Nina Freeman is a level designer at Fullbright in Portland, Oregon. She is working on their current game, Tacoma. In her personal work, she is most often making vignette games based on her own life stories. She worked as a designer on IGF nominee how do you Do It? and IGF Student Honorable Mention Ladylike. She designed the recently released Cibele, a game about an online relationship created by Star Maid Games. You can find her work at ninasays.so, and you can follow her on Twitter at @hentaiphd.
Hi, I’m Nina, and I’m here to talk about some games I really care about. So please, join me as I recline on a dakimakura, drink a glass of wine, and reflect on my most memorable video game experiences of 2015!
Before I really get into it, I’d like to point out the (probably) obvious--2015 has been a wildly amazing year for games that are experimental, conventional and everything in between. It is really incredible to think about the breadth of games that I’ve played this year--games ranging from the open world of Fallout 4, to the compact AIM interface of Emily is Away. I have never been so excited to work in video games as I have been this year. So, I’d like to share with you, specifically, the games that surprised me the most over the course of 2015. (Oh, and disclaimer--two of these games aren’t exactly from 2015, but I played them this year… so, yeah! They are good and they belong!)
The following are games that surprised me in many different ways--some drew me into genres that I hadn’t previously been interested in, and others told stories that I hadn’t heard in games before, in new ways that I didn’t expect. Honestly, I’m surprised at how fundamentally different each game is from the next. But, that’s what made 2015 so amazing! Games are so cool and they can do so many different things. Yay for games and all their wonderful weirdness! OK, let’s do this, in no particular order:
Plug and Play is a little game about plug-headed creatures and love. The first time I played Plug and Play, I was checking out some games at a festival and decided to give it a go with a friend. I had no idea what to expect. I started the game:
OK, put the plug in the outlet (oh, that click sound was nice)… OK, the scene switched and now there are two pointer fingers… ew why are they touching... wait, I touched the fingers and the scene switched again! Why is there a man running across the screen with a plug for a head?? Did he just run straight into a wall? What the hell is going on in this game!?
As I was presented with more and more plugs, plug people, light switches and clunky buttons as each scene swept me along, I found myself becoming absolutely mesmerized. My friend and I poked at the screen, plugging things into walls and plugging heads into… butts? We touched anything and everything, just to see what would happen, because it was all so surprising! With each touch came a tiny revelation about this weird little world. I don’t think I can describe this game in any clear or sensical way, because it is the most odd and charming game I have ever played (also, there’s a really good poop joke).
P.S. I highly recommend playing this on a touchscreen device, specifically.
Splatoon is a game about neighborhood rivalries, painting, fashion, and being fly as hell. I began 2015 as one of those “I’m really bad at all action games” kind of people, and then Splatoon happened. I don’t normally play games for hours, and hours, and hours… but Splatoon happened. I don’t normally take screenshots every single time I change my character's costume… but... Splatoon happened. I don’t normally invite friends over exclusively to force them to play a video game they’re not even that interested in… BUT SPLATOON HAPPENED.
My favorite thing about Splatoon is (everything) the freedom to be as messy as I want. I never realized how much I wanted to make an absolute mess, but now I’ve played Splatoon, and that urge seems so natural. I remember being a kid, and taking out my crayons just to draw rainbows and bunny rabbits all over the wall right outside of the bathroom (to my mom’s dismay, of course). Splatoon gives me that same sense of wild abandon that I had as a kid being bad and coloring all over the walls--that sense of being free, making a mess and having a good time.
Robert Yang is making some of the most important video games right now. If you’re not paying attention to his work……. what are you doing!? His game Cobra Club is about taking dick pics and sharing them with men on the internet, but that’s just scratching the surface. It’s an incisive look at how we use the internet as a space for negotiating intimacy, establishing boundaries, breaking boundaries, being surveilled, and… well, there’s a penis customizer… need I say more?
You can modify your penis and use Instagram style filters and tilt the camera to your heart's content. As an Instagram and sticker app addict, obviously I had a lot of fun with that part of the game. It’s fun to take the perfect dick pic and watch as five or more people are vying for you over chat with each new message... but maybe one of them is too creepy or aggressive, so you block them! Honestly, the game brought me back to my AIM chatroom days when random strangers would ask for “asl” and “pix pls”. Cobra Club helps you experience the act of exchanging intimate pictures, but it also asks the player to reflect on what implications that may have. In a world where privacy on the internet is a major issue, it’s more important than ever to reflect on the impact of what we share both publicly and privately, and Cobra Club does an incredible job of addressing this with nuance.
Emily is Away has all the right things for a game that explores flirting and profile creeping in the 90s: the "delete your IM 5 times before sending" trick, college drama, roundabout conversations and awkward silence. I think it’s safe to say that, if you used any chat messaging client to flirt with anyone, you’ll see a little bit of yourself in Emily is Away.
The game has a specific story to tell about two young people trying to figure out how they relate to each other, and what they mean to each other. This is something that we’ve probably, for the most part, all experienced whether online, offline, or (more often) both. Emily is Away made me reflect on the in-between moments in a relationship--what’s happening when I’m waiting for your next message? What are you thinking when you’re offline? What happens to a relationship between chat sessions? There are not many games that leave me reflecting on my experience for days, and I really love when they do.
I love when small games create huge, playful, unexpected experiences within the span of moments. Metamorphabet is one of those games. It’s a concise game about language, and yet it feels so open in its embrace of the beauty of free association. With each letter of the alphabet, Metamorphabet asks you to play with that letter, unwrapping a world of words that spill out with each poke and swipe. Metamorphabet does more than teach us the alphabet--it pushes the boundaries of what a single letter can represent, because letters create language! It seems straightforward, but I think it’s easy to take letters for granted, and Metamorphabet is here to remind us how wonderful they are.
I love this game because it’s so simple, and yet it made me gasp and laugh at every turn. Tap the letter D, open it like a Door. Outside the Door is a hill at sunset. Flick the sun and it bounces, going between sunset and Daytime as it jiggles. Drag the sun away and clouds start flowing through the Door. Touch the clouds and they turn into animals, like a Daydream. Every interaction is a moment of growth as you see how each word relates to the next, all within the context of single letters. It’s. So. Genius!
P.S. I highly recommend playing this on a touchscreen device, specifically.
I have a private Twitter list that I check more often than normal Twitter, and it’s entirely made up of people who post really cute pictures of bunnies, peegs and chibi anime fanart… and after following these lovely folks over the last year, I have noticed that they all play a lot of Love Live. In fact, I don’t think I have seen any game tweeted about as often and as consistently as Love Live. So, finally, in 2015 I decided to see what all the fuss is about. An hour later, I was like… OK, this is a cute rhythm game and it’s pretty relaxing, I get it… oh wait, what’s Honors Scouting… oh, wait… I CAN COLLECT THE CUTE ANIME GIRL CARDS?!
Another hour later… THERE’S A VISUAL NOVEL ASPECT!?
And now, weeks later, I am still playing Love Live and I am consuming every adorable anime inch of it daily. I want to collect all the cute cards. I want to unlock all the songs. I want all the outfits. My idol squad WILL be the cutest and best dressed. The anime is really good too, by the way. I know, I am an utter dweeb for anything remotely shoujo anime related, so this adorable little rhythm game was basically made for me.
I met Stephen Lawrence Clark back when I was living in New York City. We were in some of the same classes in graduate school, and in one of those classes, I got to see some of the early versions of the vignette games that Stephen later released under the name Rooftop Cop. I remember when he shared Capture the Flag, for One, which is the second game in Rooftop Cop. I think he dimmed the lights, or someone did, and we watched a person play--it was very quiet, and the tiny, lonely figure on the screen pushed through a vast swath of snow. The little figure pushed and pushed, crossing the expanse. It was very slow, but very deliberate. The figure reached the flag and started to push back. But the snow kept sinking, and it was so quiet--I felt suspense, but the calmest and most gentle kind of suspense you can feel. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that by the end I was so entranced by the game that I wasn’t sure how to even process it when it was over. It was so simple, but left such a powerful impression!
Rooftop Cop shows how impactful small, quiet, atmospheric games can be. Sometimes slow, deliberate pacing and careful attention to mood can make a video game truly unforgettable. Rooftop Cop leaves you feeling like you just looked through a pile of dim old photographs that contained some of the most amazing and mysterious things you’ve ever seen.
P.S. Stephen and I worked together earlier this year on a game called Freshman Year, for which he did music. He is an incredible musician!
I don’t think anyone can argue against Mario Maker being one of the most (if not THE MOST) wildly interesting and innovative game of 2015. Y'all don’t need to hear me go on about it in general, because a lot of smart people have already said smart things about it on this very website. Instead, I will highlight a level that I quite liked. It’s called Mario Goes Shoe Shopping. The title of this level is great, because that’s exactly what the level is. You, tiny pixelated Mario, are on a humble quest to obtain a new shoe. So, naturally, you go to the shoe store! You can even see a shoe in the window, right there… that’s definitely a shoe store.
Oh wow! You’re inside, and of course, there’s shoes! It’s alright that there’s only two--you’re not very picky. The green one is obviously the correct choice here (it’s got little wings on it, which is cute). The cashier seems to be in a bit of distress, bouncing back and forth between the walls… but no matter, you got your shoe and it’s time to go home!
Yes, that’s the whole level. You go to the shoe store, maybe you pick up a shoe, and you leave. I love the shameless embrace of a normal everyday life thing in this level. One of the most exciting things about Mario Maker, for me, has been stumbling across tiny levels like this that set up a scene and tell a story. I really wanted to share one that was basically 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I went to look it up and it’s gone… which makes me very sad. That one had spaceships and space goombas in it! It was so cool! Damn, I love Mario Maker.
I originally found Laura Knetzger through her work as a comics artist. She writes in an honest and open way that feels very human, and sometimes does autobiographical work. As a game designer who is also interested in making work like this, I was really drawn to her. Don’t Go In The Old Greene House, like much of her comics work, has the perfect mix of vulnerability and honesty. It’s incredible to see how deftly she wove these things into one of the creepiest and moving horror games I’ve played all year.
Don’t Go In The Old Greene House is about a young lady who, for various reasons, is stuck inside a spooky house for an hour on halloween. You play as her, exploring this house and encountering the inhabitants--or what remains of them, in some cases. The game makes you feel like you’re in an ordinary house, until it is extremely not ordinary and suddenly there are actual eyes on the wall next to a bunch of sexy anime posters. But, the creepy things you encounter are just the beginning-- this game goes deeper, and explores the relationships between all the family members and the player-character’s relationship to them with each opened door. This game is scary, but it’s about so much more than that. It’s about real people and real feelings and real life. It’s a magical and scary game full of unbridled, refreshing honesty.
P.S. Laura and I worked on a game together this year called Freshman Year (yup, the same game mentioned previously in the Rooftop Cop bit). She illustrated the game! It was lovely.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I’m a Final Fantasy fanatic, so I guess the inclusion of Type-0 on this list may come as no surprise. However, Type-0 impressed me more than I expected with its many weird and surprising gameplay moments, which is what really kept me coming back for more. I’m thinking specifically of a few boss fights that took some unconventional turns--things like coordinating with an off site team of students in the middle of a fight, or actual cuts between gameplay and cutscene in the middle of a boss fight. These moments break up fairly straightforward combat sequences, and really keep you on your toes. Also, the moments are often aimed at toying with player agency in order to make points about this story. Giving and taking player agency is an amazingly impactful tool for storytelling that is not used often enough, and I was so excited to see Type-0 tapping into that kind of design.
Also, I can’t write about Type-0 without pointing out how cool it is that the game takes on a Persona 3 type structure, in which you go to high school on a regular schedule and fight battles in between. Of course, in Type-0, battle is part of the high school curriculum, but like Persona 3, going back and forth between the two settings feels really refreshing and fun. I mean, you get high school levels of gossip, love letters and there’s even a campfire scene! The game isn’t perfect, and the politics in the story are impossible to follow, but the charm of the high school segments, weird player agency moments and extremely cute unlockable costumes really did it for me. Oh yeah, and the battle system is super fun if you’re into fast-paced action oriented combat. It’s solid. Anyways, you should definitely give this game a chance, it’s really different and super charming.