Cibele is an extremely personal story told through the interactivity of the gaming medium, focusing on topics games often get oh so wrong - teenage love and sex. Told through the eyes of a 19 year old girl, this story isn’t simply fictitious - the game is essentially a retelling of developer Nina Freeman’s first experience with the complications of growing up. This gives Cibele a raw power and honesty which you don’t generally see in gaming, only adding to the checklist of reasons for me to tell you that yes, you should most definitely play it.
Cibele leads you through 3 “acts” if you will - each act first containing a view of Nina’s desktop, which you can explore to your hearts content before moving on; the fictitious MMO Valtameri in which the majority of interaction with other characters takes place (in particular the vocal interaction with Ichi) and an FMV cutscene wrapping up the events of the story section you’ve just witnessed.
The desktop interaction gives you an intimate peek into the psyche of the character Nina during this snapshot in time, and is kind of what you would expect from a teenage girl - a poem written up for homework, a folder for selfies, emails and IM’s from friends, backups of website material and posts. While working your way through this desktop is important to understanding Nina (as well as the other characters throughout the game) it almost felt invasive to be rifling through this characters personal files. This left me feeling a little weird about doing so - like I was actually perusing a private space in which I wouldn’t normally be allowed. Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t a negative - far from it. Diving into the desktop experience is key to discovering the motivations and personalities behind the characters of the game, so it is encouraged.
The MMO section of the game, Valtameri, is as simple as it comes in reference to gameplay - click on things to attack and kill them (don’t worry, they don’t fight back) with the entire point of this exercise being to interact with Nina’s love interest Ichi over voice chat. The monotonous gameplay (while very stripped down, very much resembles that of key components of some MMO’s) is basically a backdrop for you to listen to the at times awkward conversations shared between Nina and Ichi. The two take in turns to throw blunt jabs of flirty behaviour at each other in between conversation pieces - the kind of things you’d expect teenagers to say, and for the more experienced to cringe at. During these conversations you’re also interacting with other characters over an IM client, some of which are just as important to engage in. While you only say pre-typed phrases to the other people you chat to, it’s an important balancing act - do you stop paying attention to the conversation between Nina and Ichi to talk to a friend in need (who might disappear before you get a chance to respond if you’re to slow) or do you ignore your friends in favour of this guy that you like?
The final piece of the puzzle to round out the experience and finish off each chapter is an FMV cutscene of Nina that relates to the conversations you’v just been engaging in. Here, Nina provides a peek into some very personal moments, again moving beyond the curtain and facade that people play out in their own public lives to see another side of a teenager with every barrier lowered. Again, I almost felt intrusive watching these short, well made scenes that depict Nina in some of her most intimate and most personal of moments (These scenes are also acted by Nina herself). It’s a testament to both the fact that 1) games often don’t dig past the shallow surface level of relationships and sex, and 2) that this game is pushing those boundaries in such a meaningful and positive way, exploring relatively untouched topics that are extremely important to bring forward to the light.
Of course, the crux of what makes Cibele such a worthwhile experience is the topics it delves deep into. Real talk - sex is hard to discuss out loud. Most media portrays sex in unrealistic ways, the topic was quite the taboo one up until a few decades ago when we did start to talk about it, and we still have a long way to go before the idea becomes less awkward and more commonly discussed (this cake is yum, last night we did this position, etc.) Teenagers have a damn tough time understanding and coping with every other change in their life during that brief period - massive hormonal changes are occurring, education is becoming more and more difficult, the looming idea of adulthood and responsibility is ever present. Throwing something as important as sex into the equation, with media, sex ed and world culture bombarding their minds with a whole array of confusing messages, without really delving into the true nature of emotions, passion and lust, essentially leaves the next generation to figure it all out for themselves. Cibele is a safe environment for young adults to learn about not only what it means to meet someone and want to have sex with them, but what that means for other aspects of life - the way you interact with said person, the shifts in discussions and priorities when it comes to friends and schoolwork, what this very adult action and emotion means for a fresh and vulnerable mind. I wish this type of experience was introduced to me when I was at that age - maybe I’d have handled situations better; maybe I’d have understood better what I was doing and the consequences of my actions.
I feel like there is almost two ways to play through Cibele, resulting in two very different experiences - one, in which you are an observer witnessing the story (as I did) and the other actually embodying Nina in this point in time of her life. With the former, it truly felt like I was being opened up to the most personal of stories of someone who I don’t actually know - compelling me to discover more of the story to see what the game was building up to. On the flip side, embodying Nina really helps you connect with the other characters in the game, Ichi especially, driving you to continue the narrative to completion. Both ways are valid lenses through which to view Cibele, with both having valuable and worthwhile lessons to impart.
Cibele, much like a lot of indie projects that are exploring uncharted territories in gaming, does things differently to what most people consider a “game” - there is no fail state, for example. You can’t die in Valtameri, and there is nothing that can “go wrong” as such in the other two sections of the game. This is gaming distilled down to it’s base elements - the game tells you a story through interactivity. If you stop interacting, it stops telling the story until you continue. While a lot of people might argue that the fact that there is no “challenge” as such turns this experience into a “non-game” (a conversation we should be passed by now) this format is exactly the way the story of Cibele is best presented. Have you ever been working your way through a game really enjoying the story, but then been hindered from experiencing more because you get stuck in a seemingly impossible fight? This game doesn’t hamstring your ability to experience it’s meaning by gating access to the next chapter with a test of skill - it allows you to decide when you want to move on 100% of the time.
It is a terrible thing that some perceptions out there are still hung back on the “games are for kids” routine. But at the same time, that view is shifting. Games are - and have been for a while - exploring whole new paths of expression, education and experience that, frankly, no other media is able to do - thanks to it’s unique quality of interactivity. Cibele is the kind of game that I want to show to people who don’t seem to understand and say, "This is what games can be now.” Gaming is entering an age of new experiences that aren’t bound by "normal" conventions of design; where games don’t have to appeal to the mass market; where games that explore important and uncharted territory can be a part of the ecosystem. Cibele is a part of that charge, and is most definitely worth your time.
A free Steam key was provided by Star Maid Games for the purposes of this review.