Video games can be great and important works, but not all of them are. Games For Adults is Playboy.com’s regular column highlighting the ones that can make you think about more than hit points and head shots.
Most game developers would say that part of what they strive to do is allow players to feel like they’re present in another world. For indie developer Nina Freeman, that’s the whole point.
“I’m interested in making games that explore player-character embodiments, so games that help players embody characters in order to sort of understand them better and step into their shoes for a little bit,” Freeman told me. “For Cibele, my original goal was to make a game that would help players embody my experience meeting and having sex with somebody who I met in this online game.”
Released on computers earlier this fall, Cibele is a brief game that, in a few acts, portrays Nina’s journey through a relationship. You play as a character named Nina Freeman, clicking around on her computer’s desktop, reading her emails and looking through her photos, and playing an online game-within-the-game while you listen to her chat with another player.
Mostly you just click on stuff and experience the relationship through Nina’s eyes, from its beginning in the game to its ending months later in her room. Between acts the story is punctuated with real-life video interludes of Nina Freeman the character—played by Nina Freeman the actual human video game developer—sitting at her computer in her underwear, assessing her body in the mirror and making out with a guy.
Playing Cibele is one of the most intimate entertainment media experiences I’ve ever had, and it’s more or less a true, autobiographical story.
“I’ve been using the term ‘based on a true story,’” Freeman said. “It feels more accurate to me because, like, ultimately I don’t have recordings of all my exact words I used or whatever in all these situations, so there’s definitely authored stuff in there. But it’s all based on real stuff.”
Cibele began as a prototype when Freeman was in grad school at NYU, in a class where they made a new game every week based on a different them. The theme that week was “sex.” She recruited a team of her friends in New York to help her turn it into a full game.
The decision to put her actual physical herself in the game was a practical one that came later in development. In the game-within-the-game that you, through Nina, are playing on her computer, you see her in-game avatar, a fairy-like character with pink hair like Nina’s. At that point in development the avatar was the only representation of the character that players saw.
“But it’s not really about the avatar; the avatar is part of the context, but really it’s about this person, right? Like, it’s about Nina, e.g. me. So it was like how do I make it clear that this is about a human?” Freeman said. “That’s when I decided to go with this suggestion of first-person perspective through having this short film that shows me and then goes to the desktop, sort of presenting you with who you’re going to be playing as, and then putting you in her seat.”
“When I realized that I needed to do that I was like 'OK, someone’s going to have to play me, and it might as well be me,” she continued. “Obviously filming a makeout scene and scenes where I’m not wearing very many clothes was like, kind of a new and weird experience for me, but it was really important for me to do that because bodies are so important to the story—knowing that there are physical bodies involved, and that you’re playing as this real human, and this is what she looks like…ultimately it’s a game that focuses on sex and relationships and vulnerability, so it’s like, yeah, I played online games with no pants on! I wanted to depict that honest experience of an actual person, of me, and what I was doing during that time.”
Cibele is an incredibly personal story to convey in a gaming landscape where stories of pirates, assassins, space soldiers and superheroes are far more common. But it’s the exact kind of thing Nina strives to create. She’s made games about her relationship with her mother and other super personal experiences, but Cibele resonates with a whole generation of people—the generation that was growing up when the internet was new, when meeting people online was still considered weird and dangerous and taboo.
In the game, when the characters plan to meet in the real world, they discuss what lies they’ll tell their parents about where they’re going, because “I’m going to meet this person I met online” would have sounded alarming back then. Now that’s just part of dating—not that it isn’t still slightly terrifying.
“That’s going to be true of getting intimate with someone no matter what form of communication you’re using,” Freeman said. “Becoming intimate with someone is sort of just a scary and confusing thing all the time, and doing it in an online game or anywhere, it’s always going to pose a challenge.”
So much contemporary fiction depicts technology as a negative force in our lives, something that drives wedges between us as we get lost in our phones and value Instagram likes more than actual human interactions. What I love most about Cibele is that even if Nina’s relationship ended in an unhappy place, the game is optimistic about the role technology can play in our lives and in our relationships. The game concludes on a mostly-black screen with a simple epitaph:
“This experience, I always thought of it as an interesting story, because it was such—it felt like kind of a crazy thing to happen, like, to have someone fly across the country to meet me,” Freeman said. “Especially having, you know, grown up a bunch since that happened—it’s been a very long time—and having had lots of other kinds of relationships, both with people who I met online and in real life, it always just struck me how in the end, that relationship that started online and seemed so crazy to me at the time—that felt like lots of other relationships I’ve had.”
Cibele is available on Steam and at ninasays.so/cibele.
Mike Rougeau is Playboy.com’s Gaming Editor, in charge of all things video games. He lives in Los Angeles with his girlfriend and two dogs. Follow him on Twitter @RogueCheddar.
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