Cibele is a game about the muddled reality of video games and online love

A computer desktop can hold a whole world

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If the name Nina Freeman is familiar to you, it might be because of How Do You Do It, a short and clever game about making dolls collide in ways that may or may not resemble sex. Freeman’s new game Cibele, released this week, is a more ambitious project, a semi-autobiographical story about falling in love. But it’s still a game about collisions — they’re just ones that are set in motion far before anyone gets close enough to touch.

Cibele fits into a loose category that could be called something like computer realism: fiction that’s set on the screens of our phones and laptops. The horror movie Unfriended, for example, used the language of chatting, scrolling, and app switching in place of verbal tics or physical action. Unlike some cyberpunk game about living in the Matrix, the conceit isn’t that the internet could be like a real place. It’s that it already is a place, but not one that fits conventional ideas about space or interaction.

Cibele

In Cibele’s case, we’re dropped onto the desktop of NYU freshman Nina, a younger fictionalized version of Freeman. There’s not much to it, besides a few folders and shortcut icons. But it’s enough to hold a snapshot of Nina’s life, from photos to chat logs to backups of her old personal website — some fiction, others drawn from Freeman’s own past. And eventually, you’ll find yourself clicking on the shortcut to Valtameri, an online fantasy game where Nina spends much of her time.

The central story of Cibele happens inside Valtameri, where Nina meets and falls in love with a boy she initially knows only as Ichi. Each of the roughly two-hour game’s chapters is a cooperative Valtameri quest with Ichi, beginning when you walk into a game level and ending when you defeat its boss by performing a sufficient number of mouse clicks on lesser hostile creatures. Valtameri is an online role-playing game stripped down to pure grinding; as Nina’s avatar Cibele, you move around its dreamy pastel landscapes until you find an enemy, click to target it, and wait as Cibele dutifully hacks away.

When level grinding is a good first date

Valtameri is obviously not a "real" role-playing game; you can’t fail, die, or level up. But it stylizes and emphasizes the parts of games that are less about challenge or goals and more about providing a pretext for interacting with other people. Nina and Ichi’s first quest together is full of uncomfortable silence, broken periodically when they mutter "Nice move!" to each other over voice chat — in a game where every single move is exactly the same, and you perform them automatically.

At the same time, Valtameri is a background distraction in the rest of Nina’s life. Emails and instant messages from other friends pop up as you play, but you tend to read and "reply" to them — by clicking a button to send a message pre-written by Freeman — as quickly as possible, always keeping one eye on the game. It’s a surprisingly realistic recreation of some of my real-life gaming sessions, but it also ends up echoing Nina’s growing absorption with Ichi.

Cibele

Nina and Ichi’s time together is both immediately recognizable as a fumbling first relationship and uniquely shaped by their long-distance intimacy. They talk to each other with a very familiar kind of aggressive teenage insecurity — flirting by way of casually insulting themselves, then waiting for and warily accepting each other’s compliments. But they also get to engage with each other on an abstract level, sending just the right photos and talking mostly inside the structured world of a game, where they can deny that they’re in "a relationship" at all. It’s not that teenagers (or older people) don’t present an idealized self offline too, but it’s a lot harder to pull off for several months.

The chapters are bookended by live-action video, mostly of Freeman. Poorly lit and nearly silent, they can feel like a strange dip into tragedy. Previews of Cibele sometimes made it sound like one of the many confessional stories about "female pain," and this bleak cast to Nina’s gaming sessions and slightly awkward sexy photo shoots reinforce the impression. It also makes it easy to start focusing on the gendered ways that Nina and Ichi present themselves — Nina is openly vulnerable, while Ichi projects a tough, misanthropic front. The more the game progresses, though, the more they commiserate over the same things: worries about their appearance, fear of rejection, and confusion about what they want from other human beings.

Desktop folders are unsurprisingly full of nostalgia

And even if the story is focused tightly on Nina’s growing relationship with Ichi, the artifacts of her digital life give us a more nuanced — and, for me, deeply nostalgic — portrait of her. Set in 2009, the game feels grounded in the end of the earnest, open LiveJournal-and-blogging internet, when online communication could feel both like intimate journaling and performing for an imaginary crowd.

Around the simple HTML in Nina’s website backup files, she enthuses about banal joys like buying a video game, apologizes for not writing more frequently, and then puts the site on hiatus, a literary cycle I both witnessed and participated in several times. She keeps scans of anime-style fan art done in crude, thick pencil strokes. She composes poems referencing Habbo Hotel and takes photos that were not yet described as selfies.

Cibele

It’s hardly a facsimile of my online experience, but these scattered files provoked a stronger feeling of recognition than any physical fictional setting I’ve seen. And while it’s tempting to call looking at them voyeuristic, it’s less that you’re snooping through someone’s computer and more like operating through a kind of dream logic where you’re both watching Nina and inhabiting her.

Of course, you don’t have to see any of it. And in fact, the pretense that playing Cibele is just messing around on a computer — not being Told A Story — saves material I’d probably find cloying in a novel or film. Cibele doesn’t have to present Nina’s melodramatic poetry or scraps of conversation as important pieces of plot and character development, they’re just quick hypertext extras. Like some online diary lingering on a forgotten corner of the internet, Cibele organizes pieces of someone’s life and drops them out in hopes that they’ll be interesting enough to draw a stranger’s attention. And fortunately, in this case, they are.

Cibele is currently available for Mac and PC.

Disclosure: Cibele was originally prototyped at NYU MAGNET, where my husband teaches. I also once voted against How Do You Do It in a Global Game Jam contest.