In the online video game "Freshman Year," users take on the role of the game's creator, Nina Freeman. They read texts from her friend Jen as they arrive, and they decide when to go to the bar, how long to dance, and when to worry about where Jen is. It's a game that's instantly relatable in its realism, but also in the feelings of fear and anxiety it creates.
"I like to tell stories I have complicated feelings about," Freeman, an artist and game designer, told me. "This is a story that felt complicated and weird to me. How do I express it in a distilled way?"
Freeman's "Freshman Year" is worth playing not only because it's an entertaining and interesting path through one woman's night, but because it forces the player to feel empathy.
The premise of the game is a night out with Nina's friend Jen. Playing as Nina, you have many choices to make about how you communicate and what you do, but no matter which route you take, the plot line stays the same: you go to the bar without Jen, who is late, you text her anxiously, and you end up in an awkward and threatening situation with the bouncer before Jen arrives.
Traditionally, games that allow users to make choices for the main character have branching narratives — the decisions you make as a user dictates what the character does — but Freeman has removed that control over Nina's life. "I make it more like a story web," she told me. "It's more like a circular path through the story. I'm not interested in making players feel like they are in the story. I'm interested in making players feel the way I felt in that moment."
The game has a trigger warning at the bottom of it cautioning users that "Freshman Year" "depicts scenarios that may be distressing to people who have experienced abuse."
Freeman knows that even though this story is 100 percent hers and meant to be a personal narrative, the anxiety users may feel is one many women experience in abusive situations.
"I don't want to say it's a universal thing. It's just my personal thing," she explains. "Many women have a lot of different experiences with that kind of thing. My individual experience is just mine."
In creating the game, Freeman says she was influenced by poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Frank O'Hara and their autobiographical vignettes. This game is in so many ways an autobiographical poem, because it makes players feel something deeply out of a situation that isn't happening to them. It creates empathy, and that's something all good art should do.