Nina Freeman makes games that explore sex and relationships, often through an autobiographical lens. She came to game-making in 2012 after graduating from New York's Pace University with a degree in English literature, during which she met a group of ...
Just as the kaleidoscopic dramas of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, the pseudo-non-fiction murk of Alan Moore’s comic From Hell and the domestic pragmatism of Jamie Oliver’s 15 Minute Meals meet under the fat banner of prose, so the body of video games becomes an ever broader church. It is impossible to enforce orthodoxy in a medium where shifting technology defines the canvas.
The artform now embraces work from a dizzying spectrum. A challenging time, then, for the Victoria and Albert Museum to stage its first major video game exhibition. Rather than reach into the primordial digital soup of the 1950s, or the gambling-adjacent squalor of the Pac-Man and Space Invaders arcade era, the V&A’s exhibition, titled Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, begins in the mid-2000s. This was the moment at which technological advances began to alter dramatically the way in which games were designed, made and played.
In the years since, the big games have become bigger and the niche games narrowed. Meanwhile, on the independent scene, there are now curios for every taste and interest. Four decades on, the medium is yet to settle into anything approaching a tidy definition. Here we talk to six designers, all featured in the V&A exhibition, currently pulling that definition in different directions.
Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt runs 8 Sep-4 Feb at the V&A, London
Nina Freeman, 28, Portland, Oregon‘A fantasy romance where you get to fawn over sexy samurai? I’ll never get enough’
Creator of Lost Memories Dot Net
Nina Freeman makes games that explore sex and relationships, often through an autobiographical lens. She came to game-making in 2012 after graduating from New York’s Pace University with a degree in English literature, during which she met a group of local game developers who introduced her to small, personal games such as Dys4ia, which explores the designer’s experiences of gender dysphoria and hormone replacement therapy, and Kentucky Route Zero,in which you play as a truck driver crossing the fictional Route Zero to make a final delivery for his antique company employer, also featured in the V&A exhibition.
“I came across these intimate games all at once and they reminded me of the kinds of poetry I was inspired by,” she says. One of her earliest games, featured in the exhibition, is How Do You Do It, a semi-autobiographical game in which you play as an 11-year-old girl exploring notions of sex using dolls as plastic surrogates, mainly by putting them together in different positions.
More recent work, such as Cibele, intersperses live footage of Freeman with gameplay, to capture a particular moment when the first wave of young people began awkwardly flirting and connecting in the nascent days of online chatrooms. In her day job, Freeman works at the larger, still independent, studio Fullbright, where for Tacoma, a futuristic murder mystery set in space, she designed the layout of an abandoned space station’s rooms and corridors. Most recently, she released Kimmy, a five-act, interactive novel about her mother’s childhood babysitting job in the 60s, and Lost Memories Dot Net, a game based on her experiences making websites in the early 2000s.
Which video game made you first want to make games?When I was a young girl with decidedly girly tastes, Final Fantasy X-2 felt like it was made for me. The game was bursting with cute outfits, pop-star imagery and complex, playful girls to whom I related. I’ve been drawn to character-focused games ever since.
Which video game do you visit for comfort, to get over a break-up or other difficulty?I have a major soft spot for otome games. These are visual novels, most often Japanese, which follow the player-character’s love story as they make dialogue choices, pairing off with one of many featured handsome men. Of these, Hakuoki is surely my favourite, the one that feels most comforting and soothing for me to play. It’s basically a historical fantasy genre romance where you get to fawn over sexy samurai men… which I will never get enough of.
How have games improved your life?When I first started making video games, I was in a bad place healthwise. Making games helped me restore a lot of my self-confidence, and gave me an outlet during that difficult time. However, eventually I formed pretty bad work habits and started to burn myself out. My first real burnout experience as a game developer was really demoralising, but I’ve learned a lot from it and thankfully it has made me better about working more deliberately towards having a healthy work-life balance.
What video game would you love to see made?I would love to see more developers experiment with the idea of “girliness”, both visually and narratively, in games that are meant for adults.
29, New York City. Creator of Rinse and Repeat
Sexuality has been the personal driving force of video game design for Robert Yang, a professor at New York University’s prestigious Game Center. As an 11-year-old, Yang cut his teeth designing mods, questionably legal modifications to a game’s code that change the way in which it works for commercial games such as StarCraft and Half-Life.
“I always thought I would work in the game industry as a level designer,” he says. “But when I finally got to interview for my dream job, one of my game design heroes basically told me that I’d have to make more ‘normal games’ about shooting people or something and I didn’t belong there.”
Rather than be discouraged, Yang doubled down on pursing singular, personal game ideas, often based on his experiences as a gay man. Rinse and Repeat, featured at the V&A, riffs on the locker-room fantasy, a stalwart genre of gay pornography designed to rob the changing room of its sense of threat, where a young man can be outed just for glancing at another in a way taken to be sexually inquisitive. In Yang’s game, you sponge down a man in the public shower while he rates you on your performance. Though suggestive heterosexual content is common in games, Rinse and Repeat was banned recently from the video-streaming service Twitch.
Which video game made you first want to make games and why?Half-Life 1 is a 20-year-old B-movie sci-fi shooter game where you shoot monsters and men, blah blah blah... but more importantly, there are some men you don’t shoot and you can wordlessly tell these men to follow you down dark alleys and dripping tunnels. It’s intensely erotic.
How have games improved your life?Making games has been therapeutic for me and it has helped me process relationships and anxieties. However, both making and playing games is time-consuming. I think few pastimes or professions demand so many hours and years, sitting at a desk in a dark room. I wish I could make games cheaply, quickly and outside in the sunlight.
What is the most frustrating thing about working in this medium?The conservative politics of gamer culture are constantly trying to suffocate any novelty or diversity from games. Imagine a culture where Game of Thrones readers harass cookbook authors out of bookstores or where Star Wars fans demand that Netflix only carry sci-fi movies and nothing else, and those are basically the rightwing proto-fascist politics we’re trying to reverse in video games today.
What video game would you love to see made?A few years ago, someone showed me their menstruation management app. I wanted to make a menstruation cycle simulator game. Unfortunately, I don’t possess a uterus, or the lived experience, or the social expectations, so I hereby offer this premise to a more qualified designer to attempt. Godspeed.
Vice-president of Naughty Dog, creator of The Last of Us Part II
For a while, it looked as if the Saturday matinee sweep of Naughty Dog’s glittering productions, which seek to make the on-screen action of cinematic blockbusters such as Indiana Jones not just observable but also playable, represented the future of video-game design. But the sheer expense and expertise required for a game of Spielbergian scale and style mean that few are now willing to take the financial and creative gamble.
Druckmann, vice-president of Naughty Dog, is one. He is still intimately involved in the creation of the studio’s games, most recently as a writer on Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, in which we play as the handsome, quipping lead Nathan Drake, scarpering across ancient ruins, crouching behind toppled statues for impromptu shootouts with the bad guys, all while trying to get the girl. Currently creative director and writer on The Last of Us Part II, a post-apocalyptic zombie game, set in the US, in which cliquey humans, not the undead, pose the greatest threat, Druckmann has an ear for natural-sounding dialogue and, with the aid of a battalion of editors, an eye for an affecting or grisly scene.
He started out as a programmer. Then, having mastered the fundamentals of code, Druckmann switched discipline to game design, a more slippery role requiring its students to master everything from user-interfaces (how you search a treasure chest) to digital inventories (where you store the things you find in the treasure chest). Today, he stands at the vanguard of the movie-like video game.
Which video game made you first want to make games?Half-Life [the seminal 1998 shooter in which you play as a doctor who must fight his way out of a research facility following a botched experiment] was unlike anything I had experienced in a game before. It made me want to dissect it and figure out how the developers were able to achieve it.
What is the most frustrating thing about working in this medium?The most frustrating aspect of this medium – at least, for the games we make – is how long it takes to make them. From inception to completion, it can take four or five years. That’s a long time to keep a team motivated, including myself, to make sure all the pieces come together to produce a holistic experience.
How have games improved your life?From as far back as I can remember, games have afforded me with an escape. The real world can be overwhelming at times and a great game can help you get through tough periods in your life.
Paolo Pedercini, 37, Pittsburgh‘Games encouraged me to see society’s problems as a complex web of interrelated systems’
Creator of Phone Story, Oiligarchy, Faith Fighter
Since 2003, Pedercini, working under the moniker Molleindustria, has earned a reputation for little games that make a major impact. A pioneer of the “serious games” movement, the cutesy aesthetic of Pedercini’s work often masks its bruising satirical content, which addresses social and environmental justice, religion, labour and sexuality.
Phone Story, Pedercini’s best-known work, playable at the V&A exhibition, is typical of his approach: a smartphone game that, through satire, examines the ethics of the technology on which the game runs. Through a series of simple mini-games, Phone Story traces the smartphone ecosystem, showing how demand from western consumers can lead to child exploitation in the mining of constituent resources, such as coltan, and to worker suicides in factories where the phones are assembled. The game was removed from the App Store after four days.
Pedercini moved to the US from Italy, his home country, 10 years ago. He teaches digital media production and experimental game design at the school of art at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. Since February, Pedercini has worked as director of Lifelike, a video-game gallery in Pittsburgh devoted to independent games and playful art.
Which video game made you first want to make games?Theme Park [the 1994 construction game] made me think for the first time about video games’ potential to unpack and dramatise power at a systemic level.
What is the most frustrating thing about working in this medium?Ever-shifting and rapidly obsoleting technologies. But, more personally, dealing with the expectations of different audiences: the art world people, the activists, the gamers… and negotiating my own desires, which often don’t match with any of the above groups.
How have games improved your life?They encouraged me to see our society’s problems as a complex, fractal web of interrelated systems, but, on the downside, now I can’t un-see our society’s problems.
What video game would you love to see made?A procedurally generated online world such as No Man Sky or Minecraft, but centred on discovering and managing ecosystems rather than extracting resources and accumulating crap.
Robin Hunicke, 45, San Francisco, California‘Games have given me a really concrete sense of my own mortality’
Creator of Journey
Journey is an elegiac rumination on death and religion. You play as a hooded figure, floating across a blustery desert, en route to a mountain, your scarf billowing pleasingly in the wind. It is a multiplayer game played with others online but, unlike most multiplayer games, where you’re likely to run into American brats with handles such as “n00bsnip3r”, and “Fat Mom69”, players drift in an out of one another’s games like ghostly figures. Players are unable to harm or converse with one another; they are limited to running and jumping together, gestures that assume a curious weight, until the moment is gone and your companion with it.
Created by a small team at the Santa Monica-based thatgamecompany, Journey was produced by Robin Hunicke, who has been designing, making and teaching about games for more than 15 years. An outspoken evangelist for increasing the participation of women and underrepresented minorities in the arts, games and tech, Hunicke has also worked with Steven Spielberg on his block-toppling Wii-game, Boom Blox. She runs the independent game studio Funomena, which creates experimental games for console, PC, VR and AR platforms, and she directs two video game programmes at the University of California, Santa Cruz, training the next generation of video game artists.
Which video game made you first want to make games and why?It was M.U.L.E., [a 1983 game about supply and demand economics, where players colonise a fictional planet], specifically because you could play with the computer and another person at the same time. I loved the idea that you were competing with the machine and another person, trying to figure out how to best them both.
Which video game do you visit for comfort, to get over a break-up or other difficulty?Honestly, we built Journey for this reason and playing it still fills me with a sense of hope and peace.
How have games improved your life and how have they negatively affected you?I’ve thought of more game ideas than I will ever have time to make before I die… so in a sense, they’ve given me a really concrete sense of my mortality.
What video game would you love to see made?I’m waiting for a really juicy, truly interactive soap opera game, with all the drama, romance and betrayal of a daytime soap – only you get to influence the outcomes.
Jeff Kaplan: ‘Rust is a masterpiece that brings me a disturbing peace of mind among the chaos’
California. Creator of Overwatch
Overwatch sits alongside League of Legends, Starcraft and Fortnite as one of a handful of competitive games seeking to establish itself as the dominant title for organised, professional, competitive gaming – known as eSports.
For the game’s publisher, Blizzard, this process has involved courting the giants of the traditional sports world, from broadcasters such as ESPN through to billionaire team-owners such as Stan Kroenke (Arsenal, LA Rams). The costs involved in attempting to set up a professional eSports league, from hiring arenas to designing team logos and shirts, to booking chefs to feed the professional athletes, would make a royal blush. And that’s all before you consider the tremendous effort involved in designing, balancing and updating the game that sits at the heart of it all.
This latter responsibility falls to Jeff Kaplan, Overwatch’s game director, who joined Blizzard in 2002 to work not in the scrappy world of competitive online games, but in the realm of World of Warcraft, a fantasy role-playing game that, at one point, had a larger (gamer) population than Greece, Portugal or Belgium, in which players congregate and co-operate or compete in lavish quests.
On the surface, Overwatch – a competitive game in which one team attempts to shepherd a nuclear bomb mounted on wheels into the opposing team’s base while they in turn try to force them back – has little in common with World of Warcraft. But for Kaplan, the challenge of wrangling and pacifying each game’s boisterous and massive fan base is the same.
Loved by fans for his wit and calm, Kaplan brings humanity to what might otherwise be a dourly faceless, corporate enterprise.
Which video game made you first want to make games and why?The early golden age of the first-person shooters showed me that I could play a role in making video games. Specifically, Duke Nukem 3D came with a level editor and I spent a great deal of time making my own levels.Which video game do you visit for comfort, to get over a break-up or other difficulty?
I love Rust [an online game in which players start out with only a rock and a torch and must scavenge and hunt to survive in the wilderness]. They must successfully manage their hunger, thirst and health or risk dying. Rust is one of the most painful, unforgiving games I’ve played. But it’s an absolute masterpiece of a persistent-world, PvP [player vs player] game and it brings me a disturbing peace of mind among the chaos. I’ve played it for well over 1,000 hours.
How have games improved your life?I met my wife playing games.
What video game would you love to see made?Half-Life 3.
There are now curios for every taste, offering the chance to explore worlds through the eyes of every kind of person