There’s something taboo and forbidden about looking at someone else’s desktop, even a simulation within a game, and Nina Freeman’s indie vignette game Cibele provides an intimate look at online romance and relationships. The game, which is heavily autobiographical, takes readers through snapshots, literal and figurative, of the main character, a college student named Nina (acted by Freeman) as she develops a relationship with Blake, a player she’s met playing an online game.
Nina’s desktop, where you can explore folders featuring selfies, poems she’s written, archived online profiles, and other realistic digital ephemera, is the game’s principal interface. Players can choose to read her chat logs and emails, browse through her photos and old websites, and finally to play Altaveri, the game where Nina and Blake are quickly progress through stages of flirtation, courtship, and romance.
The limited nature of Cibele’s gameplay has been the locus of many users’ frustration with the game. The principal gameplay elements are exploring the virtual desktop environment, the game-within-a-game which is very, very simple and primarily in service of the voice acting, and filmed cut scenes to advance narrative.
It’s definitely “short story as game,” and players will advance through it in a couple of hours, so the $8.99 price tag is similar to investing in a movie ticket. You could theoretically race through it in half an hour, but to do so would be to miss the pauses and the thoughtful ways that time is marked in between individual scenes. The minimal interactivity means that if the player isn’t invested in Freeman’s authorial voice (as I definitely was), then there isn’t really a payoff in terms of clever or unusual mechanics.
Altaveri, the game-within-a-game, was inspired by Final Fantasy Online, but in a smart design choice it features stylized aesthetics and simple mechanics that make it easy for the player to slip into the mindset of the characters as mindlessly downing mobs provides a backdrop to the unfolding story—the flirting and the sometimes fraught silences that characterize the relationship between Blake and Nina.
On the most basic level, the story of Cibele is achingly familiar. Two young people progress in emotional intimacy with precipitate speed until sexual intimacy is achieved, at which point the lack of real, sustainable commitment becomes painfully evident.
But because Cibele is specifically dissecting an online romance, the material comes to life with unexpected freshness. We watch Nina pose for risque selfies and give them filenames like “maybemeh” and “blackandwhitetest” before sending them to Blake, and read her emails expressing the desire to experience sex.
Freeman scrupulously resists the urge to imbue Nina with any of the wisdom of hindsight.
Watching Nina fall more and more deeply for Blake, who makes his ambivalence about love and relationships known early on, is an uneasy experience laced with inevitability. As a woman, I found myself wanting to reach into the game and stop the vulnerable Nina from making her mistakes—even though I would not know them for mistakes if I had not made them myself.
It’s this raw authenticity, though, that keeps Cibele from any kind of moralistic overdetermination and makes the game an artful act of storytelling. Instead, it asks important questions—What does it mean to say I love you to someone you have never met? What are the boundaries of human relationship?—while avoiding the temptation to settle for an easy or reassuring answer.
Reviews Around the Web
Paste Magazine, Gita Jackson - recommends
There are parts of Cibele that are clumsy, too earnest, but I don’t know what I would change. Would it have touched me so deeply if it didn’t wear it’s heart on its sleeve so much, if it didn’t want to so accurately portray that kind of female, teenage experience, blog posts and all?
Game Informer, Kimberly Wallace - 7.75 / 10
I liked how Cibele is set up to explore the digital age and relationships, but it doesn’t let its characters offer much reflection on the subject matter. In addition, some of the live-action video feels like a missed opportunity to flesh out the characters, since they don’t add much to the journey beyond the growing sexual nature.
Gaming Trends, Sarah Marchant - 65 / 100
Cibele has some things going for it, such as a narrative structure based on interaction with the main character’s computer. It’s a fairly predictable story told in a new way. Some parts of it were intriguing, but overall it didn’t really wow me.