Embed With Games: A Year On The Couch With Games Developers
In 2014 games critic Cara Ellison rather flippantly pledged to the internet she'd leave home, become itinerant, and travel around the world to live with and write about some of the most interesting game developers and their cultural outlook. As your 'cyberpunk hair-dyed Attenborough', originally Cara put up the Embed With Games series monthly on a free blog as she travelledfrom couch to couch, writing about the people she met and about the way our game creators express the culture around them. The internet generously helped fund her travel costs through a subscription service, egging her on in the only way it could. This is the collected work, called Embed With Games with an exclusive introduction from Kieron Gillen, a cover from Irene Koh, and a conclusion exclusive to the ebook.
I've been a fan of Cara Ellison's writing in journalism and in her narrative designs for years. Embed with Games has so much to study and enjoy. Her stories of a year traveling the world to meet and write about game developers captivated me, making Embed one of my favorite "gets" for StoryBundle in my four years of curating books about game design and culture. – David L. Craddock
"Cara Ellison's writing is consistently amusing, perceptive, honest and touching. Also: It's got games in it. Now buy this book."– Charlie Brooker
"It is probably quite important that Cara wrote this book as it continuously seems to be the only thing propping up her fragile ego."– Cara's therapist
"Cara is very beautiful and extremely talented and her prose is certainly much better than any of my favourite authors. When will Charlie Brooker come over for dinner sweetheart?"– Cara's husband
We sit slumped in Nina Freeman's Brooklyn apartment side by side, close to each other. We are pre-game drunk. It is too hot. We can't afford to put the air conditioning on. Our skin has a glazed sheen. We wear the least amount of clothes possible.
It's smothering like sleeping restless between tropical sheets, Williamsburg presses humid fingers on our thighs and we are staring at Usher.
We say nothing, we do nothing, our hands are limp on the couch. He is singing about how no one kisses like us. Nina's long-term boyfriend Emmett is due to come home tonight, high cheekbones, broad shoulders, handsome grin, and I can feel the tension try to dissipate from this fact. I am jealous of her real estate, terraces and terraces of this part is mine. The last time I had sex the weather was hot but at least there was no exhausting humidity. The last time I had sex seems like a Grand Canyon away because the man in the video should stop dancing.
Usher is shirtless, purrs on the screen, the video tempts us by cutting away. He touches his body when he dances to suggest we cannot. I think about what Nina is thinking.
I think about whether Nina is thinking about Usher like I am thinking about Usher. I am thinking about whether she is thinking about how our sexuality is being manipulated by this video. Does Usher know he is binding us up like a thread around a finger? I want him to know exactly how. I want him to receive push notifications. Objectifying notifications. I want him to get mindfuck notifications that vibrate his phone off the table every time we think something filthy about this video. I want him to know that Nina Freeman and I are sitting here mindfucking him, weak from the New York heat. I know Nina is thinking this way because Emmett has been away and in this weather, we have mostly been talking about How We Like It, games and otherwise. She has leant me a book entitled 'The Ethical Slut'.
I guess Nina is famous for making games about sexuality by now, or she should be, but this new game she is making, Cibele: it has been playing with me rather than me playing with it. I have come to understand very quickly that Nina and I are very similar. Our obsessions with the personal being important. The lists of men we might make fuckplans about. Our opinions about emotional terrorism. Our experiences in teaching. Our backgrounds in poetry and literature. Our anxieties about being a woman, being ambitious, punching a hole through the grip of an industry moulded like men want it. It has become a sort of joke in my head. We feel small and alone and we make things that we want to make to feel big. Later we'd sit in a sake bar pulling our hair and poring over the war map of an industry that finds us inscrutable.
"Usher would get it," I finally say. It seems like a feeble statement. So I say it again. "…Usher would get it."
Screenshot from Cibele. Nina plays the main character.
Nina Freeman has it together. She programs and designs all her own games, of which there are eight and she is working on the ninth, Cibele, an autobiographical game about her experience having sex with someone she met through an MMO. She owns two hentai pillows. She is prone to showing me beautiful things that look like they come from a fairyland and saying 'This is my whole aesthetic'.
She shows me this Grimes video and says 'This is my whole aesthetic'.
Nina has recently become popular enough to receive death threats for her game How Do You Do It, a short game about her girlhood experiences attempting to figure out how sex works via Barbie dolls. You know you are a woman who said something interesting on the internet when you receive death threats. It is like graduating but instead of smiling at your parents you cry to your pillow for several weeks when no one is around and contemplate your own worthlessness until you get angry and creative and emerge some sort of burning, fuschine dragon. Nina wrote an article on designing thoughtful games about sex and relationships just a few days later:
"It doesn't matter if you think sex doesn't belong in games, because sex is one of those basic human drives that manifests itself in our lives and in our art, whether by our own volition or in the minds of our players. Barbie dolls were not necessarily meant to be used as objects of sexual experimentation — but that didn't stop me when I was 10 years old. Instead of ignoring sex in games, especially in games that are marketed to younger people, we should think about what we are saying already, and what we could be saying if we were more thoughtful."
"a person passes through history on a google search for truth
meanwhile i walk around soho
which is always like super models—
cut to me oblivious
in a sailor moon crop top
and one time i was playing sex with ken
until by accident i ripped ken's leg off
which kind of killed the mood
i was in aol cybersex chat rooms before i knew what sex was
now i know even less about it
my bedroom is an anime bachelor pad
and here i am drinking a cocktail called
'the corpse reviver #2'
i hereby apologize to anyone and everyone i have ever kissed
From Untitled, by Nina Freeman
Nina has a degree in English Literature and a Masters of Science in Integrated Digital Media. Her first love was poetry, which has given birth to her love of 'vignette games'; games that are a snapshot of a feeling or moment, games that capture life in one small pinch of time and space. She cites my favourite, Stephen Lavelle's Slave Of God, as a good example, and she taught my vignette game Sacrilege to a packed class at Code Liberation. Nina has made a number of vignettes, including Ladylike, her most recent. Nina's last two games are interpretations of real things that happened to her.
I asked her why it is important to her to make games.
"I'm sort of obsessed with becoming renowned," she tells me, as we regard each other over a flickering candle at a dim little Williamsburg izakaya. "Both my parents, who are divorced so it was mostly my mom, would never recognise anything I did. Once in a while they did, but when it was something I was really proud of I would be like, 'Mom I did this thing, I wrote this poem and it got into some magazine at school…' It was never a big deal to her. And I think part of that was her being bad at expressing that kind of emotion. But I didn't know that as a kid so I was obsessed with finding the one thing that would impress her. I've just grown into that. It's become my personality. I'm never really satisfied with anything I do. Nothing ever seems like it's good enough for anyone in my mind. Even if my mom does praise me it still doesn't feel complete for some reason."
"You talked last night about the fact that creating things gave you control over things," I say.
"Yeah," Nina says. "I feel like [my mom] would have been impressed if I'd pursued things she'd impressed upon me like acting. But those things weren't giving me the sense of accomplishment programming and making games do.
"When I realised 'Poetry gives me a sense of control, I can express myself in this way, people are praising me for it outside of my family,' that was a good adrenaline rush. But it's a drug. It only lasts for so long. I keep having to make more and more stuff to get that short term feeling of accomplishment."
"i opened up a microsoft word document
clippy krumped onto the screen—
'fucking hipster,' he sneered"
From Untitled, by Nina Freeman
"What do you like about sex the most?" I ask Nina.
"Emmett's just so good in bed I don't even think about it any more," Nina says.
"Can I write that down?" I ask.
"Yeah you can," Nina says. "I mean in Mangia [a text game she made] there's a whole part where I talk about having sex with him. When you get to a certain part it says, 'Do you want to have sex with Emmett now?' And you can. And it just talks about how I feel after sex. His coworkers played it and were horrified.
"I've liked having sex for different reasons. Now I like it because it feels like the only time I'm not stressed about anything."
"Yes. Yes," I say. "Yes."
"And you can just ignore everything."
"And pay attention to just one person you care about," I say. "I'm not sure I've had a one night stand where I didn't care about the other person. When I was in Paris, Katharine told me that the French don't really use the word for 'love' like we would, and so the English/French translation can be awkward. It's almost like everything is on a spectrum of love for them, I think she was telling me. I started to think about how I previously considered love a binary state, but I agree that it's more like a spectrum from barely giving a shit about the other person to really giving a shit about them."
"It shouldn't be a logic problem: 'If I am in love with X, then I can have sex with them'," Nina says. "It's never like that. There are so many reasons people have sex. That needs to be culturally acceptable. With Emmett I I can just stop being stressed. Feel normal for a while. Which is funny - 'I only feel normal when I have sex', but - that's so true. Because otherwise I feel so self-conscious with people, with jobs, with objects, that I can never feel natural."
"With poetry I hit a wall," Nina tells me. "And I got really sick, and I started making games, and I realised games were another way that I could express myself and feel that kind of agency again. Agency in that, I knew I could make things that could attract people to me. Because I just like people. And I want them to engage with my work.
"Hopefully I can get them to engage in a meaningful way," she says. "Engage with the issues that I faced growing up. I still have a lot of baggage from being a kid that I just haven't gotten to explore. The most rewarding way for me to explore that is unfortunately by having other people to talk with me about it or having the awareness that other people are engaging with it. Because then I am getting this sense of not being totally alone. My parents made me feel alone by brushing off everything that I was doing. Seeing people interact with the things I make, actually play it, feels like they are actively engaged with what I am trying to say."
"I feel the same way about my work," I say. "When I write anything. The power of self-mythologising, it gives me a sense of control over my life. And I also feel less alone when people identify with something that happened to me. I feel power. I feel control when I do not feel in control of anything else in my life."
"Yes," Nina says, "And also I might have said this the other night - it gives me a sense of validation. I never really got validation from my family, and you never really got it from school because it feels so artificial because you are paying to go there. But when people play your games and actually express something about it, whether that's feedback or a facial recognition that they'd finished it, you can see that they recognise that's an experience that you can express through a game. Or at least I can pretend that's what they're thinking and it makes me feel better about myself."
"Girls are always told that they're crazy, or that their emotions aren't real," Nina says.
"They'll be like, 'Oh, you're just saying that,' or whatever. People have always said that to me. I feel like maybe games are like, 'No. Fuck you. I'm not crazy. This shit is real.'"
by Sara Teasdale
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children's faces looking up
Holding wonder in a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit's still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
"I think part of the power of autobiographical games - or even when I write something very personal - is in forcing someone to identify with you," I say to Nina, picking at tempura. "Limiting their available options. Forcing someone into that tiny vignette space. It's very powerful. The idea that someone might feel the same way if they experience the same things is so powerful."
"There's a lot of hope putting something out in the world that someone will come back to you," Nina says. "With How Do You Do It, I had a lot of people, men and women, coming back to me saying 'I did that exact same thing'. It made me feel really good about myself. And Ladylike to a lesser extent."
New York runs Streets of Rage on a janky framework
And in tunnels
The rat AI is broken
Environment art from Cibele
Cibele is being made via a series of game jams, as Nina works full time at Kickstarter as an intern. She is making the game as designer, programmer, producer, and actor for the cutscenes. Emmett Butler, her boyfriend, is helping with additional programming. Deckman Coss is the composer, sound designer and audio engineer.
Rebekka Dunlap is making the art, and Samantha Corey, Nina's flatmate, is the filmmaker filming the cutscenes. Justin Briner is voiceacting.
Cibele is still being made, but the MMOesque sections, built to simulate Nina's experiences playing with a guy who flirted with her via voicechat whilst playing, are already striking with placeholder art. The act of playing those sections of the game - killing monsters, some seeming symbolic of Nina's emotional state - whilst people have an awkwardly intimate conversation over the play, seems dramatic and engaging. Every time the player goes to kill a monster, the overbearing male AI player kills it first.
"I have this personality where I just let people walk all over me," Nina says. "Whenever I talk to people about Cibele I say, 'Oh I know, it's such a selfish thing to try and make a game about' but ultimately I'm making it for a lot of reasons, a large one of them because it's cathartic and I still have issues with this whole scenario. It was pretty scarring for me. But also I've heard so many other people who have been through similar situations.
"It's really a stigmatised scenario where you meet someone in a game and then you have sex with them or have a relationship with them. It's a taboo to even talk about it. The only way I'll be able to get over it is talking really loudly about it so we can't ignore it any more. No matter what the reaction is, I'll automatically feel better about it. That's why I'm super dedicated to being super honest about it. That's why I want to have the sex scene, have people be nude. It's like Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Poets: he would talk about giving people blow jobs in a graphic way. A lot of people hated him for that. But that's honesty. He did do that. So you have to be able to write about that."
I nod in agreement. "All my most popular work on the internet has been when I have been most honest about something that no one else wanted to be honest about," I say. "I guess I even opened one of these with 'I woke up on a chiptune artist'."
"Same," Nina says, and giggles. "That's the perfect thing to make art about. It's the sort of thing that people who aren't as confident, or don't have the self-esteem to talk about it publicly will be so thankful to see. Not only do you get to fulfil this selfish desire for validation but other people also get to feed off that validation by being like 'whoa, I'm not this person who did this terrible thing.' Especially when it's sex. Women having casual sex. There's so much shame and guilt. Especially when you make games about sex."
Screenshot from Cibele
"Why is sex with Emmett so good?"
"I think it's because we're so good at communicating. Ever since we started dating we never had an issue telling each other what we want. Or what scares us, which is even more important. When we first started having sex I'd just gotten out of a relationship with a guy who was sort of abusive and who was a mutual friend of ours. So there was this tension from the beginning that this was definitely not allowed, even though that's not true - that's a cultural expectation, that you can't sleep with someone after a certain amount of time after you've had a breakup. So our first challenge was to talk to each other and say, 'Are we comfortable having sex?' And after talking we found out we were. But I feel like that set an expectation. Talking was really important, especially when it came to sex."
"Do you talk during sex?"
"Yes. Not necessarily during, but before and after. And if I want to do something different I just ask."
"Do you appraise afterwards?"
"Oh yeah. Literally every time we're done we're like, 'That was so good' or 'that was okay'. Or if one of us is feeling like the other is being a little disingenuous about it… it helps just to be asked and forced to be like 'Yeah I'm feeling kind of out of it'. But that obviously took a long time to learn. We're good at it now. Which is why we have such good sex."
"I've had pretty amazing sex without ever having to say a word to the other person," I say.
"But it could be so much better!" Nina says, and she's right.
I nod. "Once this one guy was like, 'I want you to get on top', and before that I didn't usually because I find it hard to have a good time on top for one reason or another - or maybe it's that I didn't find the right partner with the right body shape, or maybe I'm wired differently. I feel a lot like in bed I'm naturally submissive, I like to be thrown around a little, which is something people don't automatically think about me - y'know, dom in the streets, sub in the sheets. Anyway, I got on top and he taught me to like it. It was like I had an orgasm coach. It was pretty great to make him happy and get something out of it. And I told him, and he was like, 'Uh, well, I just thought it was always easier for women on top', which I guess is an assumption he'd made. Or maybe it was an excuse he was making to excuse his selfishness in that regard."
"I always hated on top too, but my reasons were that I was so self-conscious about my body. I'd always feel gross and fat about being on top. But Emmett likes it. And now I like it. Because I see him liking it, which makes me feel actually good about myself."
"When I was making How Do You Do It I wanted it to be humorous," Nina explains. "I feel like childhood sexuality is something that we're taught to be ashamed of. I think that's bullshit. Cibele is not humorous but I think there's a time and a place for addressing sex in games and media. There's a time to be really serious about it too, and be like 'People are affected by this'."
"But especially when you're trying to convey conversations between real people, we use humour in our daily conversations always," she continues. "That's just something that we do. It's part of our culture. And I was writing Cibele based on conversations that I remember happening. It's interesting to see how the humour manifests itself both in regular humour but also in some of the situations where it's more like ironic humour, or you know where this is going. 'Look, he's saying this flirtatious thing.' It's not that it's funny, but you laugh at it because he's trying to get in her pants. I'm seeing humour come out in that way in the game. Also when people are super bigoted it's kind of hilarious. There are parts in it where the guy is just the worst. You're sort of laughing at that because it is so awful. And that's more like dark humour."
From 'How Do You Do It'
"How about looking a person in the eyes?" I ask. "I find it difficult to do that in bed unless I know that it isn't just something throwaway. Or sometimes that's my indication that it isn't just nothing, the ability to be able to hold a gaze."
"Even with Emmett I don't usually look him right in the eyes," Nina says. "I usually do it once, but I can never do it the whole time. I feel like it's almost too intense. I'm sure there'll be a day where I want that intensity and we'll do it the whole time. But usually… Yeah there's something about it. Because sex has that effect where you are not worrying about other things, you become super vulnerable. There's something super intense about looking at someone while you're both vulnerable, that's really… frightening. It's easier to do with someone you love because you are vulnerable with each other all the time. Being in love with someone is basically being vulnerable with someone all the time. But for me it's too high risk to exchange that vulnerability with someone I am not committed to. But i feel like I can give a little bit of that away with Emmett, who I am in love with, and who I am committed to."
"I feel a lot like I am vulnerable all the time," I say. "Which is why I get hurt all the time."
I look down the carriage
People look away but
A small grey-haired lady looks up at me
"Do you need this seat?" she says.
"Not at all."
"AGE BEFORE BEAUTY!" another old lady exclaims
"You are very beautiful," the first old lady says, Jersey accent.
"I like your purple hair," she says.
The train leaves
And my heart calms
It is the city of aggressive love
People are fire humans here
"The major issue is that it makes it impossible to forget," Nina says. "You can forget things that happen whilst your eyes are closed. There's something about seeing someone… I don't know what it is. Communication with the eyes. But there's something about that - you get a feeling and you just can't forget it. It's just there now. Filed away in your memory."
"Maybe we need more eyes-open sex in games," I say. "In terms of designers being vulnerable. Taking risks. Getting hurt."
"Yeah, that's why we have so many Mario clones. Risk averse."
Nina tells me about a set of vignettes she once played. She said of all the little vignettes in a group that person had made, there was only one that rung true as a personal narrative: it was about a painful breakup.
"This," Nina says, pointing at the invisible creator of the breakup game, "THIS is the game that you WANTED to make. Whoever made this game went through an awful breakup and wanted to make a game about it - but then felt like they had to pad it with all these other games just to make it more like a 'game'. You can see that the personal story shines."
"in any case, i think i'll
trespass the cafe
where everyone is beautiful and
changing the world with a single
earth shattering click
because i want to
be cool too
i wear crop tops to
professional events and
listen to rave music at Staples
hi-chew for breakfast
sega dreamcast catcher
wake up and
'this view is extraordinary'
i sigh and
into the horizon of my
the sun slowly uploading
From Untitled, by Nina Freeman
I am in New York, freshly off the plane from Los Angeles and everyone talks about the Barcades, bars where there are arcade cabinets. I meet Nina at Barcade in Brooklyn where she knows a barman and we talk about scripting and feelings and scripting feelings. Later I get off the 6 at 86th Street alone and walk out onto the sidewalk and it begins to rain. It rains hard, and no one is on the streets but me.
When it rains hard in Manhattan it is Fuck Buttons' Brainfreeze.
The rain pelts down and the streets are BBC Micro black, the street lights cast faint white highlights, Elite style, on tall Gotham structures. The brown subway soup that my flip-flops have scooped into my toes is flushed out into the huge invisible puddles of broad Manhattan streets. I stop by the light of a shop window to be engulfed.
I remember showing my ID to the bouncer at the Barcade entrance and smile. The tarmac is being hammered; I am sure it will crack.
I spit water from my lips. People are making out hard in Manhattan speakeasies. They are making out to show other people. They are making out because there isn't enough time. They are making out for everyone. It is raining out here.
I showed my ID at the Barcade entrance. I know I am ready to be old. We are ready to be old.
Let's be old together.