Freshman Year is the latest personal game from designer Nina Freeman. It's brief, and it tells an upsetting story — a teen in college goes to the local bar to meet a friend, only to have an unwanted interaction with the bouncer (take care playing if you have a history with abuse themes).
The player's mode of interaction with Nina's story is mostly to choose responses — the increasingly-impatient texts she sends Jenna, the friend she's supposed to meet, or how to address the over-friendly bouncer, or when to leave the dance floor. You can decide whether the Nina in this situation is confident or not, eager to drink or not. You can decide what she wears, even though, of course, that never has anything to do with anything.
Throughout her night out, Nina keeps texting Jenna: Are you here? Are you outside? Are you coming? Are you okay? You perform all the expected exchanges that happen when plans are fleeting and timing is relative. The player's attention pings between the phone screen and the environment she's in, until you experience Nina's own sense of polarization and anxiety.
This constellation of small moments helps illustrate all the facets of an old memory, up for processing: Is Nina mad at Jenna for abandoning her? Should she have done any number of little attitude adjustments differently? When we look back on the brief, confusing violations in our time as younger women, do we really know for sure how we felt at the time?
Games like these are an effective way to share a complicated but brief story, containing multitudes of feelings, with strangers. Freeman is best known for her similarly small-but-affecting How Do You Do It, a game she made about guilty time stolen away from her mom's gaze, trying to figure out sex using naked Barbies. In her prior work, Ladylike, Freeman lets us inhabit some comfortable conversations with her mother.
She calls them "vignette games," and likens them to poetry, where her background lies: "I spent my college years studying poets like Elizabeth Bishop, Frank O'Hara and Langston Hughes," Freeman says. "These poets would sometimes write very interesting autobiographical vignettes… brief, evocative descriptions or accounts."
In Bishop's poem "In the Waiting Room," the poet shares a memory of a day in her childhood when she was reading a National Geographic, and saw women's breasts for the first time.
"The poem is very honest and straightforward, but evokes so much about a child's feeling of shock, confusion and curiosity," Freeman says. "After spending time with poems like this, I became interested in expressing my own personal experiences in this concise form."
Inspired by the simplicity of poetic vignettes, Freeman says she aims to find the "simplest, most straightforward mechanic that can evoke the tone of the vignette I want to portray. That's the kind of storytelling I'm interested in."
She references Anna Anthropy's Dys4ia, Stephen Lawrence Clark's Rooftop Cop and the series of vignettes that comprise five-act fan favorite Kentucky Route Zero — fellow works that use high details of individual moments and feelings to create a relationship between the player and someone else's lived moment.
"Games are uniquely able to give players a sense of embodiment. I'm interested in games with mechanics that help players embody a lived experience different from their own," she continues. "It's one thing to passively look in on another life experience, and it's an entirely different thing to embody a character, and see things from their eyes."
"I love to give people a taste of my own life by creating mechanics that help them embody and therefor better understand my experience. I think that player-character embodiment is one of the most interesting things to achieve in a game."
You can play Nina Freeman's Freshman Year, which includes art by Laura Knetzger and audio by Stephen Lawrence Clark, for free in your browser here.