JAMES DAVENPORT'S 2015 PERSONAL PICK
Along with our group-selected 2015 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen another game to commend as one of the year's best.
Cibele is a game where you spend time exploring a 19-year-old woman's desktop from her perspective. Photos, selfies, emails, IMs, and other epistolary bits provide a fun way to read the characters, but the real narrative pusher is a faux MMORPG in which the protagonist, Nina, develops an intimate relationship with another player that goes by the handle Ichi.
Most of the time is spent in a mundane, repetitive clickfest listening to the two talk while monster after monster falls. Mechanically, it's super boring, but that's the point. Cibele uses the cultural language of MMOs to generate emotion. Clicking on enemy after enemy doesn’t take much effort, and turns into a meditative exercise that lets the mind wander. While taking care of monsters, I started to consider the art and how it might inform the narrative, or how Ichi’s play behavior might say something about who he is outside the game.
Further, the aimless clicking serves as a metaphor for the two characters' budding relationship. Neither have much confidence or sexual know-how, and you can tell they're aimlessly 'clicking' around one another's insecurities and curiosities, hoping to find some sort of release or gratification or arcane interpersonal knowledge. Their insecurities start to manifest in wildly different ways. Ichi gives into plenty of tough guy masculine exaggerations and selfish impulse while Nina recedes further within herself. But the online space gives them more to room to maneuver than real life, to press just beyond their comfort zones bit by bit until—boom, there’s a plane ticket, the L-word, and a big steamy sexual question.
The clicking also invited me to reflect. I was reminded of my own attempts to connect, the ways in which I’ve reached out through the internet and video games as a means of finding something that binds me to other people. Bleak as it may be, it’s a modern condition. There are more ways than ever to facilitate being alone and comfortable. We can so easily ignore ourselves. Inversely, technology allows for us to connect in more ways than ever. Without the internet and games, I would have a significantly less robust social and romantic history (miss you, MySpace).
Cibele destygmatizes these digital spaces by using them as a stage to tell a semi-autobiographical story of young love, which is a concept that’s hard not to identify with in some manner. In a male-dominated, slowly maturing medium, Cibele is a bold proclamation, but doesn’t pose itself as one. It tells a grounded human story. There’s no hammer over the head, no wistful soundtrack that artificially elevates the content, no focus tested narrative beats. Cibele is a game, stripped down to its most vital components.
‘Game’ is the only reductive label that should be appended to Cibele. Because it is a game, striking and earnest and more likely to crop up as part of the wider critical conversation about the evolution of the medium than any annual franchise release. I can't think of another game that juggles the combination of nested game language and digital autobiography, and does so without an ounce of pretense. It’s a game that feels like a generational touchstone, something created during technology’s coming of age about a person’s coming of age only possible at a very particular moment in time.
I want to write something eviscerating and beautiful and eternal about Cibele, but I can’t. It’s successful in the most basic ways. The best ways. It makes me feel like I'm not alone in my experience, even though they’re not mirror images. Not alone even when I am alone, playing Cibele or Fallout 4 or Rocket League three beers deep and sad, surrounded by strangers in a crowded city as I trip my way uphill towards a new self and sense of place. For that sliver of solidarity, I’m glad it exists.