“Please be aware that this game depicts scenarios that may be distressing to people who have experienced abuse.”
A very potent warning rests under Indie Developer Nina Freeman’s new game, Freshman Year. It’s a warning I wasn’t sure how to take, being as I am lucky enough to never have experienced abuse. But Nina’s new game doesn’t necessarily pull punches when getting its point across, no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced.
Freshman Year tells the autobiographical story of Nina who has recently moved to New York to go to college. After being approached by her best friend and roommate Jenna, the two decide to go out to a local bar, but are split up when Jenna leaves to buy drugs. The game follows Nina as she waits for Jenna, drinks, and dances and ultimately shows her getting drunk, being hit on, and sexually harassed. It lasts only about five minutes, but it is a powerful experience.
The game starts out innocently. Told through bright paintings by artist Laura Knetzger, players are free to choose responses for Nina filled with ‘lols’ and jokes about how ‘destroyed’ her and Jenna had become the prior weekend. Players can choose whether or not Nina gets dressed up for the evening, wearing a tight black skirt, or going out in what she had worn to class earlier that day and they can choose dialogue options such as engaging in conversation with the bar’s bouncer or ignoring him to pester Jenna via-text message. But, no matter the player’s choice, the ending is always the same. Nina is always taken advantage of.
Freshman Year explains that sexual abuse has no rules, it can happen to any one for any reason. It’s a harsh, yet important message. Freeman has eliminated any player agency from her short game and much like Nina, they have no choice in what happens. No matter how many times you play Freshman Year, the ending is always the same. The music cuts out to nothing but a low thump of bass and you are forced to watch Nina be groped, as she digs in her purse for her phone, trying to get ahold of her friend. It’s hard to watch, but harder to swallow as a very common reality.
I recently spoke to Freeman who told me that she is interested in making games as a way to experiment with what she called, ‘player-character embodiment.’ “I want to make games that help players embody another person’s lived experience,” Freeman said.
The choice to give the game one ending despite the ability to make different choices was done to bring players closer to what she herself felt, when she was sexually harassed. “By taking away player agency during the harassment scene,” said Freeman, “I’m able to help bring them closer to my own experience of losing agency physically during the encounter.” Choices such as in-game text responses are used more for players to understand Nina as a character, rather than to visualize themselves in the game.
Freeman told me that many people have reached out to her via-social media to tell her that Freshman Year had an effect on them, and that it feels good to know that her game and her story have had an impact on people. She went on to say that just getting her story out there was liberating. “The experience Freshman Year draws from was traumatic,” Freeman said, “and making games about experiences I have complex feelings about is healthy for me and feels cathartic.”
Beyond catharsis, Freeman continues to explore how to make players see through her character’s eyes. “I’m interested in helping players experience another life story through games using the simplest possible mechanics.” Freeman said and it shows. A quick look at the ten-plus games she has created on her website shows everything from text-based games about dating and harassment to her upcoming game Cibele that features the tagline, “I used to play this online game. I met a guy there–we fell in love and had sex. Then, before I knew it, he was gone.”
Freeman’s games allow you to see her world through her eyes, potentially giving players something or someone to relate to. Even if the circumstances are negative, games such Freshman Year let people know they’re not alone in the their expreiences or emotions.
Freeman is currently working on both writing and level-design for the upcoming game Tacoma, the next release from developer Fullbright, the creators of 2013’s critically acclaimed game, Gone Home.
Freshman Year is available to play for free in-browser at the link. To see more of Freeman’s work, including more games as well as the poetry and code she has written, make sure to check out her personal website. You can also follow her on Twitter:[email protected]
Feature Image source: GameLoading.tv