Editor’s Note: This article contains narrative spoilers for Cibele.
There is a contingent of gamers out there who brush aside games that tackle tough issues or that have the ability to appeal to both male and female gamers equally. So long as you’re not malicious about it, this isn’t an opinion that isn’t necessarily invalid, as you’re allowed to hate the games that some brush off as Tumblr fodder and weak interactive experiences. Still, by ignoring games like Her Story and The Beginner’s Guide, you’re missing out on some of the most novel games of the year. One of the titles that so many gamers seemed to ignore until Game of the Year conversations around the Internet begun is Cibele, the creative nonfiction title from Nina Freeman that details a sequence of her life as a nineteen-year-old college student. While Cibele isn’t going to be the game to end all video games, it’s still an experience that goes places that no other game in recent memory has gone, and the sense of voyeurism it inspires begs us to ask some extremely uncomfortable questions about ourselves.
Being that its title does absolutely nothing to suggest what it actually is, let’s dive into what Cibele actually entails before examining why it is so neat and novel. You essentially take control of a nineteen-year-old Nina Freeman’s computer in the midst of an online romance with another player in an MMO called Valteria (which is based on Freeman’s experience with Final Fantasy XI). While a great deal of this hour-long experience is spent defeating enemies inside of Valteria, which is the simplest, clunkiest stereotype of a PC MMO you could imagine, players also have the opportunity to snoop around Freeman’s computer between boss battles. This part is completely optional but just might be the most interesting part of the entire experience, as digging through a stranger’s chat logs, family photos and intimate selfies seemingly without their knowledge creates a unique sense of distress and intrigue. Yes, on the surface Cibele is a game about the perils of young online love, which is definitely relatable to a far more millennials than that contingent would like to admit, but the real draw here is the dissonance that it creates in your own mind.
Even though human beings are far more complex than we like to admit, there is a sense in nearly everyone that drives them to be a “good” person. The thing is, good is simply a construction of modern society, and the dissonance that we face in our own minds comes from the obvious difference between individuals and the collective hivemind (this is a far less intelligent statement that the big words might suggest). For the most part, it feels really terrible when you do something that the general public might deem as creepy, and Cibele is definitely a title that capitalizes on this. When you see a folder on this faux desktop that suggests that there might be suggestive photos inside, there’s a part of the average mind that wants to open it for the sake of seeing everything this game has to offer, and this directly contrasts with the idea that it’s totally not cool to violate somebody’s privacy. Even though Nina Freeman obviously knows that Cibele’s audience will see everything there is to see inside of it, there’s still a sense that you’re doing something inappropriate by engaging with this content. If that isn’t something that is super unique for this medium, then I’m not quite sure what would be.
One of the prevailing takeaways from Cibele was that Nina Freeman did an incredibly brave thing by creating this game. No one was forcing her to tell the story of her online love, and certainly nobody expected a title that contains embarrassing poems and suggestive photos that are straight up grounded in reality, so to put this out for public consumption is something that should be applauded. It’s totally okay to not be into games that essentially involve clicking and video-watching, but it’s pretty tough to deny that it took some genuine courage to develop this. As someone who is roughly the same age as the main character, I certainly would not want my most awkward secrets and exchanges put on display for the world to see (though to be fair, it’s all out there somewhere due to the nature of the Internet). The gaming industry seems to be very divided on the state of Internet feminism, which totally overshadows the fact that this is just a game by a strong human who wanted to tell a grounded story. How can anyone, regardless of their opinion on that issue, not appreciate that in some way?
Cibele totally might not be the game for you, and that’s perfectly okay, but it should be on the radar for those looking for an experience unlike anything else that came out in 2015. Nina Freeman took us to places that no other game dares to venture and the fact that it’s completely grounded in her own story makes the message that much stronger. First love can be painful, confusing and ultimately unsatisfying, but there’s also something deeply immersive and gripping about it that it inspires strong feelings no matter who you are. If you’re struggling to find something to play, which is totally something that can happen after the insane amount of AAA open world titles that came out last year, consider giving this bizarre hour-long experience a shot.