.
Ms. Carletto-Leon, program manager at Code Coven, which offers online courses in video game design, added that memory-based games have become increasingly popular among the new generation of developers.
“Many of my students cite Nina’s work as having 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 stems 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 a nearly empty apartment filled with moving boxes, about to leave a relationship; the player then pieces together what happened through clues provided by fragments of a poem Mrs. Freeman wrote especially for the game. As the game progresses, the player is prompted to speak in 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, named “Last Call” an essential game of 2021. “What makes it powerful,” he wrote, “is that we need to speak in our computer microphones to push through the home, letting our protagonist know we’re here for them.
A lighter tone pervades another recent play, “We Met in May,” a nostalgic and humorous recreation of four scenes from the early days of Mrs. 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 challenge the basic tenets of most video games. Referring to her 2014 play on playing with dolls, she said: “‘How do you do it?’ is a one-minute game. People still get mad at me about it.
She is part of a group of designers who use the video game format to focus on moments that were once more likely to be explored in memoir, fiction, poetry, or independent film dramas. This take includes “Dys4ia,” a 2012 game from Anna Anthropy that chronicles the game maker’s hormone replacement therapy, and “Cart Life,” about a street cart vendor trying to juggle work and family responsibilities. Even “Gears of War,” a third-person shooter published by mainstream studio Epic Games, was inspired in part by a divorce, according to its creator, Cliff Bleszinski.
Ms. Freeman found her way to the independent scene around 2012, after graduating from Pace University. She started participating in game jams, where people get together and create a new game based on a theme over a weekend. While pursuing a graduate degree in Integrated Digital Media at New York University, she began to work 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 faith-based games,” said Bennett Foddy, a freelance game designer who made the internet hit “QWOP,” and was one of Ms. Freeman’s teachers at the doctoral school. “What ‘Cibele’ does is that it puts you inside Nina’s body. Video games are still a medium dominated by male voices and experiences. There is something radical about placing the straight cis man in the life of a teenage girl.
He added: “All of his work had this feeling of raw vulnerability. It takes a brave artist to pursue this kind of work. Especially in a medium that has a problem with cyberbullying.
For Ms Freeman, coming out “came naturally because I have a background in poetry”, she said. “So for me, I hadn’t even thought about doing it in games.”