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Exhibitionism and the Video Game Confessional: Nina Freeman's 'Cibele'

Cybele reminds us that it's difficult to confess one's awkward moments in public, but of course, it's also potentially exciting to risk doing so, too.

This post contains spoilers for Cibele.

At first, playing Nina Freeman's Cibele can feel creepy. You find yourself looking onto a very pink, very anime-themed desktop, poking through the files, images, and folders stored there by a teenage girl.

It is, however, a smart and clever way to present the backstory of the player character, a young woman named Nina and a doppelganger of sorts for the game's developer, Nina Freeman. It just feels a little intrusive, a little too personal, rifling, as you are, through someone else's old high school photographs, teenage poetry, and the thoughts of an adolescent about sex and anime.

Just like rifling through someone's nightstand drawers, getting your hands on someone's personal computer allows one a glimpse into the sorts of things that define an identity. What people value and what they keep do at least paint a partial picture of who a person is. The developer inviting the player to do so (especially given that these are real photographs of and real poems belonging to Freeman) also suggests a bit of exhibitionism on the part of the designer. However, exhibitionism and a confessional style of video game seems appropriate in this case, given the game's thematic interest in adolescent infatuation. Adolescence is a period of time in which individuals expose bits of themselves, hoping for approval, admiration, and a confirmation of their identity. Adolescents waffle between hiding who they are and exposing what they dare to expose to others all the time. All of this seems a part of the process of identity formation.

What follows this initial sense of playing something of a peeping tom is far less potentially creepy, though, as the game begins to create a real sense of the familiar. While one part of the game concerns poking around Nina's hard drive to get a handle on who she is as a person, the player can also launch a faux MMORPG called Valtameri from her desktop, allowing the player to take on the role of Nina playing as her in-game persona Cibele. Why these moments are familiar is not specifically related to playing Valtameri itself, instead the familiarity arises through conversations that Nina has with another player called Ichi as she plays the game with him.

Nina and Ichi are clearly interested in one another, and listening to their back-and-forth chitchat is like listening to one's self at 15 or 16 or 17 having a conversation with someone you really like on the phone. Exhibition is central to this awkward ritual of courtship as Nina fishes for compliments and Ichi tries his best to pay them and to sound cool himself. The two walk desperately around outright admitting their desire for one another. They expose little pieces of themselves or the personas that they want to project to each other, while also desperately hoping for some indication of their own desirability from the other one.

There is a real authenticity to these moments, vaguely embarrassing as they are, because the dialogue is exactly like that of a young woman and young man cautiously testing their position in someone else's eyes. It's so authentic that it kind of hurts to watch itself play out. You've been there, after all, at some point, with someone.

Nina sends racy pictures to Ichi, and Freeman presents to us these conversations based on events in her own life. Both of these are daring and exhibitionist acts. Cybele reminds us that it is difficult to confess one's awkward moments in public, but, of course, it is also potentially exciting to risk doing so, too.

The name Cibele is that of a goddess, but it is also apparently supposed to be pronounced like the word “sibyl,” which suggests a kind of grandiosity to these proceedings. Classically, the sibyl is a female prophet, a speaker for the gods, and, perhaps, the familiar quality of awkward adolescent courtship does suggest a universality to the game as a lived experience. However, this sibyl's message suggests some small amount of naivete for someone supposedly possessing divine knowledge.

As Nina and Ichi's relationship intensifies online, she suggests that the two, who have been playing Valtameri and flirting with one another for nearly six months, should actually meet in the flesh. Ichi becomes withdrawn at this suggestion, hinting at struggles, perhaps, with a social phobia and he suddenly protests that he isn't interested in a relationship. He grows concerned also when the topic of sex is brought up should they ever meet in real life.

While seemingly quite content to have Nina exhibit herself for his appreciation of her, the idea of contact with her actual flesh causes him to hesitate and bluster about his own supposed fear of commitment. Nina never indicates what she makes of this, simply expressing her surprise that a guy as “hot” as Ichi, wouldn't have had sex before or have had girlfriends in the past, but my immediate thought was simply, “He already has a girlfriend. Sorry, Nina.”

When Ichi finally breaks down and buys a ticket to see Nina, the two meet, talk, make out, and, of course, have sex. In the morning, Ichi acts distant, Nina asks why, and he says that he has fucked up because he isn't in love with her. He leaves, and the game fades to black leading to a brief message about how a first love is difficult, but that Freeman is happy to have experienced such a love (assumedly) with whoever it was in real life that Ichi represents in the game. However, when I heard Ichi guiltily say that he had “fucked up” and that he didn't really love her, I thought, instead: “Oh, he did have a girlfriend, but he bought a plane ticket, slept with a girl he was flirting with online, and then he felt guilty about it. The end.”

And in this more cynical reading of the events recounted in Cibele lies my chief criticism of it. It's a clever game, told in a clever way, that produces a very authentic representation of a fairly universal experience, but it feels like that in presenting the story in as raw a form as Freeman has that events here haven't yet been considered with any maturity, only idealism.

By maturity, I simply mean acquiring some distance in time from such an event, allowing for the artist herself to reflect on them from a position of more wisdom and more experience. I'm not saying that my cynical view of Nina and Ichi's relationship is necessarily correct. I simply don't think that Freeman's final reflection on what happened suggests very much about what this event means one way or the other, probably because she doesn't quite know yet herself. I'm not sure that it has been fully digested yet and that maybe some additional cooking time would have helped.

Freeman isn't the first artist to write confessionally, to exhibit her own experiences by creating a piece of fiction out of her own life, but it seems that a lack of distance from those events have led to a game that doesn't seem to offer much insight on events that are familiar to so many of us. The game knows how to express itself well enough, but the reason that it doesn't really enlighten us in any way seems to be because there is no sense of transformation of the character of Nina herself.

Reading the simple “thanks for the memories” conclusion, it seems that Nina hasn't seemed to have really gone anywhere from this, as this conclusion seems to merely idealize past events. That Nina is driven by the ideal is something that we got the notion of right from the start of the game by looking through her hard drive at the carefully selected pictures of herself, her poses, and her drawings of magical girls. Nina at the beginning was a girl infatuated with presenting a certain idealized image of herself and her world, and Nina at the end is a young woman that still seems infatuated with presenting a certain idealized image of herself and her world.

Infamously, when Anthony Burgess sold the rights to his novel about adolescence and ultra violence, A Clockwork Orange, to an American publisher, the publisher decided to release an edition that did not include the novel's final chapter. Like the Stanley Kubrick film, the American version of the novel ends with its main character essentially back where he started from at the beginning of the book, still immature, still prone to violence. The original version of the novel includes a final chapter in which the protagonist makes a realization about himself and matures as a result.

In his 1986 introduction to the fully released version of the novel, Burgess notes what he found most troubling about the novel being abbreviated, essentially arguing why the earlier released American version was weaker than the original British novel:

There is, in fact, not much point in writing a novel unless you can show the possibility of moral transformation, or an increase in wisdom, operating in your chief character or characters. Even trashy bestsellers show people changing. When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or the allegory. The American or Kubrickian Orange is a fable; the British or world one is a novel. (“A Clockwork Orange Resucked”, A Clockwork Orange, W. W. Norton, 1986, pg. Xii)

While Freeman's Nina doesn't necessarily feel unregenerable and her character doesn't necessarily seem set in stone for life, she doesn't really move much over the course of the game. I don't see in the game's conclusion a real transformation or an increase in wisdom; I see a still very idealistic girl. Maybe, though, Cibele is simply intended as a fable or allegory. It's just disappointing to me because it initially seems to promise an investigation of identity and exhibitionism that might uncover something a bit richer, perhaps, more oracular, than those genres typically allow for.

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