Cibele (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Cibele (2015)

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Two stories, one likely apocryphal and the other a friendly bit of advice.

In the 19th century, a man and woman meet by chance and go their separate ways.  They continue to communicate via telegraph, their communication blossoms into romance, and they decide to meet once more.  Neither has a clue what to do with the other when they share the same space again, until they have an idea to move their conversation back to the telegraph.  What was awkward now flowed naturally, and their romance continued in the tiny clicks of the telegraph where the silence stood.

The advice comes from a man I knew back in my insurance days.  He was a "worldly" sort, but had the wide swath of knowledge and good nature to back up his image.  I was talking about some problems with my then-girlfriend with him and he said, "Remember, there are three people in the relationship.  There's you, there's her, and there's the two of you together."  Great advice, but the truth is more complicated than that.  There was me and her, sure, but she was shocked at how different I was when hanging out with other friends, and I was similarly surprised at how she changed depending on the social temperature.  The "me" and "her" existed in constant flux, adapting to suit the situation, and we each discovered things about the other when our social dynamic changed.

Cibele thrives in this flux.  You play as Nina, a teenager trying to find her footing in college, as she moves from one personality to the next hoping to find what will make her happy.  The majority of the gameplay comes from searching Nina's desktop, rifling through folders of old poetry and photographs, watching her change as the months pass and the scattered ideas she has of herself come together to form Nina.  The key is to realize none of these fragments are false.  Some are cosmetic experiments - hair dye here, change of clothes there.  Others delve into herself by writing poetry and blog posts.  The conflict comes from those fragments colliding with the world outside her desktop, where the solitude of experimentation ends and messy human interaction begins.Designer Nina Freeman, who supplies unguarded material from her life for the game, brilliantly creates this complication by splitting Cibele up into three sections.  There's the desktop exploration, video sequences where we see Nina living in the "real" world, and interactive sections in the fictional multiplayer game Valtameri.  Time moves on, and the live action sequences are a reminder that the solitude of experimentation on the desktop collapses into a single idea of a person that has to get through life.  The multiplayer sections are fascinating, because they are as controllable as the live action breaks, but show how our digital moment lets us move fluidly from one identity to the next.

Which brings me back to the telegraph, as one feature of Cibele I almost entirely ignored in my playthrough involves your ability to respond to multiple group chats in-game.  You can't control the exact response - the choice is if you opt to respond at all.  Anyone who has notifications that let you know when someone has read your message will understand the anxiety of communicating with partners who don't know when to leave you alone or let you drift when you're searching for answers.  It's less volatile interpersonal experimentation with Nina trying to placate her friends' social, romantic, and lustful wishes.  With each "lol" or "hahahaha", we get a glimpse at Nina placing some distance between herself and the discomfort caused by people who have expectations of her.  The exchanges reminded me of the 2015 horror film Unfriended, where the freedom to express yourself digitally also means exposing yourself to a web that can weaponize your unguarded emotions.These are universal anxieties that gain specific resonance as Freeman places them in a woman's perspective.  Women have to face different threats than men online, as emphasized in one moment where a friend reveals a private photo Nina sent to a past romantic interest was shared without her knowledge or consent.  Nina keeps taking them, because to hell with those guys, and in the process communicates something important about how we connect in the digital age.  No one has the right to share any photos - erotic or otherwise - taken and sent in confidence, and no one should guilt those who take the photos.  In long-distance relationships it may be the only way partners can be intimate with each other, and Nina's photos she sends to Ichi (eventually revealed as Blake) are an expression of trust and desire on top of Nina's growing grasp of herself.

Nina's relationship with Blake is as controllable as the live action segments or the audio conversations within Valtameri.  The end is not inevitable, but an expected part of Nina's growth from poking around the desktop in-between time jumps.  Lacking artifacts to put into the game from Blake's perspective, Freeman writes his character with a bevy of empathy.  He's clearly experimenting with his personality as well, claiming to hate people but leading Nina's online group, talking about how he feels about Nina while saying he doesn't want a relationship since that's, "an attempt at living in normalcy."  That was the most telling line for me, as someone conversing romantically long-distance with a partner for months is already in a relationship, he just doesn't know what his "normal" is in this situation.  Neither does Nina.They're both confused, tripping at one another for a revelation about themselves that won't come.  This is masterfully conveyed in the voice acting, with Blake and Nina frequently letting their comments trail off into silence and implied question marks.  Blake has his problems, especially his tendency to end comments with an uttered or implied "for a girl" when talking about in-game skill, but they recognize a lack in each other that Valtameri fills and hope together they'll find an answer to who they are.  He's brusque, she's tentative, he's complimentary, she's appreciative.  Whatever deficiencies in character they have, through this modern-day telegraph they're able to let a shielded part of themselves go and explore another human's interior space - much like Freeman gives us access to Nina's private life on the desktop.

This is why Cibele had to be a video game.  We needed to experience the bits of Nina's personality she's experimenting with, squirreled away in different folders, presenting us with conversations we can choose to participate in or let time drift on to its conclusion.  This isn't voyeuristic, a common descriptor of cinema, it's confessional.  Freeman shares this space with us without asking anything in return (save, of course, the purchase of Cibele).  It reminds me of a closing line in Craig Thompson's graphic novel Blankets, "...that's my comfort - that someone else was there and experienced the same thing.  How else could I know it was real and not merely a dream?"The last thing we hear is Blake saying, "I'm sorry."  Through Nina's pain, we share comfort that the love, disillusionment, and trust was real through each click.  The reality springs out in tiny notes, my favorite being the folder where a document shows the code for Nina's website awkwardly dotting her text.  As someone else who played Final Fantasy XI, learning to code and creating macros for that cumbersome game go together.  But it's also an acceptance of the blemishes, the skeletal framework that props up who we think ourselves to be that day while putting our best foot forward to find someone else who accepts us.

I was lucky enough to find someone to share my life with.  Someone who I didn't need to keep trying on different faces to figure out which one "worked."  Yet, I remember those days, keeping my wrestling fan website a secret to all but my best friends because my enjoyment felt silly.  I also feel something beyond remembering, something bone-deep, in dealing with the awkward realization that as much as my past girlfriends thought they understood me all it took was a shift in social surrounding for the both of us to realize we didn't know as much about the other as we thought.  Cibele is a masterwork, plumbing the depths of its character as well as myself, creating an unspoken assurance that the pain and pleasures were real and - some day - we may get it right.

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Posted by Andrew

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