The Borderlands of ‘Cibele’

Cibele manifests the borderlands of youth in the shiny pink and purple screen of a young woman’s computer.

I like to think I have lived a life without regrets. But wow, I didn’t really get things right the first time, did I? No one really does. Coming of age, that long and never ending process, is more like stumbling through a half lit home than walking a beaten path. We fumble and grope around in the dark, hoping to find something we think we want and trying to compose ourselves as better people.

Nina Freeman’s Cibele is a window into that personal process, a game that manifests the borderlands of youth in the shiny pink and purple screen of a young woman’s computer. Cibele is very much an autobiographical story, but it resonates with an almost unsettling familiarity, especially for those who lived through the early Internet era of chat rooms and livejournal.

It’s hard not to think about your own first forays into affection and intimacy as you explore a replication of Freeman’s computer. Inside you find snippets of poetry, emails, and photographs of friends, herself, and the neighborhood. After taking a voyeuristic tour of her life, you enter Valtameri, the game within a game, where she fosters a relationship with Blake, a fellow player. The meat of Cibele is this relationship, and Freeman shows a great deal of bravery in her candid depiction of herself. The revealing selfies are real, and Freeman plays herself in the reenactment of her first sexual experience.

Much has be said already on the subject of intimacy in Cibele and rightly so. It’s refreshing to see a game developer willing to explore adult themes and personal experiences. However, I don’t want to overlook the way that the coming of age experience is realized in the digital elements of the game. The written and photographic artifacts of Freeman’s life, when opened, layer themselves on top of each other in an appropriate reflection of a young identity.

You’ll find silly pictures of Freeman taken from a webcam, right alongside snapshots of the street outside her home. Each window, sitting on top of others, demand your acknowledgement, and you’ll need to close each independently before navigating back to the desktop. There’s a real sense of moving on as you transition to each moment of Freeman’s life. You’ll need to dig deeper into folders to find old pictures that were once close at hand, and some will vanish entirely. There’s a photo of Freeman as a child with her mom, and it feels like one of the more intimate photos in the game. Even while she navigates her relationship with Blake, these are the components of her life that she brings with her.

The same layered exploration of coming-of-age experience occurs while playing Valtameri with Blake. While she talks with him over the phone, prodding at their mutual attraction and teasing at the possibility of meeting in person, other friends message her simultaneously. These chat windows appear over Valtameri. To give Blake your full attention is to sideline these other conversations, some of which cross the borders of privacy. Online friends gossip and one person even brags about seeing private and intimate photos.

Freeman’s conversation with Blake continues, showing none of the anger I felt myself while experiencing these transgressions. Instead, her avatar continues to wack at enemies, and you click around a labyrinth while Blake’s character moves across the screen unhindered by walls. While she pushes and pokes at the borders of her relationship with Blake, she also navigates the boundaries of her relationship with others. This negotiation of boundaries that we experience in our youth (and, yes, in our adulthood), is writ within the game’s very aesthetics.

I love the way Freeman’s avatar in Valtameri is bound in a way that Blake’s is not, and I love the way so many parts of the game feel like intrusions into our own experience of play in the case of chat windows or into Freeman’s life through her private photos. Growing up is a constant maneuvering of borders. We go towards what feels right, make mistakes along the way, and begin to create the map that is our self.

Cibele never creates a singular moment of enlightenment because there isn’t any. The slice that we play of Freeman’s life is one in transition, made not of a moment of sexual exploration in a cramped college apartment, but made up of friends, family, and all the other inhabitants of the borderlands of youth.

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