I felt strangely nervous approaching my interview with Nina Freeman. Cibele is an intensely personal, autobiographical game, an account of the online relationship—here recreated in the meta-game MMO Valtameri—that culminated in her first sexual encounter. After less than 2 hours with the game, I already felt that I knew more about her personal life than I do of many of my friends’. It’s an uncomfortable way to begin a conversation with someone you’ve never met.
Fortunately for me, she’s basically bloody lovely, and my trepidation was quickly forgotten. Now a level designer at Fullbright (they of Gone Home fame) and working on the upcoming Tacoma (though certainly not done with her own creations), she spoke to me about pouring her life into a game, voyeuristic anxiety and turning herself into a character. Link to part two can be found at the end of the article.
The Existential Gamer: The game is packed with photos, poems and blog posts from your own life. Did you ever consider creating that material from scratch, rather than drawing from your own life?
Nina Freeman: Yeah, that was a consideration when I first started working on it. But I quickly realized that hiring someone else would probably involve having to pay them, and I didn’t have any budget, none of us did. And I would have had to create short films, voiceover bits, and generate all the in-game ephemera with that person, so that would have been a lot of work. It was just easier to use my own stuff, and ultimately more interesting I think, because it is a story that’s based on my own life, and why not be honest about that and just use my own stuff? So we went that route for a combination of reasons, one being that we had no budget and couldn’t hire someone, and the other being that it felt more genuine to do it that way. I wanted the game to feel very honest and raw, and the approach ultimately helped with that tone, I think.
TEG: How close to your own life is it? Did you play around with the timeline and details at all?
NF: It’s the kind of thing where it’s ‘based on a true story’. So it’s based on stuff that happened, but obviously I wasn’t trying to tell every single detail of my relationship with this guy—I just wanted to tell the story of how we met up and why that happened, which is a very specific part of our relationship. I have a lot of memories of this person and relationship, but not all of them matter to telling the story, so I had to kind of prune it down into the most essential moments that I thought best communicated this singular experience.
Part of that isn’t necessarily fudging the details, but putting things in to help clarify certain aspects of our relationship. So there are conversations in there that didn’t happen word for word, but are authored to communicate an element of our relationship that, in its essence, is truthful. So it’s very much authored in that way, but is drawing on real stuff and I went through a lot of effort to be as honest and genuine about the characters: myself and the other guy.
TEG: You’re always going to have to make concessions to make it fit an hour-and-a-half story.
NF: Yeah, exactly. There’s just too many details in a relationship like that to fit into a concise game and tell a clear story. I just don’t think it would be good writing if I tried to recreate everything word for word. That’s just too much stuff that ultimately doesn’t matter to telling a story. It matters to me, but not for the game.
TEG: Cibele is based on events that took place five or six years ago. Did you feel that you were able to get enough distance from your own experiences to step back and tell the story from both perspectives?
NF: So, my approach to creating games is to base them on my life and true experiences. But I wouldn’t make a game about an experience that I don’t have critical distance from. The critical distance is super important to me, like you said, because I need to be able to step back and look at this story as if it were a story, and treat myself more like a character within that story than my actual self. I’m not making these games to like, write a diary or a journal, or to look cool, or to archive my life in any way. I’m really just drawing on my life for stories because I think stories about ordinary people are really interesting, and I’m an ordinary person, so I have a lot to draw from.
So for me it’s really important to have that critical distance, and it varies from story to story. For Cibele it’s been many years since those events happened, and that’s what I felt like I needed in order to tell that story honestly, but for other things I need less time. I always give it time so that I know I can write honestly, ‘cause writing complex characters that have good and bad sides is really important to me. It’s harder to do that if I don’t have critical distance. That is an important part of my process for sure.
TEG: Was there a clear point when you realized that you had the critical distance to make Cibele?
NF: I don’t know. One day I was in this grad class that was about prototyping, and the theme that week was sex, and I was like, ‘OK, I can make a game about sex, sure!’ The first idea that popped into my head was the idea that became Cibele, so it kind of happened just fairly naturally. I had been wanting to make something about this story for a while, but hadn’t seen the right way to do it until I was prompted to think about the theme.
TEG: Your other games are very short, vignette experiences. What was it about Cibele that made you want to make a longer game out of it?
NF: The initial prototype was just one conversation between Nina and Blake, and I made that prototype and I was like, ‘OK, this is interesting. I think someone playing this would get it—a little game where you’re pretending to play an MMO or whatever, that’s cute.’ But when thinking about that relationship, really the most interesting part of it to me was that we met, and the circumstances under which we met. It’s something that unfolded over a long period of time in my actual life, but there were certain moments from that experience that really stuck out to me as the pivotal moments leading up to our meeting. So when I came up with these few moments, which ended up being the three acts of the game, I knew that the scope of the game needed to expand and make room for those moments. I felt that one couldn’t really make sense of that story clearly without experiencing those three moments.
Relationships are really complicated, and even paring it down to three moments was pretty difficult! But I think so much of the game is about the gradual ramping up towards the meeting, and I think you need that time to absorb all that information and gain a personal understanding of the characters. I just think it needed a little more depth in order for the player to really understand what that character would be feeling during the actual meeting.
TEG: Each act also gives you the chance to play around on Nina’s desktop, open her files and look through her photos. Why did you decide to include those sections?
NF: So, the desktop segments came out of that process that I was just describing, where I was like, ‘What’s the context that the player needs to understand why their eventual meeting is important?’ Part of understanding that is getting to know Nina and Blake outside of just their conversations. You can learn a lot about someone’s relationship or about a character through dialogue, but that didn’t really suffice for this. I’m sure you could make a very good game that’s only dialogue, but I wanted a little more for the player to dig into. With the desktop, you’re digging through it, and it’s this process of discovering little things about Nina, which I feel was really essential to building her as a character. Because you get to read her writing, and the things that she’s not showing Blake, and the things that she’s saying about him, the things that her friends are saying about him, and all of that context—it helps paint a clearer picture of who she is, why she might be interested in this guy, and what they’re all about.
So much happens in between the lines in a relationship that doesn’t necessarily play out when the two people are interacting with each other, and I needed a way to communicate these things. It also served as a good pacing device, because the Valtameri portions of the game involve listening to quite a bit of dialogue, which is different than the destkop and all the clicking around. It was pretty important to have some sort of downtime to absorb what was happening in the game between each act. There needed to be that downtime, ‘cause there’s a lot to unpack in the dialogue.
TEG: Do you think it helps players embody Nina, rather than experiencing the voyeuristic feeling of looking into a character’s life?
NF: I think actually most people feel the most voyeuristic when they’re on the desktop. And I’ve thought about this a lot, because when I was making it I didn’t intend for this to be a voyeuristic game, that’s not the point at all—the point is to perform as a character. And part of performing as that character is using her computer as if you were her, so it’s not like you’re snooping around someone else’s desktop—that is you, as the player character, that is your desktop. But in our culture there’s a lot of anxiety around privacy and technology. And everyone locks their phones, all of our computers are password locked, and some people won’t even let their closest loved ones look at their computers or phones. So there’s just this major anxiety around that kind of thing—obviously for good reason for the most part, privacy is very important.
But because of that anxiety, when people are asked to look at the in-game desktop for the first time, I think that triggers that anxiety for them. ‘Oh no, I’m on someone’s computer, I wouldn’t want someone looking at my computer like this!’ So then they feel sort of voyeuristic, which is an interesting side effect of making this kind of game with a desktop like one would use in their day to day life. So I think it’s due to that cultural anxiety.
TEG: That feeling’s definitely made stronger by knowing that it’s based on a real person, that there is a real Nina out there in the actual world, and these are her photos.
NF: Yeah. But I think most players going into it don’t know me, and don’t know that it’s necessarily about a real person. I mean, obviously they see the photos and stuff, but even then when they don’t know that the designer is the person in the game, they still get that anxiety because of that cultural expectation around access to other people’s computers.
But I did find through playtesting, and then ultimately through people just playing it and talking to me about it, that for the most part it can be kind of jarring to players at first, but because it happens a couple of times in the game, usually people get more into that mindset of, ‘Oh, I’m playing as Nina, so these are my things.’ They’re getting more into the performative aspect of the game, but that initial reaction usually involves some of that anxiety. I’m glad that the game has enough scope to support that ramping into not feeling as anxious about that sort of thing by the end of it.
TEG: In going back and having to put together all this stuff from your own life, did you ever find yourself regressing to the mindset you were in at the time, feeling those feelings again?
NF: Because I had enough critical distance, that didn’t really happen. My method when making these kind of games is very much like, when I commit to it I get into that mindset of more of a fiction author than a nonfiction author, I guess? I really do treat everything within the story very much as an authored story, even though it is obviously based on my own life. Because if I let my emotions get too involved then I risk not being honest about the characters, especially about the character that is based on myself, so I work really hard to treat the stories as stories, and the characters as characters, separate from myself, so that I could be as honest and clear as possible when writing.
TEG: You’re very consistently referring to ‘Nina the character’ as opposed to yourself.
NF: Yeah, and that’s what it is to me, for sure.