Here is part two of our interview with bright-haired, bright-eyed, bright-hearted, and just plain bright Nina Freeman, designer of the intensely personal Cibele, a game that chronicles the teenage MMO-to-IRL romance that led to her first sexual encounter. We speak with her about making games that deal with sex and sexuality, her new position working on the indie title Tacoma over at Fullbright Games, and why she loves Destiny. If you haven’t already, head over here to read Part One (or forever hold your peace).
The Existential Gamer: Given how autobiographical your games are—not just Cibele, but several of your others as well—do you feel you’re more making them for an audience, or for yourself?
Nina Freeman: I think when I first started making games, I was making them more for myself. So some of my earlier stuff, like Ladylike for example, that was very much a game that I was just making ‘cause I wanted to play it. There’s a certain sort of catharsis to that. But as I make more and more games I’ve moved increasingly away from that. For me, my interest first and foremost is telling stories about ordinary people. That’s just the kind of storytelling that I’m interested in. So my goals are more so to design games that support player character embodiment of ordinary people. That’s kind of the path that I’ve gone down thus far. Cibele is all about performance and embodiment and playing as a character, and trying to understand a character through that performance. So I’d say that’s my goal.
I certainly didn’t decide to make Cibele because it was cathartic. This is an event that happened when I was like 18, it’s not like I need to work through that or anything. But I recognized that it was an interesting story, that is about an ordinary person, that I hadn’t really seen told before in a way that I wanted to see it told. So my interest is first and foremost as a storyteller, and making games that can help players understand characters and feel like they can become intimate with them.
TEG: Several of your games deal directly or indirectly with sex: Cibele, but also How Do You Do It? and others. You mentioned your grad program, but beyond that, why have you come back to sex in games so many times?
NF: So my habit has always been—even before I was making games, like when I was writing poetry for example—to focus on a specific theme for a time, and try to iterate on it for a while, until I get sick of it and find something else to turn my attention towards. So like, when I was writing poetry there was a period of time where I would create a lot of erotic poetry, and was thinking about that a lot. I wrote lots of it, and then at some point my interest waned and I went on to only write poems about parties. That lasted a little while, and then I was like, ‘OK, I’m done with that. Now I’m gonna write sci-fi poetry!’
So I basically have always had this habit of trying to iterate on a theme. For a while now I’ve been focusing on sex and drawing stories from my life around that. I don’t know when I’ll be finding a new theme that I stumble into that I’m excited about, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually based on my patterns in the past. ‘Cause I really like the process of iterating on a theme, and drawing out all the most interesting things that I can come up with, especially from my own life, when I’m working based on real experiences.
TEG: Do you have ideas floating around for the next project?
NF: Well I just made a game called Bum Rush as a commission for an event called No Quarter in New York City. We haven’t released the game yet, but we made it for that party, and it’s an eight-player racing game about some college roommates who all have hot dates on the same night, but they can’t all use the room for sex on the same night, so they basically have to race and whoever gets home first from their date gets to use the room. It’s this silly game, and you can steal other people’s dates and take like five people home. It’s a silly little racing game about sex. So that’s the most recent thing I’ve worked on that is unreleased that will hopefully come out fairly soon. But beyond that I’m focusing on work at Fullbright on Tacoma. And that is definitely the thing I’m working on the most right now. The future holds Tacoma.
TEG: On that topic, how have you found it switching from working on your own projects to working on a bigger team where someone else is in charge?
NF: It’s really amazing. I mean, for one, working at Fullbright is basically my dream job, because Gone Home was one of the games that influenced me the most when I first started making games. I think it had come out fairly recently when I started making games, and it was just a huge inspiration to me because it’s a sort of vignette-scoped game about ordinary folks. So that was hugely inspiring to me, and I always wanted to work with them, so it’s a big honor.
When I was in grad school I was obviously learning a lot about design, my thesis advisor was Bennett Foddy and I learned so much from him because he was obviously an amazing mentor. That space was very much about learning and iterating and becoming a better designer by working on things all the time, and at Fullbright I’m getting to do exactly that. ‘Cause in grad school I was working as a programmer part-time and in school part-time, and basically working on games at night or in school, but now I’m just working on games all the time.
And Steve and Tynan and Karla and everyone at Fullbright, they’re all mentors to me in a sense, and I’m just learning how to be a better designer. I’ve never worked on a 3D game before, so I’m learning more about that kind of design. They’re all just so amazing, and have so much experience, that I’m learning a lot. I guess as far as my games work, not much has changed ‘cause I’m still just learning all the time, but I’m getting to do it even more, ‘cause I’m working on games all day, every day. So it’s very good, I love it.
TEG: I’m guessing I already know the answer to this one: what’s the game that you’ve played the most hours of in your life?
NF: Definitely Final Fantasy Online, which is what Cibele is based on. I got it when I was 14, and I played it until I was 19. And I played it a lot—like, next level MMO addict. Well, no, that’s an exaggeration. But I played a lot of that game.
TEG: I was much the same, though it was City of Heroes for me. I look back and I don’t know where I found the time.
NF: Yeah… I just stayed up all night. Like, I remember during summer breaks my schedule would be like, ‘wake up at 3pm, play the game until 6am. Rinse and repeat.’ I still had a social life too, I don’t know how I managed to do it all. I wasn’t a total recluse. But I played for hours and hours and hours everyday. That’s high school! Lots of free time somehow.
TEG: Is there any game that people might be surprised to find out you love?
NF: I don’t even know what people would be surprised that I like. I feel like I pretty openly like a lot of games. I’m trying to think… I actually am really into Destiny, which may come as a surprise to some people, ‘cause I make really not-shootery, very quiet story games usually. But I actually really, really love Destiny, and am super into games like that. Destiny has such good game-feel. It just feels really good to play, and the moment-to-moment action is so awesome. It’s just super well designed in that way. So I enjoy playing that game quite a bit.
TEG: That kind of ties into my next question. What is it about MMOs that you think lets people make the kind of romantic and personal connections that you had, in a way that you don’t get as often from Call of Duty or games like that?
NF: I think that if you look at the history of communication, telephones and the internet and everything, you can see that people are always trying to use technology in order to communicate. That’s been the primary purpose for so many of the major technologies that have been developed in the past, just to help people connect with other people. So I think that with anything, whether it’s an online game, or the phone, or AIM or chatrooms or whatever, you’re going to see people trying to use that technology to connect with others. I think the desire for love and romance are pretty basic human drives, and as an extension of that you’ll see people trying to use any form of technology that helps them communicate as a way of engaging in romantic relationships with other people.
I think you just see this with any form of communication, and MMOs are ultimately another way for people to communicate with each other. It’s in the name: ‘Massively Multiplayer Online’. You’re on the internet, talking to people, playing with people, and even with a game like Call of Duty or anything like that, the drive to connect is still going to happen.
Even playing Destiny recently, it’s been interesting playing with friends on that, because it’s just like when I used to play Final Fantasy Online and was in Ventrilo, talking with people as we played. It kind of feels the same. ‘Cause it’s just people, you know? It’s just playing a game with people, and whether it’s an MMO, or a shooter or whatever, if you’re communicating with other people, and lots of people are doing that, there’s a very high probability someone is going to use that to make a meaningful connection with someone, whether it’s romantic or not. ‘Cause people just wanna love each other, and they want to do that in whatever way they can.
TEG: Do you think, and this is something sort of expressed in Cibele, that the actual gameplay retreats into the background? You kept Valtameri very simple, it’s literally just clicking, and becomes totally secondary to the conversations and relationships.
NF: So my design process is that story comes first, and mechanics are designed to support that. So for Cibele, the story really focuses on the relationship between these two people, and the primary goal of the game is to communicate the essential details about that relationship so that the player can understand the characters better. The mechanics can’t really get in the way of that, they need to support it.
So in the case of Cibele, a lot of the story’s communicated through the dialogue, and the desktop, but a lot of time is also spent hearing these conversations, so I had to design the in-game MMO to feel like a real MMO, at least enough so to create context. The player should think, ‘OK, I’m playing an online game.’ On the other hand, it couldn’t be so distracting that the player wouldn’t pay attention to the conversation, which is the real important thing that’s happening. So the mechanics are really there to contextualize the story, which is about a girl playing an online game and having a relationship in it, and also just using a computer in general, so having chats and emails coming in all the time.
The game isn’t really about playing MMOs, it’s really about the relationship, but the MMO is an important context to understand why that relationship exists. So I took an MMO idea, or I took the idea of a Final Fantasy-style MMO and pared it down to its most essential elements that communicate what it is to the player. And in those MMOs you mostly do a lot of clicking and chatting, so that is why the game… in my mind it doesn’t really take a backseat, it’s just more context to support the story. But yeah, it’s not supposed to be like a real MMO where you’re balancing your stats, and getting levels or upgrades or whatever. ‘Cause that’s not what the game is about. It’s the story of a relationship, so I had to take out all the cruft so the player could focus on what really matters in the game.
TEG: It definitely captured, for me at least, the feeling of logging onto the game sometimes just because you really wanted to talk to someone. The game isn’t really why you’re there, but you have to be playing the game to chat.
TEG: When, and how, will the world end?
NF: It’ll end after I’ve died, that’s for sure. Probably well after. I’m positive that I won’t experience the end of the world, and I feel lucky for that. I’m sure it’ll be catastrophic and terrible, it’ll probably be like the Sun exploding or something. It’ll be the worst. And everyone will be really sad, and hopefully there will be some kind of Battlestar Galactica-style escape and then a cool experience for those folks who make it off the planet.