Cibele – What We Think:
In Cibele, from independent studio Star Maid Games, the main character, Nina, is a girl in college who recently got her braces off, wants to be an actress and hasn’t done a lot of dating. Or maybe any dating, for that matter. But there are a growing number of boys who are beginning to take an interest in her, and in response, she is slowly moving towards addressing their various manners of ego-seducing demands.
The premise of the game works by inviting you sink into the body and mind of a teenage girl who is hoping desperately to be something – anything, to someone – anyone. She is pretty, she is smart, and creative enough, but also self-deprecating, charmingly awkward, and otherwise “pretty normal,” all characteristics which are carefully rendered inside the game via the production of Nina’s poetry, fan art, journals and speech.
Love in the Time of Social Media
If you are not clicking through Nina’s old weblogs, family and friend photos and instant messages, you can log in as her alter ego “Cibele” in the MMORPG – “Valtameri.” It is here that she plays games with her online crush, “ichi” (Blake, in real life), who is also her online guild leader. You actually go through the mechanics of clicking and attacking creatures – though it is all scripted – and the story moves forward as messages come in via in-game private chat, e-mail and instant messenger, as well as sound bytes that create the sense that you are overhearing ichi’s conversation with Cibele via voice chat (presumably on a Skype-like app).
I did find the sound of the characters’ voices a bit older than who they are meant to be playing, and sometimes the male lead felt overly scripted, but otherwise, the sound design helped sell the effect of their conversations.
The many layers being created here – the various male suitors and girlfriends offering support or fueling the fires – are wonderfully authentic and push your head deeper into the immersion pool. Visually, artist Rebekka Dunlap’s illustrative style lends much intrigue and sympathetic finesse via the rich online world of Valtameri.
Killing Time in Cold Blood
Though the entire game is meant to be played in a single sit-down experience lasting about the length of a feature film (1.5 to two hours total), the online game actually can get a little grindy at times. In a way though, my own feelings of ennui, restlessness, curiosity, and anticipation for new messages to arrive via any communications channels, were induced by this game emulation.
Thus the real game, through requiring me to sit and stupidly click a mouse to kill the same types of monsters in a mindlessly repetitive online world (that clearly is taking away from Nina’s creative pursuits like acting and poetry writing and drawing fan art) manages to provoke emotional, physical and time-based sensations in combination in a way that cinema simply could not.
But yeah, it gets pretty grindy, and you’ll have to push through it, especially since you are not actually leveling up, earning loot, or gaining real status – cues that would stimulate you in a “real” MMORPG addiction. Like one of these dreaded new clicker games, you have to keep on clicking in the hope that the story will progress. I am not 100% sure this is true, but it felt as though things would just idle until I kept hacking away at those innocuous mobs.
Thinking of it the next day, though, I considered that the very impatience that this mob camping instilled in me – relieved by hearing ichi’s voice – was possibly a creative stroke of genius. Whether or not it was intentional, I subscribe to the effect.
A Mile in Her Shoes
There are times when the game feels like an exercise in arm’s-length voyeurism – clicking through the personal desktop folders, text documents and image files of a teenage girl. But at the same time, I had several moments where I actually winced AS that teenage girl, rather than an outsider looking in. Other times I wanted to yell at the screen, to tell Cibele to ditch the douchebags trying to mess with her.
Occasional full motion video (FMV) cut scenes give us an intimate and fearless view of Nina/Cibele as she goes through private and personal moments in her bedroom offline, attempting to manage the directives and impulses emerging from her electronic life. She tousles her hair, sprawls out on her bed, and adjusts her cleavage, trying to find a sexy pose to share via a selfie. But rather than feel sexy, it is sort of heart-breaking and lonely and powerfully visceral.
A Walking Simulator to Remember
The game is so aware of its subject matter, and – though it’s like a walking simulator – offers interactivity on multiple layers at once, and mind processed this differently, than when there is only one thread in play.
In interviewing Sam Barlow – creator of IndieCade 2015’s Grand Jury Prize Her Story about why he chose to work with FMV in his game, he said because he “wanted to work with subtext in a way that videogames couldn’t normally accomplish.” I imagine he meant that when we watch humans on camera, there are subtle inflections, nuances and facial gestures that belie these subtle communications.
But “Cibele” manages this in a different and effective way, by layering how information coming in conflicts and overlaps and puts you in a first person view that looks nothing like the “first person” clichéd mechanic as we have come to understand it. It is breaking and creating all sorts of very contemporary new points for departure in an evolving storytelling method.
I will say, however, that Her Story affords greater agency in that there is an overarching puzzle you must solve and it will come in the order that your mind parses the clues by searching through a database. “Cibele” is not a game in that sense, but rather a highly interactive narrative on loose rails. Ultimately, however, there is one way through, and for all your clicking, you are just an observer who must watch the outcome from between your fingers.
There is some great programming going on here with the AI too, which, though not close to comprehensive (just as the desktop for the virtual OS does not truly behave like a desktop with draggable windows) is nonetheless an impressive detail; in the virtual game the avatar for ichi will find Cibele, and events wait to be triggered appropriately on top of the pseudo-game action taking place. A cooperation meter triggers boss fights, which serve as a nice metaphor for the state of the characters’ interactions.
La Vita Cibele-a
The overall package is a real accomplishment for the small indie team. I believe Cibele will be viewed retrospectively as a keystone for the interactive vignette genre in years to come.
Watch the release trailer for Cibele