Cibele is Nina Freeman’s game about being a 19 year old college student who spends a lot of time in an online game, and who meets an Internet Friend who becomes more; and about what happens to their relationship next.
It intersperses non-interactive video (in which Freeman plays her younger self) with largely agency-free segments where you’re playing the game (mostly endlessly clicking on enemies to attack them) and hearing voice dialogue between Nina and her new friend. There are also some more exploratory elements – you can poke around a bit on Nina’s computer and look at her email and the selfies she’s been taking to send to her internet companion, but they’re fairly limited and none offer diegetic agency that I can see. This is pure dynamic fiction in which the actual events will unfold in the same way regardless of what you do.
I’m not the first person to see Cibele as a kind of bookend piece to Emily is Away. (I am, for the purposes of this article, not getting into the concerns I had about consent in Emily is Away, which the author has said were not intended; there’s more that could be said there, but I’ve already talked about it elsewhere. Cibele does not present similar issues – it does directly show you how some of the main character interactions go down – and in comparing the two pieces for the rest of the article I am comparing the rest of the experience of playing EiA.)
So. These games are both stories of internet relationships that go wrong between people who have some difficulty articulating their feelings to one another, difficulty listening to one another. They’re about people who are too young and inexperienced to be skilled at relationships yet. They both trade on the likelihood that the player has actually had a relationship somewhat like this, sometime in the past, whose details can be pasted in even though the actual characters in each game are minimally specified.
If you haven’t had that kind of relationship then it may not resonate much. There’s just not enough to the crush objects, in either game. Bruno Dias has written about the blankness of Emily, and while I might not have phrased these criticisms quite as harshly, I do basically agree that Emily is a nonentity.
In Cibele, Nina’s crush-object Blake at least has a visible face and an audible voice, which unavoidably makes him feel more like a particular someone. On the other hand, Blake has few topics of conversation other than a) his dislike of interacting with any other humans in the real world and b) the fact that he dislikes his own body but likes Nina’s, as seen in photos. Supposedly, they’ve also bonded over the game they’re playing, but as the tactics of that game seem to involve click-spamming whatever monster is closest, it’s hard to believe that there’s a lot for them to talk about here either; at any rate, we don’t see them doing so.
But is this really for people who have already been there? If you’ve had a youthful internet crush that went sideways when you met in person, then you might find it nerve-wracking to play as young-Nina: ignoring overt signals and explicit statements (it’s not that Blake doesn’t use his words); pushing a guy who is directly telling her that he doesn’t want a relationship; clinging to the idea that there is something so powerful between them that it will become undeniable if they meet in person.
Admittedly you have no control over what exactly Nina says to Blake, which lightened up the complicity. I was less actively frustrated by their conversations than I was by some of the conversations between the protagonist and Emily in EiA, where I had to commit to dialogue decisions I thought were terrible.
Still. Forget Blake, I found myself saying to the screen. Date someone who wants to date you and who is mature enough to be able to say so. Stop clinging so tightly to the mere fact that someone is interested in you physically. It does matter, but so many other things are also required.
At one point the Nina character confides to a friend that she and Blake are both self-deprecating and that this is a way they understand one another. I thought: yes, that is your point of connection, but not in the way you mean. The main way we see you interacting – ever – is to prop one another up in the face of insecurity.
I know my reaction here is not universal. Other reviewers have talked about how Cibele made them cry. But I found Blake a fairly boring person who mostly objectified Nina physically, someone with few obvious interests, someone who seemed to look down on most people. I wasn’t rooting for the relationship to succeed.
Of course I do realize that Blake’s inherent qualities aren’t the only things at work here. I know the appeal of having a secret internet friend who is outside all the rest of your life, someone safe, someone who occupies only the private hours of your life; someone you talk to at 3 AM but never during work; someone you can know differently than you know other people because the standard social stakes don’t apply to your situation. Someone you can tell about your midnight thoughts because you don’t need them to see you as competent and together. Someone who has no investment in your social group, so it’s safe to tell them about the things that are costing you sleep, without that counting as gossip.
I know all that stuff because I’ve lived through it, not because Cibele showed it to me; what Cibele mostly showed was that Nina needed Blake, not what it would feel like to need Blake myself.
One of the key things that I value in a piece of narrative art is the feeling that it’s being truthful, not in the sense that it contains facts or is based on actual occurrences, but in the sense that the author has closely observed how people are and is conveying something that goes beyond the standard tropes and expectations.
Both Emily is Away and now Cibele fall into a strange evaluative space, though, for me. They both represent with some accuracy the experience of not observing someone else well, the experience of having an emotional relationship that is mostly about what you’re projecting rather than about who the other person is – and then being extremely disappointed in the outcome. Usually when I read or play something with characters like Emily or Blake, I’m frustrated by the author’s carelessness in not making them more complete, more believable, more particular.
Here it feels like their incompleteness is maybe even part of the point, but it still leaves me feeling pretty distant from the story.
Perhaps this type of story places a greater than usual burden on the author to make the protagonist a compelling and well-observed character. Emily is Away gets in a bit of protagonist-characterization through the things that he thinks of typing but doesn’t complete; it’s minimal, though. Nina, meanwhile, is… well, we have her email, her blog posts, her selfies, her college poetry, all kinds of things if we’re interested enough to pick through them. And in any case she’s an actual person, the author of the game, someone you see in the video; someone whose writings and talks you could find online; someone you could possibly meet at a games conference. So in that sense, obviously, she is as fully-dimensioned a character as it’s possible to be. If you’re playing as someone who’s met her, even briefly, or perhaps played some of her other work, then you have those extra nuances in mind. But there are specific things about the protagonist of this story that I don’t really get – mainly the why, the reason that Blake appealed to her so much – or that I can only supply from my own pre-existing knowledge, rather than from within Cibele.
Or perhaps the most productive way to read Cibele isn’t against Emily is Away, but against other pieces that call in the selfhood of the author. Nina has made a game about (among other things) physical insecurities, objectification, and an unsupportive relationship with an absent man, by filming herself in her underwear, in collaboration with her current boyfriend. If we read that fact as part of the text, then there’s an implied arc of personal development rather longer than what we see in the actual content of the game. That said, The Beginner’s Guide contains plenty of warnings about reading in too much about the developer, and Nina herself has said (in the same interview just linked) that she wants people to relate to the character, not to her actual self.
So, I don’t know. Despite the comparison, I liked Cibele more than Emily is Away, and I can see the artistry and the courage in it. For my tastes, though, there is still an absence here.