“It’s important to show that small things can be appreciated in the gaming medium in addition to the grand stories many games tell.”
As vast as the indie scene is, few developers’ names prompt instant recognition. Nina Freeman is one of them. A level designer on Tacoma, she’s released several personal projects from 2014’s How Do You Do It to 2015’s Cibelle that tackle sex and relationships in ways few games have tried. Her latest title, Beach Date, created with her boyfriend Jake Jefferies as part of the Sunset Game Jam the couple helped lead, marks her return to these shorter, personal projects. We sat down with the two to discuss both Beach Date and the context for such small vignettes in the larger world of video games.
What prompted you to make such a personal game similar to your early works like How Do You Do It and Cibelle?
Nina Freeman: During Tacoma development, I shipped a couple of other games too and at least one of them was pretty personal. So I’ve still kind of been doing it but mostly in the commission format because, you know, it’s nice to get paid to make games.
I had just wrapped up a commission piece for Fantastic Arcade called Grass Stains. Myself and a couple of friends did it, and then I was like, “oh I’ve been doing all these commissions that are coming out… but nothing really, just for me and just for my collaborators.” Jake, my boyfriend, and I had this idea for a beach game. We were both craving a jam, really something for ourselves that wasn’t something we’re doing for work necessarily, but just a free small personal thing to have fun with.
So I think it came out of that urge to do a game jam and a free small thing, because we only worked on it for a week and a half or so during the jam and it was a nice, refreshing experience compared to most of the stuff I’ve been doing, which is longer projects. It was nice to return to that short-term kind of thing.
Instead of just making a game, what was the impetus behind making a whole jam surrounding it?
Jake Jefferies: We really worked backwards on this one… when Nina and I got together we were like “how long is it going to take for us to want to make a game together?” And we came up with one idea for a much bigger game that we’ve been working on that goes through our memories of New York City. We both lived there for quite some time but never met each other and we had very different experiences, mostly centred around love and loneliness. But that game ended up being way bigger and so Nina and I were at the beach thinking it would be fun to make something small instead of just working on that big project. So we pulled out my sketchbook and just started writing some ideas down.
Nina: Then we came back to it a couple of months later, and I was like “oh I’m ready to do that jam game that we kind of talked about.” So we came up with a theme that would fit our game idea.
This game seems a lot more positive than other titles that explore relationships. I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Nina: Both of us work on a lot of sad, moody, emotional stuff. So I think part of it was we wanted to make something happy because we had a really happy summer and a lot of good feelings came out of it, so part of it comes from that personal space. Personally, I’m really into humour in games and using humour in the mechanics, so that was something we focused a lot on for How Do You Do It. Drawing on humorous moments in life is something that’s really inspiring to do while also balancing out our work when we’re working on more serious stuff as well. I also really enjoy physics mechanics, and I think that that as a mechanic is really playful and funny and I like experiences that explore how playful physics-simulated games can be. So I think a lot of the humour and mechanics came from the fact that we wanted it to be physics-oriented in that way.
Why do you think a game like this is important for people to play?
Nina: Basically since I started making games I’ve been working on vignette personal stories and have been into showing people that games can be about small things or everyday life things. Events that you might think are boring at first but can actually be really interesting if you systematize them and make a game about them. I think it’s really interesting to see how you can get people to embody these ordinary daily life stories because games are really great at embodiment. So I think it’s important to show that small things can be appreciated in the gaming medium in addition to the grand stories that many games tell.
Why do you think other games don’t explore the more positive side of relationships?
Nina: I think there’s a lot there to unpack probably. Part of it, especially for games that are happy and involve a level of humour, that humour isn’t super common in games. And I think it’s pretty hard to pull off well. It’s just not as well-trodden territory within the medium. It’s sort of like how there isn’t a ton of games about sex, it’s just not something that’s explored very often.
I think it’s because as a developer you want your game to be taken seriously and I think sometimes people assume stuff that’s funny might be presumed to be childish or shallow and no one wants to feel like people are going to view their work that way. So it might be a little bit scarier to make light-hearted games for some developers. I think it can sometimes feel safer to default to the more serious topics because that gives you the feeling as the creator that people will take this more seriously and pay attention to it. That’s my guess, but I’m sure it’s different for everyone.
Also, the nature of game development can be very solitary. So some of that may come out of just the act of making games being kind of a difficult process that’s often done in isolation to an extent. We’re unique in that we’re a couple that made a game together, and that’s not super common. So it might involve that too.
Jake: I think there’s this air of perfectionism and high-fidelity graphics standing out; there’s so much pressure, and that really exacerbates that. So people put themselves in unhealthy conditions that like…
Nina: …draw them to the more serious things that they’re trying to get out.
Looking through the other jam games, it seems like a lot of them focus on this idea of the theme of sunset representing an experience, rather than a story. Do you have any thoughts on how indie games are being used to express experiences rather than stories and why is this important?
Nina: I think, especially in a jam session, people feel freer making these smaller, almost vignette-style games where it’s a story, but not one with a traditional plot structure. And I think when you give people an opportunity to make a game in a brief amount of time, they’ll make something with a manageable scope, so something pretty small.
But also, with tools like Unity being free you get different kinds of people wanting to make games, a lot more people who are interested in trying more experimental stuff. I think it’s kind of natural that you see more games like that now than you would have 5 or 10 years ago because of the increased accessibility and more people doing stuff like jams, making games in their free time, or over a short period of time.
What kind of space is there for these kinds of games?
Nina: I think [game jams are] where often you find some of the most interesting new ideas that you haven’t seen before. Like in [another jam entry] “Meteor-Strike,” a lot of the game is just pressing forward and then it layers on more movement mechanics in a way that I haven’t experienced before. I think when you have something small and digestible like that you can explore something very unique or some kind of new mechanic that maybe people haven’t seen before.
I think that the medium will make a lot of progress with these kinds of games that are freer to experiment with, without someone having to spend years and years of their life trying to make it. You can just try something really wild in a week or in a year on a tiny thing and feel ok about that. The way it lends itself to experimentation is just good for the medium in general and good for creating more interesting, unique stuff.
Nina Freeman has become an auteur of the indie scene since one of her first games, How Do You Do It, released to critical acclaim in 2014, followed by the equally lauded Cibelle the next year. When she’s not making games, she’s leading her personal Discord and working as a partnered Twitch streamer. You can find her at @hentaiphd.