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‘Cibele’ and rewriting the language of perspective in digital storytelling

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Cibele
Developer: Star Maid Games
Platforms: PC and Mac
Available through Steam, Humble Store, and Itch for $8.99

Nina Freeman (@hentaiphd) is known for her unorthodox approach to games and game development. The most noted quality of her games is their autobiographical nature, with many of them based on formative experiences from her past.

She calls her works “vignette games” because of both the small scale of the stories she tells and the short time in which she tells them; most of her games don’t exceed ten minutes.

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how do you Do it? (captured during my play of the game)

In this short duration of each game, Freeman gives players guided agency in her memories. In the 2015 Independent Games Festival Finalist how do you Do it, the player controls a young girl as she smashes two dolls together trying to understand how sex works before her mom comes home. The game itself doesn’t last a full minute. While this isn’t the half-assed open world experience that triple-A developers think players crave, this WASD-controlled experience creates a charming intimacy out of ramming two pixelated dolls together at different angles.

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Freshman Year (captured during my play of the game)

This intimacy-through-forced-perspective is seen again in Freshman Year, a choose-your-own-adventure style game in which the player controls Nina during her first year of college as she texts friends and goes to meet them at a bar. The game is a few minutes long, but it again finds Freeman creating intimacy and tension through the interplay of agency and autobiography, and her decisions on when which of the two is more important.

(The aforementioned games aren’t assumed knowledge for the essay, but highly recommended.)

With Cibele, Freeman creates her most personal game to date. The game tells the story of a relationship that grows out of an MMORPG, an experience from Freeman’s time with Final Fantasy Online.

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Nina’s desktop (captured during my play of the game)

The game opens with a computer desktop: a fictionalized recreation of the desktop used by Nina at 19 years old. It contains blog posts, chat logs, poetry, and real photos of Freeman. All of the icons are clickable and all files are free to be explored to the player’s curiosity and comfort level.

The game is divided into three chapters, each of which has two parts: exploring the desktop and playing Valtameri, the in-game MMORPG. Each chapter is pieced together by short videos of the events that happen between chapters.

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Playing Valtameri with Ichi (captured during my play of the game)

Once in Valtameri, players complete runs alongside Ichi, someone Nina met in the game, as the two are heard voice chatting.

The employment of Nina’s desktop as a hub world is a previously unseen, yet immediately understandable, form of environmental storytelling that fosters a relation to Nina through mutual embarrassment and the permitted breach of privacy.

The mutual embarrassment comes from the collective memory of growing up on the Internet. Blogging. Instant messaging. Taking selfies. Developing friendships with internet strangers. Some of these elements are familiar to players in the past or even the present, but Freeman brings back these memories with sometimes graphically personal and authentic photos, writing, and chat logs, with all the cringe-inducing text emoticons and the stiltedness of early online communications.

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Photos taken by Nina (captured during my play of the game)

In exploring these relics of Nina’s past and present, the player learns about Nina’s life and relationships. As the chapters change, so do the assortment of explorable social remnants in a masterfully orchestrated, yet seemingly effortless and unintentional mapping of Nina as a character. While the short films linking each chapter together show what the desktop and Valtameri can’t, these mundane mementos of her life are a clever distillation of exposition that show everything they can without seeming to show much at all.

But the exploration never feels like a violation. While the player is a silent participant and onlooker in the incredibly intimate narrative, the player also assumes the role of Nina in her story.

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Nina during a cutscene (captured during my play of the game)

This player-creator relationship is strengthened and stripped of its guilt through the game’s employment of complete subjectivity. The game is only playable in full screen and appears as if it’s simply the player’s computer desktop. When playing Valtameri, Nina’s voice is heard having conversations with Ichi.

By interacting with and having the same access to Nina’s computer as she would, Nina’s subjectivity is forced upon the player, bringing with it the emotions and weight of her narrative. In this regard, the game is a new form of first-person experience, all told through Nina’s interactions with her computer as they are carried out by the player.

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Playing Valtameri with Ichi (captured during my play of the game)

Modern first-person games, or the ones that stand as titans of revenue and player base, promise to submerge players in unrivaled, engaging experiences, but only attempt to realize the absorbing potential of the perspective through improved visuals and technical innovations (like Fish A.I.) 

This approach to player immersion fails to address its foremost inhibitor: the presentation of the perspective. With virtual reality still years away from mass market adoption and still working to prove its legitimacy to some, nearly all players use televisions or monitors for gaming. The simulation of an in-game character’s vision as seen through the frame of a stationary screen creates an inseparable and insurmountable barrier to player belief of the game’s narrative and world.

Cibele’s voyeurism is unlike that of any other game I’ve seen because the first-person point of view is not limited to the size of the screen. The game transforms the computer used to play the game into Nina’s computer. Cibele’s simulation of the platform on which it is played creates an unprecedentedly and absolutely first-person experience. By limiting the scope of the game to a desktop and a few runs in Valtameri, Star Maid Games expands the scale of the first-person experience beyond the screen on which it is played and into the life of the player.

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Reading a friend’s message while playing Valtameri (captured during my play of the game)

The first-person experience expands further from the screen through the integration of interruptions. Emails and messages can be checked and responded to while playing Valtameri and exploring the desktop, and responses to these messages further the conversations. Receiving an in-game message from a friend about wanting to meet up when you just want to play Valtameri comes with just as much disgruntlement as receiving one in real life. Being notified about an email from a professor comes with the same amount of anxiety and avoidance as a real one. This small touch of annoyance is an ingenious and evocative method of enveloping the player in Nina’s subjectivity. While each chapter’s initial exploration phase reveals much of Nina’s character, all of the explorable content is a remnant of a past occurrence; through the simulation of real-time notifications of instant messages, emails, and social obligation, Nina’s life, both inside and outside of Valtameri, becomes a present and immediate reality to the player.

Playing Cibele in my college apartment after class, just as Cibele’s 19-year-old Nina played Valtameri, just as the real 19-year-old Nina played Final Fantasy Online, I found myself engrossed in the experience because of the language used to communicate the player’s role as both observer of the character and participant as the character. In creating Cibele, Nina Freeman and Star Maid Games have found a new way to portray player role and, in doing so, told a story that would be either impossible or unimportant to tell otherwise.

-Seth Shepherd

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