Nina Freeman is a level designer at Fullbright in Portland, Oregon. She is working on their current game, Tacoma. Previous games that Nina worked on include: how do you Do It?, Cibele and Bum Rush. You can find her work at ninasays.so, and you can follow her on Twitter at @hentaiphd.
Hello, I’m Nina! I’m back on Giant Bomb to share my game of the year list for the second time in a row. It feels good to be back! I hope that I can share some games with you that you may not have heard of, or that you may not have had a chance to play. 2016 was a busy year (and probably a stressful one, for many of us), so be sure to spend some time relaxing and playing a few nice games to wrap it up. You deserve it!
10. Pokémon GO
I, probably like many people in my generation, have very fond memories of growing up with Pokémon in the '90s and early 2000s. I remember trading Pokémon cards in school, and trying to collect all the knock-off figures from a tiny shop at the mall. So, it was extremely surreal to watch Pokémon GO instigate a renewed cultural interest in Pokémon that reached into parts of my daily life that I definitely did not expect.
When Pokémon GO came out, I lived next to this nice graveyard that I would walk through sometimes. It was pretty normal to see people running or walking through it on the weekend, or after work. Then, when Pokémon GO came out… there was suddenly a lot more people taking walks through the graveyard and they all had their phones out. They were also mostly walking around in groups or pairs. I quickly realized that almost everyone walking around in this graveyard was playing Pokémon GO. I’d never seen a mainstream game draw people out into the world in such a drastic way before. I mean, we see tons of people turn up for eSports tournaments and events that take place in a central location, but rarely has there been a game that brought people together into ordinary spaces like Pokémon GO did. I think the success of Pokémon GO was a really important moment for games, because of the way in which it showed us how games can connect people in the real world, using real spaces, on such a massive scale. I hope that Pokémon GO inspires designers to continue to iterate on this kind of design, and to consider how their games can interact with our daily lives.
Kentucky Route Zero Act I was one of the video games that got me interested in making games in the first place. It’s a point and click game where you explore the lives of a group of people traveling together (on and off, at least) through an odd world where bears live in office buildings and sometimes boats are full of cats. It’s a surreal game that’s about people trying to cope and move forward, despite the mysterious situations they often end up in, and despite the challenges that life always brings.
Act IV is full of memorable moments, which was honestly no surprise, because KRZ does moments so well. The highway bar concert scene in the previous act comes to mind, for example. In Act IV, there’s the lone dog in the belly of the boat, there’s paddling through the bat sanctuary, there’s exploring the beach at The Rum Colony. I can’t forget the final image of the boat band playing their music as they slowly float by the restaurant. Act IV lives up to the beauty of the previous acts, but builds its own more restrained atmosphere, matching nicely with the boat trip that moves the KRZ cast further along their journey.
8. Lieve Oma
Lieve Oma is a game about picking mushrooms with your Grandmother. It’s a small portrait that takes place through a few snapshots of this relationship, as you visit your Grandmother to pick mushrooms from year to year. Time passes, and you have small conversations with your Grandmother about your lives while you walk through the woods. She’s worried about you and wants to spend time with you. You open up about some things, but not about others.
It’s a calm, small game, that made me feel really nostalgic, even though I’ve never gone mushroom picking, nor do I have any specific traditions with my grandparents. For me, it really evoked the feeling of connecting with someone you’re close to, in small ways, over time. Like how you may only see a certain family member every Christmas, but maybe you feel closer to them each time you see them, or maybe you don’t. Maybe you see someone one year and you spill your guts to them, but maybe next year you see them and you want to hold back. There are people that come in and out of our lives at different intervals, and Lieve Oma really made me think about how the people who care about us most perceive the time spent apart, and what it means to reconnect after a period of absence.
Christine Love is my queen. Her games, Digital: A Love Story, and Analogue: A Hate Story, are two of my favorite games. Both deal heavily with relationships, communication and technology, which are all themes that I like to think about in my own work. I frequently find myself going back to reference her games when I am working on my own. So, I was super excited when Ladykiller came out.
Ladykiller in a Bind is a visual novel game about a bunch of classmates getting into shenanigans (often sexual) on a cruise. I mean… it’s also about crossdressing, social manipulation, flirting, sex… it’s about a lot of the best things, to be honest. I was lucky enough to get to play Ladykiller with a group of people, some of which were even open to doing some live voiceover for the game as we played it. Seriously, having your friends do live voiceover for sex scenes in a video game is a super good way to spend a Saturday night. It helps when the game is as well written as Ladykiller.
I think what really floored me about Ladykiller was that it experimented with mechanics that I had not seen in any visual novel, nor in any of Christine’s prior work. I think she and her team took a lot of design risks that really paid off. For example, each dialogue choice is informed by multiple layers that are surfaced by the game--variables like votes, intended tone and unlockable scenes. The dialogue is more rich with choice than any other visual novel that I’ve played, and it really stands out because of it. As my friends and I were playing, we deliberated each choice, taking all the variables into account, and it often led to some pretty in-depth conversations. I mean, we were also highly motivated to find the sex scenes, so sometimes the discussion was basically like “how can we be the most horny” (which is actively enabled by the game, and I love it). Ladykiller is a really stunning game, both for the sex and the rich dialogue system.
I can’t believe that 2016 was the year that I discovered otome games. How have I lived for so many years without these cute anime boys fawning over me? It’s a miracle that I've survived this long. As a thirsty anime lover, otome games fulfill my needs. However, I’m not always psyched about the mechanics in every otome game. I’ll play through all the routes using a guide, normally, because I’m an impatient butt. This is fine, and I have nothing against choice trees… they just don’t captivate me. However, Mystic Messenger really floored me because it has two things I love: faux tech interface based mechanics AND hot anime boys.
Mystic Messenger is a mobile game that is really designed for mobile, and relies on mechanics and story context that are core to the platform. You spend your time in Mystic Messenger in Line-like chat rooms, text conversations and phone calls. It’s a game about using your phone to chat (or flirt, if you’re me) with boys, just like you might hit up a crush in real life. I love the feeling of watching chats scroll by when I’m in Mystic Messenger, and then suddenly getting a text from one of the boys, and then maybe getting a call. It feels so natural, because these are things I do normally on my phone. I’m super excited about games that find mechanics in real world interfaces and activities. We spend so much time on our phones, using them to communicate with people in both casual and intimate ways. I’m so happy to see more and more games exploring how we interact with technology… and how we use it to flirt with cuties.
Well This Is Awkward is a game about buying condoms. You’re on a date with a dude, and you’re both pretty much ready to do the deed. Sadly, no one thought to pick up condoms on the way… so you have to make the dreaded convenience store run if you want to get any action. However, with every word comes the risk that you might botch your chances in bed by being way too awkward for anyone to handle. It’s a game that rings very true to my experience, as I recall trying to pick out condoms for the first time from behind the counter at a 7/11 in New York City. I remember trying desperately to seem like I wasn’t completely and entirely humiliated that I actually had no idea what size to get.
It’s a brilliant little game where you navigate the social awkwardness of a new hookup partner, texting about their penis size, and trying to play it cool while you wait in the checkout line with condoms and… whatever else your sexy self desires (I picked up condoms, wine and chocolate, personally). It embraces the awkwardness of sex and the negotiations around it, putting you in a scenario that feels really genuine. I think that a lot of people who play this game will see a little bit of themselves in it, because we’re all a bit awkward, and we’re probably also a bit horny.
4. Dishonored 2
I hadn’t played the first Dishonored until a year or two ago when I first started working on first-person games. It was recommended to me as a good reference point as a level designer, and I couldn’t agree more. The original Dishonored has some of the most memorable levels and set pieces that I’ve encountered in first-person games. One that really sticks out in my mind is Dr. Galvani’s house. I’ve picked apart every corner of that house--it’s really a cohesive level with an interesting layout, full of little details that make it feel occupied by real people.
Given my admiration for that level, and for Dishonored, I was super psyched to see what the second one would have to offer. I bought it right when it came out, and have been happily flinging myself from building to building as Emily. I knew it was a game for me when I started coming across the Crown Killer scenes, and when I got to the Clockwork Mansion. Dishonored 2 has some incredible architecture and really fun level layouts that shine during those parts. Also, I get to play as an angry, vengeful Emily. I will take a pissed off lady protagonist any day of the week. Pure chaos Emily gives me so much joy--you have no idea. It feels cathartic to rampage through Dishonored 2 as Emily, given how… rough 2016 has been, in the real world.
I didn’t start playing Overwatch until a month or so ago. I resisted because it wasn’t really “the type” of game that I would normally play. I don’t consider myself very good at twitchy games, so I didn’t bother checking it out at first. However, eventually I saw my boyfriend playing it and thought… cool, this game is pretty shiny and the characters are cute. I watched the shorts and was really impressed. The world and the characters living in it felt cohesive. Also, I was like… wow, Mercy’s Halloween skin is super hot, so I think I need to play this game. Then, I kept watching my boyfriend play it and I think he noticed… then he got it for me so we could play together (thank you!). Now, I spend many nights staying up way too late to play and practice (I’m so bad, but I try). It’s a good problem to have, I think.
I haven’t felt so into an action game that I’d stay up late playing it since I was addicted to Splatoon last year. So, in some ways, Overwatch is my new Splatoon. It’s well-designed, snappy, stylish and really damn fun. The characters have cute costumes and I actually just start screaming when I open a loot box with one I want. I got the Pharah Christmas skin the other night and wouldn’t stop talking about how excited I was for like an hour straight. Overwatch is basically candy for someone like me who wants to fawn over characters and play online with my friends. I have had so much fun with it. God damn it… I love Overwatch.
I didn’t start having a real makeup routine until a couple years ago. I used to just throw on some eyeliner and lipstick and call it good. Then, I discovered the joys of winged eyeliner and became obsessed with practicing it every morning. I shall forever strive for those perfect little painted eyelid tips. However, some mornings are just too short, and I love to sleep in… so I can’t always painstakingly paint my eyelids with the perfect, most calm strokes. Sometimes I’m really rushing, and I do kind of a shitty job--but at least I tried, right!? This is the soul of Makeup Madness, a game made by Jenny Jiao Hsia. Makeup Madness is about trying to do your whole makeup routine, from blush to mascara, in ten damn seconds. Ten seconds! To put on ALL of your makeup! Good luck, ya’ll.
Honestly though, this game is brilliant. I love games that draw from ordinary life, no matter how small that slice of life may be. Game mechanics can help players experience something small, like a makeup routine, in a fresh and surprising way. We’re not asked to think about the little things in life enough! Makeup Madness really taps into that.
P.S. Funny story: Jenny made Makeup Madness for a class called Prototype Studio, taught by Bennett Foddy at New York University. I took this class when I was in grad school, and it’s where I made the original prototype for Cibele!
Overcooked is a local multiplayer co-op game about running a kitchen and delivering timely meals to the customers in your restaurant. Every player is a chef, and no one has any job in particular. You’re given a steady stream of orders, the necessary ingredients, chopping boards, and places to cook… the rest is up to good old fashioned teamwork!
I’ve mostly played Overcooked with a group of four people. We usually decide who’s going to deal with each kind of task right from the start. Someone needs to be chopping tomatoes, someone needs to find a clean plate for the next order, someone needs to deliver the steak, someone needs to get that pot of mushrooms on the burner. If we’re not all working in sync with each other, we’re not going to get dishes out on time, and we’re not going to get tipped very well! The kitchen is busy, and everyone needs to be contributing to the whole process if you want to run an efficient shop.
My favorite thing about Overcooked, and the reason I want to play it so much, is how the game steps aside for the player. Overcooked gives you everything you need to succeed as a team, but it lets you figure that out in the room with your friends. You get to see your friends personalities shine in a game of Overcooked--you see who’s a leader, who’s good at coming up with new strategies, who swears the most when they inevitably catch a pot on fire. It’s a game that trusts the players to work out the details in person, on their own terms. It’s the freedom to collaborate, and to mess up together, and to have fun in a tense game of Overcooked that really got me hooked. Overcooked is so damn fun, and you really need to get your friends together and play it (I especially recommend playing it after a few alcoholic beverages… then you’ll see how rowdy a round of Overcooked can really get…!)