That someone is “Nina,” who is voiced and portrayed in short live-action video sequences by the game’s designer, Nina Freeman. Freeman said her game was born out of a graduate school class at NYU. “The game started as a prototype I made for Bennett Foddy’s prototyping studio class… We were making a small prototype based on a theme every week. One week, the theme was sex. I always thought that my experience of meeting up with an online lover and having sex for the first time would make for an interesting story, so I decided to build the prototype for “Cibele” around that. I was excited about the prototype and gathered a team to work on it beyond grad school, and together we made the game that is now released.”
The lover to whom Freeman refers was a man she met online while playing “Final Fantasy XI.” In “Cibele,” players follow the trajectory of Nina’s relationship with Blake, who is portrayed in pictures and video by Freeman’s boyfriend Emmett Butler and voiced by Justin Briner.
We learn about Nina through her chatlogs, poetry, and other digital mementos, which are sometimes charming yet always quite mundane. Players are free to click over or ignore these items at their leisure, and their lack of polish — the poetry spans the bad to the passable — gives them a ray of authenticity. But it’s through playing the (fictional) online game Valtameri that we discover the most about Nina.
Clicking on an icon near the bottom-left corner of the desktop image launches the game. At the login screen, players assume control of Cibele, Nina’s avatar. Using the simplest of point-and click mechanics, players maneuver Cibele through a minimalist abstract world where she is rewarded for cooperatively slaying enemies with Ichi, her online partner. That Valtameri exists primarily as a social space, an excuse for people to share other aspects of their lives, is expressed by the rudimentary nature of the mechanics. We’re here to listen to the conversation, not to play the game. (Speaking personally, that’s why I play “Destiny”— it’s just a means to do something with a California-based friend.)
Behind Ichi is Blake, an awkward young man with whom Nina develops a long-distance relationship. Their courtship is mediated through and beyond the game. Players can peruse the price alerts that Nina receives about cheap flights between New York to Los Angeles, read her friends’ complaints about her spending too much time in Valtameri with her beau, and view her erotic selfies. Those pictures, like the rest of her digital archive, are unglamorous, which adds to the aura of their intimacy. Still, Freeman’s fictional staging of earlier events from her life is in some ways reminiscent of reenactment segments in tabloid programs. However sincere her project is, it’s limited in its dramatic reach.
“Cibele” succeeds in showing how easy it is to overly invest in the idea of forming an intimate connection with someone online, but the dialogue, especially Blake’s, is stagey. For example, when Blake tells us that he is only good at dealing with people online, the tone is closer to that of a clinical summary than a confession.
As a result, “Cibele” is an important game, not a great one. None of its individual parts are exceptional in themselves. To a certain extent that’s a virtue when we reflect on the fact that most video games are constructed around heroics. The game’s conceptual force, however, is undeniable, presenting a clear blueprint for how video games can be used as a prop to explore everyday life.
Freeman is a game designer to watch.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.
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