Nina Freeman – Cibele

January 5, 2016 – Culture, Game Dev
Stephen Totterdell: It’s quite common to hear people say “I grew up on the internet,” but that seems now to no longer signify as specific an identity as it once did. What do you think has changed between people who grew up when ‘being online’ was a subculture, and people today who see the internet as a natural extension of reality?

Nina Freeman: The accessibility of technology, and of the internet specifically, has certainly had an impact. As more people start to use the internet to communicate, and the more mainstream it becomes, the more people want to normalize it, And people are always going to take whatever form of communication they can get their hands on in order to connect with other people. So i think as more people use it, the more they strive to normalize it and make it a part of being a modern person.


ST: There seems to have been a generational shift in the way media is used to interpret lived experience. I think a lot of young people are now relating their experiences to games rather than to novels or films. Whereas once young people might have written fiction to process their experiences, now perhaps they make games. Discuss.

NF: Hmm, well I’m not sure I agree that younger generations aren’t relating to forms of media outside of games… Maybe [you’re] sensing that the consumption of that media is changing– I think that’s more likely. I think that in the end, people are people, and they’ll bend technology to their needs– Whether that’s for making money, storytelling, communicating or whatever. So you’ll see younger generations using technology to consume media in ways that are more interesting to them– But I don’t think that necessarily changes the kinds of stories and stuff that they’ll be drawn to I think it’s just the format that will change— watching way more YouTube than I ever did, haha.


ST: Cibele mixes meta-gaming elements with poetry and cinematic sections. It takes cues from many previous forms of expression. How do you see this kind of game in its wider artistic context?

NF: Well, I was influenced by a variety of things when working on the game. However, there is certainly a history of mixed media games–there were a lot of FMV games (games with short film in them) in the 90s. Also, games like Digital: A Love Story were tackling the desktop as a game mechanic before Cibele did. But yeah, I didn’t draw from that stuff too much, I was just aware of it. My main influences were games like Gone Home (full disclosure, I work for that company but didn’t work on GH, haha), Dys4ia and Cart Life… so, games about ordinary people and concise stories, while also being influenced by poets like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara, and Sofia Coppola (esp Lost In Translation and The Virgin Suicides). So I guess, like any creator I was drawing from a lot of things


ST: I’ve seen some of your tweets frustrated by comments calling the game a ‘niche experience’ rather than a game. Do you think the question of “Is this a game” is ultimately limiting for the medium, even boring?

NF: I think that question is a sign that games are in a pretty intense moment of change, in that games are being made and a lot of them are very different from what games have been traditionally thought of as in the past so I am confident that my games are games, so it doesn’t really make me feel insecure about that I try to see it as a sign of things changing for the better, because no one wants to be tied down by expectations in the end. And games, as with any media, comes with a ton of historical baggage and cultural expectations… But as people continue to make games, those expectations will change. And I think you see that happening a lot these days, whether it’s with people reacting to Cibele or any of these other games that people react in that way to.


ST: In Cibele, Nina is constantly messaged by guys flirting with her or enquiring about her relationship status. I was struck by this because my experience as a male online is so different. Is the experience of Playing While Female starkly different to what you see written by men writing about games? Could you elaborate on some of the differences?

NF: Unfortunately, as you know I’m sure, we live in a world rife with cultural expectations around gender and the performance of that gender… and so, despite games being so widely accessible, many people don’t expect women to play games because it’s not been a traditionally feminine thing to do. Of course, not everyone who plays online games thinks that, but many do. so, women can often get singled out simply because of their gender, which can make them feel really uncomfortable, you know? However, women are just people, and a lot of them want to play games… so that stigma will surely evolve and is evolving… because women will continue to play games and the cultural expectations will changehowever, we’re not there yet because of… I think, mostly because of marketing teams that aggressively try to sell games to men.


ST: Cibele is intensely personal. At times uncomfortably honest. It reminds me of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s total disregard for self-protection and privacy in his writing, which is where I think a lot of great writing comes from. Amy Poehler just said in the Guardian that “Vanity is the death of comedy.” Could you give your thoughts on this?

NF: I’m not familiar with Knausgaard’s work, so I can’t really speak to that but as a writer, I’m interested in telling stories about ordinary life… and I happen to be an ordinary person, haha, so I find a lot of value in using my own life as something to draw on for stories and I don’t think, just bringing in Poehler’s quote, that vanity has anything to do with it in my case… because I’m never trying to write something that makes me look good, or that is entirely for my own benefit like, I’m not trying to write diary entries or anything through these games. I take my personal life stories, and if I feel like I have enough critical distance from them to be as honest about them as possible, then I will treat them more like a piece of fiction and design a game around that story. I think ordinary life stories are some of the most interesting pieces I’ve engaged with, especially in poetry, so I have been inspired to do that kind of work.


ST: Do you think the stigma of gender has an effect on that process? I know a lot of female writers get accused of writing confessionals.

NF: Oh yeah, sure, there’s a stigma around “oversharing” especially when it comes to women’s writing. Which is why people throw around the phrase TMI, right, like when a woman talks about her period or something.


ST: How does good writing in poetry differ from good writing in games, and how do you combine the two?

NF: I don’t really think there are rules to games or poetry writing… Or at least, I try to not let myself get bogged down by thinking about that too much. I have learned things like… specific details are really effective to building characters but that applies to both games and poetry writing. I think they ultimately have a lot in common… because good writing is just good writing, regardless of the format. Being evocative and specific is always good, right? I just try to be a good writer in general, rather than good at writing in a specific field.


ST: You come from a background in the humanities, as do other games writers like Anita Sarkeesian and Cara Ellison. What do you think the humanities can uniquely add to gaming?

NF: Other mediums have been through periods of intense change, similar to the one that games are in right now– I’m thinking like… I guess the Beat poets era? when people like Allen Ginsberg were being taken to court for their writing, because it was so controversial. I think looking to those periods of change can be really enlightening as games continue to grow as a medium. In addition to that, there is just so much media out there right, and there’s so much good stuff. Whether it’s classic literature or experimental indie films… I think it’s good to be inspired by a wide variety of things. It can keep your mind fresh as a creator. So looking to history and letting yourself be inspired by unconventional things, that’s something I try to do.



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