Video games don't do sex well. Even when they try to present sexuality as something more than blatant attempts at titillation, they have a bad habit of ruining whatever digital encounters of the flesh they might want to portray. This is largely because sex acts as a reward for players who've managed to play the romance "game" well, brought the right gifts to the right person or completed a difficult quest. It's contingent on fulfilling certain conditions and favours. And while I support the idea that games should try to feature relationships instead of ignore them, "run an errand for me and I'll have sex with you" strikes me as a bad idea to peddle.
Most of the time, the sex itself is either implied and unsatisfying or comically coy, hiding naughty bits because even our most "mature" games end up playing it 12A. And let's be honest, models rubbing their skivvies on each other as they stare off into space isn't the least bit sexy.
Cibele, an independent release from Star Maid Games, does sex right. The key differentiator between this and most games that try to portray sex is that sex in Cibele is not a goal, but rather an outcome. It's not about the act of getting it on, and sex isn't a reward; instead, it's about everything else in a relationship: the text conversations between girls talking about other boys and evaluating their relative cuteness; profile pages from archived websites chronicling the teenage years of a girl obsessed with anime and racked with self-doubt; the provocative, headless selfies the sender hopes will give them the approval of their love interest.
These moments matter to the act of sex as much as the sex itself, and though Cibele doesn't show any nudity, it's unquestionably about love and intimacy, and pulls it off in the most natural way imaginable. Sex doesn't always have a long build-up, and casual hook-ups are as valid as anything else. But even then, sex is about more than touching someone: the physical act simply follows an emotional groundswell.
Cibele takes place on the computer desktop of Nina, a girl in her late teens who's addicted to a fictional MMO called Valtameri, within which she plays the role of Cibele. She meets a guy through an in-game guild and the two hit it off, eventually planning to meet up in the real world. On her desktop, you can click around through her files, look at photos of her in high school, read emails, or jump straight into Valtameri to talk to Ichi, the guy Nina's fallen in love with. After defeating a boss in Valtameri, you'll see videos of Nina, played by creator Nina Freeman (the game is meant to dramatically retell a real encounter Freeman had through Final Fantasy XI) in her underwear, typing at her computer before deciding to lose a few items of clothing and pose for a picture on her bed.
Valtameri is more implied than real, but you assume it's as deep and nuanced as Final Fantasy XI because most of the people Nina talks to have clung to it for years. But insofar as you interacting with it, it's really no more than clicking on a few enemies and watching them die. It's interactive, but simple, and really only there to facilitate conversations between Nina and Ichi, as well as field messages from other guild members and friends. It's background busywork, and reflects the ways in which games can be there simply to occupy our minds, to assuage anxiety, or fear, or other thoughts and feelings we'd rather not think about in that moment.
The conversations Nina has with Ichi, whether ad-libbed or rehearsed, bear a close resemblance to conversations I've had over online voice chats clients like Mumble or TeamSpeak. The cadence, the response time, the cut off statements – they're all there, preserved in the way you'd say them to someone on the other end of the internet. As the topics change from guildmates who aren't picking up their slack and Valtameri's latest expansion to more intimate topics about relationships, how people treat each other, and what online relationships mean, I got palpable flashbacks. Games like Valtameri or FFXI, which eventually create followings and guilds and cliques of players, generate lasting memories for those able to build a sense of community with others, and Freeman mines those memories expertly.
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Through these distant, intimate conversations between Nina and Ichi, Cibele captures one of the most unique emotional conflicts of the 21st century – being close to someone without having met them. It captures the pull of an online relationship, one where we can clearly relate to the persona on the other side of the screen. But we may not want to delve further, for fear of having or perceptions about that person turned on their head. As the leader of Nina's group, Ichi's personality is commanding; he leads his guild with iron fist, and refuses to have anyone get out of line. As someone entering a relationship with an online friend, he acts far less sure of himself, wary of how opening up to someone could affect his self-image as a loner.
The story keeps everything short and simple, but again, it's the contextual details that make Cibele a powerful confession. It's is an intensely personal game, and playing it often feels like prying into someone's closet, much in the same way games like Gone Home and Her Story make us feel a bit uncomfortable sneaking around homes or watching video tapes to learn more about someone. The difference here is that you play the game as Nina herself rather than someone looking through her things, and this serves as a form of consent on Freeman's part. In looking through photos of Nina (the character), I didn't feel like I was prying at all – I felt nostalgic, and it's all because the game makes it clear that you're not playing yourself, but Nina.
And I remember feeling like Nina. Granted, she's decided to archive her old writings, poems, and photos whereas I would just as easily pay good money to see the early traces of my time on the internet excised entirely. But through the documents, photos and chat logs on her desktop, I see friends I've had in her and begin to understand them a bit better. Nina and her friends discuss girls at school whose bodies they're jealous of, who get the attention of more guys than they do, and I think about the guys I knew back then who seemed to have everything figured out when it came to girls. Of course, none of them ever did.
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As a guy, I see things from the other side of the fence. I think about all the times I didn't ask a girl out and realise that I probably should have. But Nina, like every other teen out there, is still stuck in a quagmire of doubt, even if she and her friends know it. All the alluding, all the shimmying around affections, the diffusive "haha" at the start of texts – they're our way to not get hurt, to seem distant, jovial in the face of heart-racing moments, aloof. But looking through someone else's baggage, I realised most teenagers are just as afraid of that intimacy, of being hurt.
This trepidation, this confusion, it isn't just the setup for sex – it's part of it, especially when we're Nina's age. These feelings always matter, whether it's developing relationship or a night at the bar. And it's these feelings, swirling around us and sparking and drawing us, that make sex what it is. Cibele opens itself to us, offering a look at the vulnerable world of a teenager who wants to make a real connection with someone. And we need more of that in our games if they're ever going to do right by one of the most important parts of being human.
Cibele is out now. More information here.
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