In a quiet hotel lobby near the PAX convention center, developer Nina Freeman put a Macbook in my hands and asked me to play her new videogame, Cibele. I had done my research the previous night to find out what I could about the game, so the conversation before the demo was relatively brief and centered mostly on what I was about to play. I plugged my headphones in, took out a bottle of water I had been lugging around with me for the last few hours, and started what I think was the most interesting game I played at PAX 2015. If nothing else, it is the one game that persists in my thoughts even now.
“This game is autobiographical,” Freeman mentioned before I started. “I wanted to use this game to tell the story of when I started a relationship with a guy I met online,” she paused, “and everything that happens after.” The relationship’s genesis and progression occur in an online videogame titled Valtameri, a fictional stand-in for Final Fantasy XI, and is full of the kind of awkward, bumbling flirting you expect from people in new and difficult-to-navigate terrain. It is theater couched within the context of a videogame, but feels more authentic than that implies.
The game begins with an in-game desktop wallpaper that evokes the Japanese artist group CLAMP, well-trodden ground for teenage girls a decade ago. “Card Captor Sakura!” Freeman excitedly exclaimed when I mentioned the similarity, pulling out the anime-themed notebook to show me it was not simply a coincidence. I poke around the various folders on the computer—blog entries from a thirteen-year-old girl with self-esteem issues, selfies with the camera pointed from above and the head angled down, homework assignments. It does not take long to put myself in Freeman’s shoes, establishing the character before one word of dialogue is spoken.
When I finally log in to Valtameri, you begin a quest with Ichi, a player that my character has begun to desire as more than a friend. In the first of three acts, the two talk and flirt, Ichi goading my character into sharing pictures, occasionally steering the conversation into discussions of physical attraction. It is the torment of every shy person with hormones: an exchange with the potential to head toward something more intimate, a desired result following a nightmarish process. The conversation doesn’t take any shortcuts and comes off natural, maybe even scarily convincing.
While the two talk, I take control of the actual Valtameri character and play a truncated MMORPG experience alongside Ichi. While my character is more fairy-like, Ichi’s is a hulking fantasy trope, tearing through monsters with high-damage attacks. The gameplay reinforces the story by having Ichi play the alpha male in-game in concert with the conversation. As he dashes from encounter to encounter, he talks up his leadership skills, he guides my character on the map, he becomes an object contextualized in the world as powerful and worthy of awe to my character.
The first act ends with a video of Freeman posing seductively, if not a little awkwardly, for a photo to send to Ichi. There is a sense of excited perturbation in this act, unsure of how far she should go but pleased to be doing it for someone at all. “The story is told in three acts, with the last act being about the fallout of Ichi not responding to her after sex,” Freeman says, before quickly adding “That’s not a spoiler, because you will have that choice, and the sex is only part of it.” Most stories about teenagers eventually lead them to the question of sex, but the journey toward that act, and whether or not one chooses to go through with it, matters greatly.
Online relationships are no longer taboo or viewed as lesser, but that’s a recent development. Cibele spoke to me on a very personal level, having been in similar situations before, and I was kind of alarmed seeing it from the other side. To some extent, I even felt a little sick about how little of my ex-girlfriend’s feelings I considered when I looked through blog drafts about the character hating her body and observed her anxiousness upon receive positive attention. These thoughts stuck with me long after I handed Freeman back her computer and spoke with her about the game.
After playing the demo, Freeman and I sat down and talked about her design philosophy and making games with her life at the core. “It’s hard to say my games are autobiographical, though,” she admitted. “I don’t think of them like that, even though that’s technically what they are. I like making vignettes, like I did when I studied poetry, and being autobiographical is part of that. That’s how I tell stories. You design a game to give someone an experience and my games share my experiences.”
Cibele is a brutally honest love story that may very well end up not having a happy ending. I do not think it needs to, either. It attains a level of authenticity videogames rarely meet and uses the medium to explore it in a way non-interactive experiences could not. It is appropriate in its own way that a game about anonymous people falling for each other, for better or worse, comes from one person baring their soul as openly as possible.
Imran Khan is an Atlanta-based writer that tweets @imranzomg.