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Cibele made me blush.
The game’s filmed cutscenes are deliberately intimate, showing its protagonist, Nina, in various states of undress as she plays her beloved MMO Valtameri, occasionally taking sexy selfies for the young man she’s fallen in love with.
It’s a markedly awkward experience; I often joke, borrowing from mid century sociologist Peter Berger, that we social scientists are people who enjoy peeping through the world’s keyholes. Cibele literalizes that experience in a terribly uncomfortable way.
This was one keyhole I did not want to peep through, that felt wrong to peep through.
I instinctively turned my head away from the screen during the more sensual scenes, feeling as if I were somewhere I did not belong, violating a confidence; I only turned back when I consciously reminded myself that I had game designer Nina Freeman’s consent--this game was about her life, after all, willingly shared.
That staggering vulnerability, particularly in a game that is partially about her struggle with body image and self-confidence, is part of what makes Cibele a fascinating game. She plays and voice acts herself, after all.
But that intimacy, stretching like a silk sheet across all definitions of the word, is also what makes it a singular work of art about the subject of sexuality, presenting a rare glimpse of what a mature portrayal of sex could look like in games.
"The two teenagers try to recapitulate the old script repeated in countless movies and videogames, and discover they’re just a bit too human for it."
Cibele is a short game--a mere two hours, even if you’re a leisurely player--about 19 year old Nina finding romance in an MMO. You alternate between Nina’s desktop-- opening files, reading her poetry and perusing her selfies-- and playing Valtameri itself where you play together with Nina’s love interest, Ichi, grinding on identikit enemies while voice chatting and managing the social metagame of Valtameri. You answer private messages, browse emails, trade photos, all while trying to make the boss appear in-game and awkwardly flirting.
In between each of the three chapters is a live-action scene that illustrates some escalation of the budding romance between Ichi and Nina. The term “voyeuristic” has, unavoidably, come up in several reviews, including my own, but it’s important to point out that the game has you adopt Nina’s subjectivity; you’re inside her head for much of the game, the cutscenes are the only out of body experience, so to speak. The game is full-screen, making it all too easy to feel as if Nina’s old computer suddenly body-snatched your own. You’re making her moves, at her desk, inside her mind as she struggles with her loneliness and insecurity. Its empathic quality humanizes the much-derided teenage selfie-snapping girl.
You understand Nina on a certain level, but while the game’s intimacy does, of course, belie how much of her life it’s hiding somewhere off screen, what it foregrounds is how and why her sexuality emerges the way it does. Put another way, what you’re playing is the explanation for why Nina and Ichi ultimately have sex. That you’re in her shoes for this is nothing short of revolutionary.
The cutscenes’ very shape is determined by the awkward quest for self-knowledge that you walk down throughout the game. All those bits of trivia-- the selfies, the emails, the private messages-- are what give the game’s sexuality some meaning.
This is a game about a young woman’s experience, fundamentally; it is her role you adopt, after all, her eyes through which you see. But Ichi (voice acted expertly by Justin Briner) also emerges with nearly equal vulnerability, showing a side of young men that is only ever ruthlessly mocked if it is portrayed at all. He is initially presented as that most loathsome figure in MMO gaming: the tough-talking, foul mouthed, exacting raid leader who sees himself cursed to be surrounded by idiots. But as you play, you see that he is, in certain ways, Nina’s mirror; MMOs afford her the opportunity to thrive socially in a world where she is not judged for being a nerd who cheerfully describes her aesthetic as mahou shoujo, and they afford for Ichi the opportunity to socialize without getting too close to people.
You discover that, yes, like Nina, he too is a virgin and has never had a partner before, but that he also finds himself reluctant to commit to getting a girlfriend. He has no words for the way he enjoys his solitude and detachment, no way of quite naming the awkwardness he lives with--though you’re treated to an excellent dialogue between he and Nina where he certainly tries--but he’s deeply unsure about the prospect of meeting Nina in person, concretizing these nameless feelings he has.
He gets to be a socially awkward young man without being comic relief.
The beauty of Cibele, then, is what caused me to turn away from the screen with crimson cheeks; the people flirting and having sex were rendered so profoundly human that it felt like an invasion to see Nina’s sexy selfies or watch cutscenes where clothes began to come off. Ichi’s very name, which roughly means “first” in Japanese, is a clever pun that at first suggests he is a cipher, the anyman who could have been lost Nina’s first love. But as any of us who have been there know, first loves are relentlessly, aggravatingly human. Like Nina bursting free from the stereotypes of young Millennial women, Ichi defies his own archetype in bare chested photos, awkward flirts where he uses the term “nice rack” as if it were in a foreign tongue, and by being visibly conflicted.
Sex feels like something the both of them are building up to because it’s in a script somewhere, something they have to do, and yet the importance of their relationship, and their affection for one another, is real and unforced. They simply don’t quite know how to be together, how to alchemically transmute their virtual affection into physical form.
We never quite find out either.
Put differently, these two teenagers end up in Nina’s bed because they’re trying to recapitulate the old script repeated in countless movies and videogames, and discover they’re just a bit too human for it.
It’s the one thing that, I think, makes the otherwise abrupt and unsatisfying ending make sense. The game does not give us answers because Nina Freeman (and everyone else at Star Maid Games, one suspects) does not have them, merely a bit of hard won wisdom and experience. The lack of a denouement still feels like a tremendous let down; the energy and tension the game had built up sputters outwards into nothingness; I felt a longing to enter Valtameri's virtual world without Ichi, to see what it was like, what being Nina post-breakup was like, what story she told herself about that ill-fated afternoon with Ichi. I felt a bit directionless, as if the game had robbed me of something.
And yet it still makes its own kind of sense. The game’s sudden ending, like a spool of film coming undone, is where so many of us still are. Trying to make meaning for our own sexuality in a world of one-size-fits-none scripts and strictures.