Cibele Critique, Review, and Analysis
There was a time when the internet felt humane. I do not know if it was the world wide web’s ever changing nature that got us here, or just my growing up, but somewhere along the way the web’s messy hysteria disappeared, and was replaced with a shared —but calculated— consciousness. Back in the day, as we discovered our new connected lives, anything felt possible.
It is the nature of things that, as they get defined, they lose some of their sublime power. In the internet’s case, it has so often been the epicenter of humanity’s worst traits that it became usual —and positive— for us to detach ourselves from it. What was once a blurry realm of infinite possibilities progressively became a very clear set of limitations. It is a human tool littered with prejudice, hatred, harassment and just plain abuse. Engaging with the human part of it means being exposed to its worst aspects, and thus came the rules: do not read the comments, do not discuss anything remotely touchy, do not go against the general opinions, do not engage with anybody you do not know in real life, etc. Obviously, we do not follow any of these constructs, but every time things get messy, every time the internet gets hurtful, we go back to the mantra: we will not invest ourselves that much ever again. We get detached from it.
It is our own little stoicism, something we often fall back on when things get too emotionally draining. Relationships are an obvious instance of this — after a few we tend to get disenchanted, afraid to invest ourselves enough to be completely heartbroken again. You start to get numb, seeing your past self as naïve, “he or she was obviously not made for me”, and prone to disappointment. “Never again,” we say after a particularly painful break-up. Better stopping than living through this again.
There is value in naïveté though. The expression has developed such a negative connotation that we too often forget the importance of —and the great things lived during— our immature experiences. Cibele reminded me of that.
Developed by Star Maid Games and directed by Nina Freeman, Cibele is an incredibly personal game. It tells the seemingly true story of Freeman’s life and, as such, it can get easy to equate your appreciation of the game as an appreciation of her character — this would be misguided, though. The mental exercise of trying to differentiate what really happened to Freeman from the fiction itself quickly becomes meaningless. It will be insufferable for some and thoroughly relatable for others —as it should be— but in this case, there is definitely something daring about exposing yourself out there, especially in a medium often unappreciative of this kind of introspection.
It can and does get uncomfortable. The game will have you sift through photos —mostly selfies, some failed, some better— and very personal notes of Freeman’s. In what feels like a very earnest process, she exposes a lot of her young self in the game and while it would be easy to detach ourselves —looking at her with distance— her self-examination serves as leverage for the player’s own thought process. There is something instantly recognizable in an insecure teenager hoping to get any kind of positive attention and struggling with her own emotions, and this representation feels extremely potent here as it seems —and might be—completely real.
The story follows Freeman falling in love with a young boy she met playing an MMORPG named Valtameri. In the short time it takes to play through Cibele, you will alternating between navigating your desktop —looking through photos, messages, texts, etc.— and playing said online game. As it stands, the player does not have much input in how things play out. The biggest choice you have is whether or not to answer your in-game messages.
Funnily enough, the MMO part of Cibele simply involves clicking on enemies until they die… like most games in the genre. But as anyone who has played an MMO before knows, there’s a lot more to these games than just combat and watching numbers go up; there is social interaction. In the story, Freeman’s character uses Valtameri as a tool to connect with people. Cibele —the game itself— is a tool used to connect with Freeman’s story. It is bound to be one of those experiences that gets attacked for being “not a game” while it is actually making a point of using the medium itself to connect with people — something that these awfully short-sighted detractors would not even be bothered to consider.
But we are detached from that kind of internet criticism, are we not?
Aesthetically, Cibele is akin to a teenager’s scrapbook. It meshes different aesthetic concepts with no thought or care other than what is probably the main character’s appreciation. Expect loads of pink.
While the disparate looks do not feel exactly coherent at first —it goes from a pseudo-pointillism in the Valtameri game to full motion video in the cutscenes— they are certainly used with intent. The jarring differences sometimes overlap each other —for example, you will get notifications from your computer while in the online game— and are emblematic of the character’s multiple sensibilities, and echo the very different lives we lead on the Internet and outside of it.
The amateurish quality of the filmed cutscenes will certainly be a sticking point for many. While the voice-acting itself is more than competent, the same cannot be said about the on-screen acting. Freeman does manage well, but her co-actor is unnatural and uncomfortable in front of a camera. Then again, it is the kind of acting level you would expect from college actors filming a video made for class. In Cibele’s incongruous melange of aesthetics, it simply fits.
A flaw can be used in a positive manner, and it is very much the case here. The aesthetic of Cibele can be messy, but it is never hesitant. The two teenagers, characterized through flaws and false hopes, do not become negative figures themselves; one can be sexist, the other can be naïve, but neither at fault. Freeman does not look upon them —or herself— with disdain and writes their mistakes as part of the act of maturing. As much as she is willing to expose herself and her past in the game, her willingness to show failures on their face instead of shying away from them emphasises Cibele’s themes of maturation — a game that is geared toward the future by engaging with the past.
Because in detaching ourselves we too often forget to face our own mistakes. By closing ourselves off to others when we are afraid of being hurt, we leave ourselves at the mercy of inertia, carried through life as it comes. There is value in mistakes because they shape us; there is value in flaws because they are part of us. Self-examination helps us better understand ourselves, and thus helps us be better people going forward. Cibele is that act shared with others, to be used as Freeman’s memoir, and to act as a mirror. Cibele is about maturing and Cibele is progress.
- It has come to my attention that criticism is about putting adjectives on art pieces. Here we go: Cibele is mature by naïveté, cheesy and touching, creepy and endearing, relatable and curious, repetitive and progressive, short and slow, emotive and complex, but with simple controls.
- You could put all of those in positives versus categories if you so wish.
- And then add an arbitrary rating, though I have already done that part.
- Valatemari is a stand-in for Final Fantasy XI (2002), which remind me that I could have had similar experiences as a teenager.
- Thinking of myself as a teenager makes me cringe.
- But that is the point, is it not?
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