THE FIRST THING YOU NOTICE about Nina Freeman is her hair. It's a vivid seafoam blue, and if we're being honest, vivid seafoam blue is the sort of hair color I'd only associate with a Final Fantasy game. Which is fitting, because not only is Freeman a maker of video games, she's a character in them. Along with her partner, Emmett Butler, Freeman's pioneered an autobiographical style of interactive storytelling that's becoming increasingly popular in the indie gaming scene.
"My background in games is... weird," Freeman tells me over a glass of wine in the back patio of a brewpub, surrounded by dogs and their slightly drunk owners. "My background is in poetry, and I mostly studied modern stuff." That does seem somewhat removed from a medium currently dominated by military-style shooters. But just like comics—which most people associate with superhero power struggles—there's been a movement in video games towards telling smaller, more intimate stories.
Freeman's games typically encompass only a single scene or theme, and you can play through her entire back-catalog in under an hour. In How Do You Do It?, for example, the player controls a pair of unclothed dolls in the hands of an 11-year-old girl while she ruminates on the nature of physical intimacy. "It's frequent that people come up to us and are like, 'Whoa, I didn't know a game could be about something like this,'" Freeman says. Which is sort of the point for Freeman and Butler: "The story comes first, and then the mechanics grow out of that."
The game Freeman and Butler are currently working on, Cibele (pronounced "Sybil"), is an exponentially larger undertaking. It features video sequences in which Freeman reenacts a furtive online romance, and there's a game-within-a-game where you battle cartoon seashells while a teenage boy clumsily hurls innuendos at you over instant message. The first act ends with sexy pictures, and there's the promise of heartbreak once the game is finished. "It's been a pretty emotionally trying game to make," Freeman says when I ask about the costs of exploring her early sexual experiences like this. "Part of the writing process was reading old chat logs and looking at old pictures. It's like what you tell your friends not to do when they're looking at their ex's pictures."
At a different dog-friendly brewpub later in the week, Freeman is showing a demo of Cibele to the public for the first time. PIGSquad is a collective of indie game developers in Portland that occasionally hosts networking events, and this one is dense with flatscreens and pixelated violence. It smells like beer and dogs and about a hundred programmers and their friends. The challenge with games like Cibele is figuring out how to show them to people in environments not conducive to narrative nuance. But in a hectic room with a hundred distractions, there's almost always someone hunched over Freeman's laptop with headphones, navigating Cibele's strange journey of the heart.