TBT – Cibele Retrospective
“It’s easier to talk when you aren’t looking at someone.”
Cibele is immensely quiet. Silence defines a majority of the venture, interrupted only by the diegetic mouse clickings which, like 2015’s other meta masterpiece, Her Story, serve as a consistent reminder of the player’s invested relationship with the titular protagonist. Although, “Cibele” is not necessarily the name of the player character, only an online username. Nina, the persona outside the screen, whose daily introspective habits are portrayed intermittently by third person, real Life cinematics; she exists within the frame of a constructed avatar, a personality both nonexistent and entirely genuine, if prodding through her desktop files serves as any legitimate reference.
The result is a retained essence of dread, throughout an isolated bedroom drama imbued with foreboding tragedy. And that tragedy does eventually surface, only without the theatrical happenstance of Shakespeare or the like. A subdued, appropriately quiet finale leaves our heartbroken heroine back in her room alone, though fortified by her sense of maturation. If Cibele is largely an examination of acceptance as a major key to self-development, then its richly-metaphorical plotting functionally questions our own relationship to the screen, how online users actively undermine their own authenticity through roleplaying.
The intimacy of the game’s plotting demands a headphones experience. To completely step into the role of the undervalued, insecure Nina (as portrayed by the writer/developer, Nina Freeman), one must hear her words breathed into their own ears, as she responds timidly to her beau’s cautious flirtations. The game is obsessed with the avatar, the means by which online personas are developed and managed, sort of like a game in and of itself, taking on the role of a character and interacting with others who are conspiring in the same vein.
“I don’t like leaving my security zone. Im less antisocial more….anti connections.”
Throughout, Nina juggles with emotions just as she juggles with online companions, navigating between MMO grinding, emails, social media, and voice chatting with her love interest, Blake. Valtameri, the fundamental game-within-a-game, supports an entire ecosystem to manage her established digital personality, emphasizing the computer as a conduit of cognitive motion, like a sea of riptides and crashing waves, all without ever having to leave one’s seat.
Much criticism has been pointed at the game’s prescribed amateurism, citing the FMV sequences as underdeveloped or distinctly ‘low-budget.’ This sort of nitpicking, however, only emphasizes the industry’s regressive obsession with polish, unjustly equating professionalism with monetary resources. In the case of Nina Freeman’s finest auteurist work, intimacy is conjured from the interior setting, and vulnerability is captured through her semi-autobiographical performance as her own protagonist.
The tender awkwardness between Nina and Blake necessarily defines their distance while simultaneously depicting their longing for connection. The single scene which takes place outside of the confines of Nina’s bedroom recounts the star-crossed lovers meeting in person for the first time, right outside her apartment. The brief moment offers a tinge of optimistic sincerity, before retreating back inside to enact a defloration scene singed by the virulent synth score which suggests fortuitous consequences.
Cibele‘s rather abrupt conclusion dissolves with the immediacy of Nina and Blake’s relationship. Freeman does not linger on the after effects, does not proceed to illustrate the lasting emotional resonance by diving back into Valtameri alone in a sea of pixels. But the revealing pictures on her desktop have served throughout the game’s entirety to implicate the longevity of longing. Her longing has been solidified within the digital universe, digital roots to grow and shift alongside her physical human body.
Exploring Nina’s sexuality and personal Life through the excavation of her private data appropriately humanizes her assumed character by turning the computer screen into a sort of makeshift mirror. Playing — or rather, exploring — Cibele can be quite uncomfortable, pulling up numerous selfies and digging through old blog posts describing Nina’s self. The venture often feels simultaneously intrusive and eye-opening, an intimate source of building empathy, deliberately portraying her personal development, laying out the protagonist’s insecurities as a means of describing her maturation.
Simply put, the personal becomes universal. And while game does appear to be simply put together, like with any person, digging deep into the inner machinations and subconscious renderings of this methodical artifact reveals a complicated vessel of befuddled sentiments, eagerly vying for acceptance and indeed love. The game’s greatest claim can then be argued as commenting on an intrinsic allure towards making one’s self vulnerable, all in an effort towards establishing connection. Who hasn’t peered at their naked flesh in the mirror with hesitation and insecurity?
Cibele does not so much defy conventional aspects of game design, but reinterprets them. Embraces their familiarity to uncover human frailty. The player and protagonist are neither separated nor intertwined, in fact they are both. Ludonarrative dissonance is actually utilized as a sort of tool, in order to acknowledge Nina as a separate entity from themselves. Tedious MMO gameplay serves as a gateway for communication to coagulate, a distraction for the image-less drama to unfold, a stage where the id may bask in its frantic, liberal pursuits.
The culminating experience is a mythological treatise. The Finnish title, Valtameri, translates to ‘Ocean’ in English; the server the duo meet on is called Medusa; Cibele is likely named after a Greek mother goddess who is often associated with fertility. These deliberate metaphorical factors emphasize a pervasive connotation involving human interactivity. By placing players in the very shoes — rather, computer chair — of a young woman yearning for the next step in her sexual blossoming, Nina Freeman exposes the intimate moral circumstances which arise from the early stages of arousal; philosophizing on social perception, timeless dramatic associations, and naturalistic sexual tendencies amongst developing youth.
“First love is a very confusing thing, and sometimes it really hurts, but I’m glad I had mine with you.”