Growing up in Ipswich, Massachusetts, Nina Freeman spent a lot of time playing video games with some 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 of 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 poets of the New York School, and admired how they documented their lives through verses that were witty, conversational. and confessional at the same time. She hit on a similar note when she started her career as a video game designer, creating lyrical games that explore memory and small private moments.
In ‘how do you Do It?’, a 2014 game, Ms. Freeman plays the player in the role of a clumsy tween desperately trying to figure out how sex works while playing with dolls. There are no levels to complete, no dragons to defeat, and the player scores points by hitting dolls against each other. The game takes about as far as you can get from the gunfights and fantasy missions that have long been the stuff of the most popular releases.
“I think games are almost like little stages, or they could be,” Ms. Freeman said one warm afternoon in the backyard of her townhouse in Frederick, Maryland, where she lives with her husband, Jake Jefferies, an artist and programmer. † “You get to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and act as a character. I can put the player on a podium and give him a script, where the script is the game.”
The game she’s been working on lately, in collaboration with Mr. Jefferies, will have a touch of horror, she said. It’s based on the vaguely embarrassing experience of buying clothes with your mother.
“You’re in the locker room and your mom wants you to try on these clothes, but you say, ‘Oh, I don’t like the way I look here,'” Ms. Freeman said, explaining the set-up. “There are those mannequins that come after you, and you lose all your clothes, and nothing fits. I try to explore how you feel uncomfortable in your body and its trauma.”
Her vignette-like games won’t boot 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 wash. And I’ve never been motivated by it.”
Her next game, ‘Nonno’s Legend’, will be released in August. It was inspired by the time she spent with her Italian grandfather. He held a globe on a table top and Mrs. Freeman stared at it and made it spin. In the video game, the globe is magical and allows the player to create new versions of the earth.
Ms. Freeman created the game for this month’s Triennale Game Collection, part of the Triennale Milano International Exhibition, the annual Milan show dedicated to architecture and design. The select group of game designers invited to participate in the collection includes others who specialize in the unusual: Fern Goldfarb-Ramallo, Llaura McGee, Akwasi Afrane, and the team of Yijia Chen and Dong Zhou.
Ms. Freeman makes 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 characters in ‘Final Fantasy 10’.
The property has an under-furnished, just withdrawn quality. During much of the pandemic, the couple lived with Mr. Jefferies’ parents nearby after they left Portland, Oregon. Ms. Freeman said they chose to live in Frederick, a city in western Maryland with a population of about 70,000, not only because it was close to family, but also because it was an affordable place for independent artists.
She said she made a modest income by selling her games through sites like Steam and Itch; she also makes money as a host on the streaming platform Twitch. On her Twitch channel, which has approximately 12,000 followers, she spends hours at a time in her home office interacting with fans while playing a range of games, including action 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 making those kinds of things herself.
Her outsider status can only add to her standing in the world of indie gaming. “Her work is incredibly inspiring to me and important to the wider industry,” video game designer Francesca Carletto-Leon said in an email.
Ms. Carletto-Leon, head of curriculum at Code Coven, which offers online classes in video game design, added that memoir-style games had become increasingly popular among the new generation of developers.
“Many of my students say Nina’s work is a big influence on the kind of work they want to make,” she said.
Last year, Mrs. Freeman released her most personal play, “Last Call,” which she co-created with Mr. Jefferies. It stemmed 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 full of moving boxes, about to end a relationship; the player then puts together what happened through clues given by excerpts of a poem Mrs. Freeman wrote especially for the game. As the game progresses, the player is asked to speak into a microphone to provide verbal acknowledgments such as “I see you” and “I believe you”.
Todd Martens, a video game critic at The Los Angeles Times, called “Last Call” an essential game of 2021. “What makes it powerful,” he wrote, “is that we have to speak into our computer microphones in order to let our protagonist know through the that we are there for her.”
A lighter tone infuses another recent play, “We Met in May,” a wistful, humorous reenactment 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 have no clear goals and in some ways challenge the basics of most video games. Referring to her 2014 play about playing with dolls, she said, “’How do you do it?’ is a game that lasts one minute. People are still angry about that.”
She is part of a group of designers who use the video game format to focus on moments once again explored in memoir, fiction, poetry or indie film dramas. This approach includes ‘Dys4ia’, a 2012 game by Anna Anthropy that tells of the playmaker’s hormone replacement therapy, and ‘Cart Life’, about a street cart salesman trying to reconcile work and family responsibilities. Even “Gears of War”, a third-person shooter released by mainstream studio Epic Games, was inspired in part by a divorce, according to its creator, Cliff Bleszinski.
Ms. Freeman found her way onto the indie scene around 2012, after graduating from Pace University. She started going to game jams, where people meet and create a new game based on a theme over the course of a weekend. While pursuing a graduate degree in integrated digital media from New York University, she began to work her personal life into her early games. 2015’s “Cibele” follows a 19-year-old character, Nina, as she meets an online crush, has sex with him, and gets dumped.
“Nina has been at the forefront of a wave of confessional games,” said Bennett Foddy, an independent game designer who created the Internet hit “QWOP,” and was one of Ms. Freeman’s graduate school professors. “What ‘Cibele’ does that is important is that it puts you in Nina’s body. Video games are still a medium dominated by male voices and experiences. There is something radical about putting the straight cis man in the perception of a teenage girl.”
He added: “All of her work has had this sense of raw vulnerability. It takes a brave artist to pursue that kind of work. Especially in a medium that has a problem with cyberbullying.”
For Ms. Freeman, revealing herself was “natural because my background is in poetry,” she said. “So for me I didn’t think twice about doing it in games.”