Cibele

I'm classifying this as a "spoiler-free" review. I've treated story beats much like that of a film review, with some key details being necessary to share, to be able to discuss the experience at all. That being said, some readers may prefer going into the game blind.

I just finished Cibele. Just now. Although a short game (around 90 minutes), I feel like it's a game that will sit with me for quite a while.

The game is presented as an autobiographical story from game designer Nina Freeman, with you playing the game through her 19-year-old eyes. You interact with the game via a desktop, only ever controlling a mouse cursor on-screen for the entire game. You have access to Nina's email, documents, photos and social media. It was literally this first screen in the game where I felt a knot in my stomach. Playing the game feels like an intrusion, a voyeuristic act. At first I was unable to determine if I was poking around the folders on her computer for clues on how to proceed, or if I was purely enjoying the thrill of nosing through intimate conversations with friends and discarded selfies. I felt guilty. Yet, I couldn't stop.

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More central to the story, you have access to an MMORPG game called Valtameri, which plays like a Diablo-esque mouse based fantasy game. Nina uses the name "Cibele" in the game and the moment you first launch, a player who calls himself "Ichi" invites you to a voice chat. You get the impression that these two players have been playing together for some time, as you listen to them chat while you play the game. I should mention that Valtameri is not fun to play. In fact, Nina herself mentions in a chat log that you can find, she doesn't enjoy the game that much, but enjoys talking with the players in the game. I too enjoyed listening in on the pair's conversation, while thoughtlessly clicking on monsters, playing with Ichi.

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The focus of the story is the relationship between Nina and "Ichi", as their conversations move gradually further away from playing the game and more towards personal details about each other, from photos to personal tastes and desires. Interestingly, I disliked Ichi from the very start, but Nina's attraction to him felt so genuine, that I wanted a romance to blossom. I wanted Nina to be happy, because I wanted to be happy. Yet, I felt that there was something upsetting about this relationship. The distance, the fact that neither of them had ever met. The awkwardness and inexperience in how they explore their feelings towards each other. It made me nervous. Decky Coss's haunting soundtrack which acts as the music for the game Valameri, drones as the couple chat adding a further unsettling feeling as the romance begins to grow.

This is the gameplay loop of Cibele. You logon to your computer and multitask playing Valtameri, discussing homework with fellow students, chat with friends and share photos on social media. This would fall apart as an enjoyable experience if it weren't for the realism of these interactions. I genuinely felt uncomfortable at times, discovering intimate details such as Nina's virginity and her social anxiety. The game feels like you are peering, uninvited, through the window of somebody else's life and I'm unsure if the intention is for me to feel bad about that. I'd be curious to speak to female gamers to see if the fact that I am watching a young woman share her first romantic experiences is the core reason for my response.

This feels like a good place to discuss the sexual imagery in the game. Ms. Freeman herself poses for the often sexual selfies found throughout, as well as acting as herself in the occasional FMV sequences. These are done sensitively and realistically. I don't feel that she tried to find the most flattering angles and lighting in order to present herself in the best light and I found the imagery to be intimate, yet honest - there is a feeling that her character may not be completely comfortable in her own skin. However, videos that have been made to promote the game appear to be edited in a manner that is enticing the viewer with the promise of titilation. I have no idea if this was the intention with the marketing of the game and if this was accidental, it is unfortunate. I found it disappointing and shots of Nina disrobing seemed unnecessary in these trailers. 

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Let's switch gears. My main takeaway here is that Cibele is a game that made me feel something. It's rare for me to react to a game in a visceral way. I failed to understand those who felt that Life Is Strange was an emotional experience, as well crafted as it was. With Cibele I felt anxious, awkward, guilty and excited. I don't think the game achieved the goal of making me feel like Nina, if that indeed was the goal. But for 90 minutes, I definitely felt like I was there watching her.