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Nina Freeman walks us through her work on Tacoma

August 9, 2017 | By Bryant Francis

If you were hanging around GDC this year, you might have seen Nina Freeman when she was hosting the Independent Games Festival Awards. Or you might have played her games Cibele and How Do You Do It. If you haven’t, you should know that she was one of the level designers on the recently released narrative adventure game Tacoma.

Since Freeman’s development history includes personal games, and now a mid-sized indie game, we thought the game’s release would be a good opportunity to talk to her about her artistic and development process. So today on the Gamasutra Twitch channel, we had a chat with Freeman about her work on Tacoma, which you can see up above. 

It was a fun conversation (if marred by some unfortunate bugs), but in case you’re taking a trip to the space station Tacoma right this minute, here are a few key takeaways for you. 

Tacoma’s “stand still to win” mechanic actually drives players to interact with characters

As you may have heard, Tacoma has an odd game mechanic where, if a player was so inclined, they could complete the game just by standing still and watching a data transfer slowly tick along. In a game where the goal is to get players attached to a colorful cast of characters, this seemed like an odd choice. But as Freeman explained to us, this possibility arose out of designing a mechanic that would better encourage players to interact with the game’s characters. 

Originally, progression in Tacoma was marked by a series of traditional passwords and numbers buried in the games’ computer logs, which the player is sent to track down. But Fullbright found that players would pay less attention to the ongoing narrative while hunting for these passwords. 

So instead, the goal was tweaked to encourage players to uncover every in-game computer log (rather than those passwords), which could only be found by interacting with the characters. This system, combined with the progress bar, got players back on the track that Fullbright intended, and helped provide a progress marker for players who were too impatient to just stand still and wait. 

Cultural references can help with level design and character design

Since Freeman has an academic background in poetry, and has created reference-laden games like Cibele, she had a lot to say when we asked her aboutTacoma’s cultural references in its dialogue and in-game objects. Freeman argued that because people reference the culture in everyday lives, it’s helpful when creating game characters (and the spaces they inhabit) to determine what culture or pop culture would be in their lexicon. 

Hobbies help developers let go

Any game developer can testify that working on a game is a time-consuming process. And every developer tries to find their own way to break away from development to keep from being overwhelmed. For Freeman, it’s important to maintain hobbies, or she says she’ll just want to work on her games until they’re perfect. Right now, in the rare moment when she's not working on a Fullbright game or any side projects, she says she's playing a lot of Overwatch

For more developer insight, editor roundtables and gameplay commentary, be sure to follow the Gamasutra Twitch channel.

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