Revisiting Cibele: Playing with the connections we create through tech

A year after its release, we look back on what this intensely personal game about a youthful online romance has to say about the bonds that we form with one another via technology.

As much as technology has been able to connect us, there are people who argue that technology divides us -- that technology is an enemy of personal intimacy.

Nina Freeman, lead designer on Star Maid Games' Cibele, released a little over a year ago, begs to differ.

"I was always kind of shy," says Nina Freeman, lead designer at Star Maid Games. "I played Final Fantasy Online for four years during high school -- during a really important time in my life. I was a quiet kid back then and was able to connect with people online. And I thought 'This is a place where I can connect with people.' I remember how important that was to me."

Cibele, a game about a pair of people meeting and growing closer over an MMO, shows the connections that many of us make with our games and technology. Texting, social media, online dating, and MMOs not only put us in contact with people all over the world, but they also allow for that personal intimacy -- that sharing of the true self and emotions -- that we all seek as human beings.

While they may appear to some to be a means of locking ourselves away from the "real world," we constantly strive, as social beings, to create those personal connections through our technology, and in some ways find new connections that many of us, especially the shy and nervous, have trouble making.

Cibele is a celebration of those connections, made for good or ill -- the ethernet cables that connect to the human heart.


Emotions online

Cibele tells the story of (fictional) Nina meeting a man, Ichi, online in an MMO called Valtameri. Throughout her play time with him, players will experience the growing intimacy between the two, following their journey as they grow closer over their play time together.

It's a personal, unique story to tell in a video game, one born of Freeman's interest in telling the ordinary stories of human life. "Personal work; I was really interested in that kind of work in the poetry world, and, as I was learning to write, trying to evoke that kind of thing in my work," says Freeman. "The voice that I developed revolved around writing personal work, focusing on mundane situations and everyday life."

"When I started making games and writing for games, I already had that body of work that I had done to draw from, and that practice, and that mindset, so I carried that over into my games work. I was still interested in writing about ordinary life and ordinary people," she says.

One such story that is becoming more and more ordinary is in finding romance or companionship online. With our online connection to the rest of the world, we've used it to be in contact with each other, talking with strangers from around the globe about our interests, or in sharing our intimate secrets with someone we only know through a screen. "If you look at any major form of technology, inevitably people are going to try to use it to be in communication with each other," says Freeman.


Many MMO players know all about this. MMOs are all about joining up with strangers to work together toward a shared goal, or at least being put into a pool of people with a shared interest. Just being in such a situation can breed conversation, and barring that, the act of grinding mobs for rare drops or experience - of idly fighting monsters within the online game - can leave a large gap for the kind of boredom that prompts people to talk and share.

"I was trying to go for that idle MMO grinding that leads to hanging out." says Freeman.

It's from this kind of idle chat between two people sharing the same task that births a growing bond between the characters. Nina and Ichi grind mobs together in the world of Valtameri, steadily talking over the tedious task simply to fill the silence in the game and in their minds. Over time, that shared talk grows into a comfort with the other player. Friendship, or more, comes from this time together.

It's an ordinary story about ordinary people slowly falling for each other, and all within that context of the shared game.


Ordinary experiences as gameplay

Freeman needed to frame that life experience as a game for people to experience. To tell her story in an interactive way, she would turn it into a video game. Still, it wasn't as simple as just cobbling together an MMO and having people play through it.

"Early on, the plan was to have five worlds you would go to and each would have sub-worlds," says Freeman. "It would be pretty similar to how Final Fantasy XI is structured (the game that I was drawing on). You would go through these worlds and meet all of these different characters -- you would meet all of Nina's friends, and all the while you would be hanging out with Ichi."

"I quickly realized that was way too large of a scope for the resources and the team and the time I had to make the game," she adds. "When I realized that, I also realized that I didn't want to make a simulation of an MMO. I just wanted to tell a story about a relationship."

Freeman's story involved the relationship between two people within an MMO world. Anything beyond that would only muddle the story in extra details that, while making the game appear more realistic as an MMO, would draw attention away from the growing bond between Nina and Ichi. This meant stripping an MMO down to the main experience that many would go through while talking with each other.

"So, I decided just to take the core MMO tropes I had in mind that were at the base level of this way more complicated version I was working on and strip away all of the extra stuff," says Freeman. "All of the characters, all of the worlds, all of the UI and HUDs that MMOs stereotypically have, and just boil it down to what the core experience of playing an MMO online is, which, to me, is playing with someone and clicking on enemies to kill them. Because really, that's what you're doing most of the time."


Becoming Nina

Freeman didn't just want players to witness this relationship. Witnessing it is something the audience can do with any other medium. Part of what draws players to a video game story is that level of interactivity involved -- the player is an active member of the storyline. As such, an important aspect of Cibele was in getting the player to take on a role in the storyline - to become Nina.

"I thought a lot about how I could get the player to feel like they were sitting at the computer as her, living this experience, rather than be someone that's controlling her," she says. "There are certainly games where you create an avatar and author their story, and that's a totally valid way to tell a story in a game. I'm more interested in giving players a character and giving them the tools to perform it and really get into that character and their mindset."

"I thought a lot about how I could get the player to feel like they were sitting at the computer as her, living this experience, rather than be someone that's controlling her."

For Freeman to tell her story, she would have the player act out the part of Nina in it. In doing so, the player would feel a stronger bond with the events in the game. This would be done by reshaping their viewpoint. While players are in control of a character in a game as they play, Freeman sought to change that sensation of controlling an avatar into a sense of controlling yourself in your own life.

Still, a player knows they are not the character in a game. On a conscious level, they are aware that they are manipulating an avatar with their keystrokes. To make a player truly feel like they're a character in the game world, Freeman would have to put a lot of thought and care into the experience, reshaping how the player perceived it.

Freeman says, "The first thing I think about is 'What is the core experience of this and how can I help a player embody this experience actively?' For Cibele, I knew I wanted to tell a story about this online relationship, and I thought 'What was she actually doing when this was happening? How can I help players perform her?'"

Her solution involved giving the players free access to her world and her life, all in the guise of controlling Nina's computer. When not within the confines of Valtameri, players are free to play around on Nina's computer, looking at her pictures, reading her poetry and emails, and going through her chat logs, all framed around a desktop layout that may seem familiar to that which the player launched the game from.

"Cibele is a pretty intimate story, and a lot of expressing that intimacy and helping players embody that character is by having folders full of selfies, having the poetry, having lots of pictures, having lots of stuff that feels like it would fill a real person's computer -- that it would fill this specific person's computer," says Freeman.

In having these elements, Freeman could blur the lines between the player and the character. The framework of the desktop filled with pieces of Nina's life can mirror the player's own desktop loaded with a scattered scrapbook of photos, messages, and pieces of their own life. In doing so, the player can become closer to the role they are playing, inhabiting the character rather than guiding her as a separate person.


Togetherness through tech

In becoming Nina, the player connects with another person's story. They learn to experience the story as that character, rather than control an outside being. They learn to connect with a story that is within the mind of another person, so through the interactivity Freeman has created with Cibele, the player forms a connection with a stranger they have never met through technology. They share a bond through a shared story they have both lived through, in a sense.

"I think connecting with other people is really important and I am definitely someone who feels the need to connect with other people when I can," says Freeman. "You know when there's that moment when you're telling someone a story about yourself, and they say 'I totally understand where you're coming from.' and you can tell that they really do? That is something that I value a lot."

That connection was what Freeman sought with Cibele, and for many of its players, she has touched on something within them with her creation. "It's definitely been really surprising to see how many people have connected with it in such an intimate way. When I was working on it, I knew I was telling a personal story. I knew I was telling a story that people might relate to. I have other friends that have online relationships and I knew that it was a thing. But I didn't expect people to come out of the woodwork as much as they did," says Freeman.

"I still get emails from people saying 'I played your game and something exactly like this happened to me or someone I know.' Just seeing people connect with it in that way has been really encouraging and has made me more excited than ever about telling ordinary life stories in games from the design perspective of embodiment."

With her work, Freeman has touched the lives of those people she hasn't met, and through Cibele, helped them think about those moments in their own lives or the lives of their loved ones. She's used her work to create a piece of tech that can guide a player to reflect on themselves, and in taking on a role in Cibele, think about their experience in a new way.

"I think when people perform a character that it helps them really think about it in a different way -- helps them think about their experience and how their experience can be contextualized by the world and by other people's experiences," she says.

This does not just end at a gameplay experience, either. Freeman has injected much of herself in her own work, using her own pictures, poetry, and personal experiences into the game. She is telling a fictionalized account of her story, and yet, as an artist creating a piece of interactive story, and as a person whose story is immortalized in the game, Freeman has put herself out there for people to connect with.

"I could either pay an actor and fake all of this stuff, or I could be true to myself and use all the stuff that I do actually have and that was actually on my computer. I think that doing that fit the tone of the game more, especially to me as the designer, because it is a very intimate, personal game to me. It just felt right in both a production sense and in a design sense, to play myself," says Freeman.

Injecting herself into the work has made a part of her open for strangers to connect with and learn about themselves with. They aren't the only ones who gain a new perspective from this sharing, as Freeman herself was able to personally reflect from the act of creating this work.

"In Cibele, the writing process and design process for me was definitely an exercise in brutal honesty," she says. "I didn't want to tell some biased, sugar-coated story about this relationship. I wanted to tell it how it was and be very real about it."

"I think putting myself in it helped me be really honest about it and it helped me examine that stuff. It's kind of fraught at times to think of old relationships. I had enough critical distance from it that it was pretty simple, but I think putting the pressure on myself to put myself in the game helped me be even more honest about it," says Freeman.

In creating this work for players to embody, Freeman had, in a way, allowed herself the space to come to terms with a part of her life by using something that was meant to connect with others. In ensuring her story was right to share with other people, and in preparing it for that sharing, she had helped herself think over an important time in her life. Players she had never met would make a connection with her work, but in its creation for those players, Freeman had also made a deeper connection with herself.


Connected hearts

There are still many who see relationships through tech as something lesser -- that our connections online will never match those of someone in person.

Freeman's work in Cibele helped many players across the world come to terms with some aspects of their own relationships online, creating a healing, reflective power with the game she had put together. Through a piece of technology, she could reach out and touch the hearts of people she had never met, helping them with difficult memories or drawing up pleasant ones. She could connect with them on an emotional level.

People are starting to see how we use our technology to bond, and how we use it to continually reach out to one another. "Tinder is one of the biggest internet things ever, and if you think about Snapchat, so much of it is just teens flirting with each other. All of this stuff is slowly normalizing, and the conversation around it is definitely changing. I don't hear people on a daily basis saying 'Tinder is dangerous' or 'Snapchat is dangerous.' That is not as much part of the conversation anymore," says Freeman.

Through Freeman's work with Star Maid Games, we can see the connections that games can make, and of the personal power that embodiment can have over a person. We can learn to live through another's story, and have a more compassionate view of them. We can also learn to forgive ourselves, seeing our own actions, whether we be creator or player, through a new light.

In having the player live through the simple charm, and aftermath, of an online relationship in Cibele, we learn to reflect on our lives and those of others. We live through the pain of another, and in doing so, connect more with the people around us, both through the work and in our personal lives.

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