Ichi keeps running ahead. He moves through Valtameri’s environments—crystalline caves, fae overworlds drizzled in pinks and yellows—with practiced impatience. I’ve played online games with people like this before. They’re so well versed in their game of choice that, to them, anything less than the most efficient behavior looks insane. He never exhorts me to keep moving, but I can feel his pressure with every click. It makes me immediately dislike Ichi, which is a reminder—one of many in Cibele—that I am not the character I’m playing as. Nina wants to keep close to Ichi. I’d rather run the other way.
Cibele is an autobiographical exploration of first love and romance on the internet starring a semi-fictionalized version of its creator, Nina Freeman. It places the player in her shoes, giving them access to her computer and a game she’s been playing, the fictional MMORPG Valtameri, which is where she met the young man going by the handle Ichi. But that doesn’t make the player Nina. If anything, the intimacy of the experience is a reminder of all the ways they’re not.
Cibele is what poets would call confessional, focused on dreadfully intimate revelations and discussing the kinds of truths that rarely come up in polite conversation. One of the first things you have the opportunity to do is look at Nina’s selfies. Some of them are meant for public consumption. Some of them are definitely not. The rest of the game is made up of equally private ephemera: late-night online conversations, chat logs, unfinished blog posts. Together, they paint a personal portrait of their creator, her sexuality, and some of her most dearly held formative experiences.
One of the reasons why confessional storytelling is so rare in games might be because of the way it puts a lie to one of our most commonly held assumptions about players and the characters they control. We generally imagine that, when you play as someone, you are becoming them—adventuring as Lara Croft, saving the human race as the Master Chief, etc., etc. Confessional narratives shatter that illusion with experiences so specific and so tied to their creator that the distance between the player and the character is always present. When we see Freeman’s pictures and hear her voice, her personhood is inescapable. You may occupy her world—role-playing as her in Valtameri, sitting in her chair at her computer—but you never become her. Instead, you exist in a between space, both inside and outside, not her but not separate, either.
Within the context of Cibele, this is a powerful alienation. The young woman the game presents is using the internet to sound the intensities of romance and close friendship, exploring her feelings about embodiment and privacy through mediated relationships. She’s figuring out how her social world melds with her inner life, which we get glimpses of through snippets of poetry and cherished photographs—the things that don’t get deleted off her desktop even as months pass. And by emphasizing the space between Freeman and the audience playing her part, Cibele creates room for the most intimate of responses to these formative events. Instead of being “immersed” in some other character and world, we’re never given the chance to escape our own identity and the experiences we’ve had that relate to Freeman’s.
It pushed me to realize that I had a similar period in my life. I spent an inordinate amount of time as a teenager participating in an online Kingdom Hearts fan community. My best friends were there—and some of my first loves, too. I sought out relationships online because I thought it was safer than the real world: separate, easier, freer. They became my most cherished and private connections. For a few years as a teenager, I imagined myself living a double life, an awkward teenage boy in one world and a creative, vibrant young man somewhere beyond the bounds of an LCD monitor. Playing Cibele highlighted the dissonance of my young identities and the way I used technology to shape them. I was neither; I was both.
Cibele demands such reflection. It invites the player to commiserate the way they would if a friend showed up and spilled their darkest secrets. Even if you can’t relate, Cibele still insists on a personal response. If anything, my tendency to distrust Ichi made every moment with him feel all the more intrusive and significant. I wanted to see myself in his relationship with Freeman. Or maybe I wanted to see what she saw.
This is a game about that drive to connect, to see others and yourself clearly. It’s an experiment in how a creator might put themselves into a work and make a game that speaks honestly about their real life to the people who play it. Through Freeman’s relationship with Ichi, it also illustrates how the distance between people shapes the way they understand each other, and how collapsing that distance can be a profound risk. It’s the same risk that permeates a project like Cibele, both in the creation and the playing. In sharing so much, with a friend or a lover or an audience, you give up just as much control. What if they don’t like what they see?