The last golden rays of the sunset filter into the kitchen and all the boxes are on fire. I approach one of them and open it. Inside are a tube of toothpaste, a few books and a poem that outlines the beginning of a relationship in a few evocative lines. Pasted on the next page is a photo of a young woman. “I’m listening,” I whisper to my laptop.
I’ve never played a game that asked me to talk to him. Last call, recently nominated for the Storytelling Award at the Independent Games Festival Awards, chronicles an abusive relationship experienced by its developer, Nina Freeman. It first took the form of a poem she wrote to deal with traumatic memories, then a game she created with her husband Jake Jefferies, inviting players to bear witness to her story.
As the player wanders around Freeman’s apartment, they piece together fragments of this poem, which tells the story of a relationship filled with ominous shadows. It soon takes a dark turn: “I ripped his hands out of my throat, or maybe he chose to quit / Either way, I survived.” The experience is harrowing and sickly voyeuristic.
The feeling that you connect to the inner life of a creator when you play their game is unusual. Unlike music, literature, or film, autobiography is extremely rare in games. Those exploring this terrain are experimental creators like Freeman and the community that gathers around indie game platforms like itch.io.
Before talking to Freeman, who is 32 and lives in Maryland, I felt like I knew her intimately just from playing her games. I knew the layout of her old apartment, the books she liked, even what made her anxious on a first date. When I talk to her about it on Zoom, she ignores it, having always shared her life online, from blogging as a kid to her weekly livestreams on Twitch. “I’ve always put a lot of myself on the internet, ever since I was 12,” she tells me, “so it’s not weird, it’s just my life experience.”
Before getting into game design, Freeman studied literature at Pace University in New York, turning to faith-leaning poets such as Frank O’Hara and Elizabeth Bishop. The poems she wrote were largely vignettes and character portraits based on her memories. “I developed this semi-autobiographical writing style,” she says, “so when I started making games, that was already my creative mindset. I just started exploring it with new game design tools.
His work deals with topics rarely covered in games, such as sex, intimacy and relationships. She distills her life experiences into scenes, adding thoughtful gameplay mechanics to engage players more deeply in each story. His humorous escape game how do you do?showed a little girl trying to learn sex by slamming two dolls together, while the Cibele, made with her team at Star Maid Games, tells of a teenage romance conducted through an online role-playing game. She is currently working on a project that turns a mother-daughter relationship into a horror game about body image issues, all set in department store dressing rooms.
Addressing the topic of domestic violence in Last call, Freeman had to rethink his approach. “I didn’t want the player to embody being abused,” she says. “So I thought to myself: what physical activity can really serve the story here?” She chose the moment she left the apartment she had shared with her abuser, packing up those boxes and embarking on a new chapter in her life.
When she previously shared stories about this relationship on social media, Freeman didn’t know what it meant when people liked and shared her posts. Did they really understand? “It haunted me,” she said, “Last call was what I was like, look at this, this was real. This inspired its unusual core mechanic: after discovering each poem, the player must speak into their computer’s microphone to advance the story, with the game prompting responses such as “I hear you”, “I’m telling”. or “I believe you”. ”
In doing so, it forces players to become active listeners, though their answer choice cannot alter the direction of the plot. “I don’t want players to change my story,” Freeman says. “These things really happened, so I’m not going to make a branching story out of it. Generally, I’m more interested in the player playing a character; be an actor in a play.
Freeman thinks if players can actually see her, they might also notice. “I hope to be able to show real human stories on topics not often heard,” she says, “to prove that in a medium where fantasy and science fiction are the juggernauts, these little human experiences can also be cool.”