Cibele

I'm a little bit in awe of Nina Freeman. She makes me feel justified in my appreciation of people just telling their own stories, whatever those are. Coming to game design via poetry, she makes vivid vignettes with a heavy amount of autobiographical content. Her games end up making me feel voyeuristic, and I often squirm at moments that are both deeply vulnerable and relatable.

Cibele continues the trend, though in a more polished and fleshed-out form than previous games like "how do you Do It?", "Freshman Year" or "Ladylike". Cibele would be described as short, but it's an order of magnitude longer than those previous examples. But the extra length doesn't dilute the experience; if anything it feels even more intimate.

Cibele is full of snippets of Freeman's own digital history: old websites, chat logs, photos and poetry. In many cases her body's on display, through collected selfies and the game's own FMV sequences, in which Nina Freeman plays this version of herself, exploring her first love and first sexual experience, and sharing how that can occur via an online game. It's a bit (realistically) self-conscious, but plenty powerful.

In a sense Cibele is one giant selfie. Careful about what it chooses to show, but authentic and vulnerable. It's a beautiful argument for how valuable selfie-culture is for exploring and taking control of your own image. It's a particularly feminine approach to growth, and so becomes an easy target for mockery. Silly girls who are vain and shallow, and probably ugly anyway. That people can be surrounded by those messages and still find pleasure in sharing the way they look, or other pieces of themselves, is wonderful rebellion.

Cibele Screenshot

I also appreciated the portrayal of Freeman's first love "Blake". He acted like a jerk, yes, but he's not a cheap villain, just relatably flawed and insecure. Yes, that's what I remember from navigating situations that became kisses and fumbling in the dark, before I learnt to have more honest and intimate conversations.

I came to online games too late for them to properly intersect with developing sexual experience, but in another reality this could have been me. Was still me, in a sense. Back in a time when I had awkward one-night-stands with inexperienced young men, who probably liked the idea of me more than the reality. Sometimes that was okay, and other times it hurt like hell. Mostly a bit of both.

Valtameri, the fictional MMO of Cibele, is stripped back to the essentials, meaning it becomes primarily about the social aspects, set against a backdrop of grinding enemies. Click on things until they die, and eventually summon a boss and click on that until it dies. All while trying to coordinate voice chat, emails and other messages. I was never good at that balancing act between playing and chatting, or holding multiple conversations at once, but it's understandably key here.

In the game world Blake/Ichi is in control. He has a reputation for bossing people around and gets angry at players who make mistakes. Nina/Cibele is more insecure about her skills and asks for reassurance that she's doing a good job. Her avatar tends to follow Ichi's around, since he can move more freely while she has to go the long way around. It's like she's always trying to catch up.

In relationship dynamics the roles are somewhat reversed. Both flirt awkwardly, but over time Nina adds more pressure, particularly trying to steer the conversation towards sex and pushing for them to meet face-to-face.

It is probably unsurprising that couldn't live up to the fantasy. Not because of the relationship's online beginnings, but because of all the warning signs about incompatibilities and wanting different things. I had an overwhelming memory there, of what it felt like to have an intense moment with someone (or think I did) and then suddenly be left alone, like it was all a dream. It's tragic but also feels important to recognise as a part of my history and who I am. I don't truly regret anything, especially with the benefit of some distance, and I feel that same kind of acceptance here of things from the past. Not pretending they didn't hurt, but not having to torn open by them either.