Cibele (2015) is an interactive full motion video(FMV) game created by Nina Freeman. With a simulated desktop computer interface, the game navigates the players to follow a budding online romance which is a semi-autobiographical story based on personal experiences of Nina Freeman. The story revolves around topics such as love, sex and Internet, in which the players take the role of Nina, a 19-year-old girl, who gradually becomes close with a young boy in a mock multiplayer online role-playing game named Valtameri and finally meets him offline. In Cibele, the players can read Nina’s personal files on the simulated interface, including photos, emails and homework, meanwhile, they can also login Valtameri to follow and develop the relationship between Nina and Blake.
The simulated desktop computer interface generates a sense of uncanny by blurring the boundary between the virtual space and the real world. Its design functions as a door for the players to enter an immersive world of storytelling, in which they both watch and inhabit Nina. The only character Nina is thus like a “digital puppet” manipulated by the players, meanwhile, also helps to create an uncanny experience when the players realize “their presence in the screen through the character” (Dove 209). Unlike traditional television and films, this interface is responsive which requires considerable participation of the players whose every click functions to advance the story. It is not a boundary that clearly separates the players from the virtual space, but more of a penetrable membrane, constituting of complex relationships between Nina and her avatar Cibele, Nina and the players, and Cibele and the players. By rummaging through Nina’s files on the interface, the players are able to know more about the character Nina that they are going to play and also maintain their subject positions by choosing which button to click. After the players login Valtameri with Nina’s avatar Cibele, they begin to follow the story between Nina and Blake (Avatar: Ichi) by listening to their private chat. Although the relationship between Cibele and the player is mainly created via gameplay, it does not mean that Nina, the fictitious character, is thus erased from the story. Instead, during playing Valtameri, a number of emails and messages will intermittently pop up which keeps reminding players the existence of Nina’s life as well as their inhabitation in Nina. The way how Cibele deals with these pairs of relationships exactly reflects notions of agency and transparency mentioned in Toni Dove’s reading (210) that the players can, on one hand, feel their presence in the virtual space, and on the other will notice that the interface occasionally dissolves.
The narrative structure of Cibele also gives an affirmative answer to Toni Dove’s question that “is there a way of storytelling that will not be broken through participation” (211). Cibele provides the players with an unchanged story which is unfolded in a settled linear sequence. Therefore, the players are not free to create their own avatars except Cibele or change the plot and ending of the story no matter which buttons they choose to click. That is to say, all their participation is realized in a prescribed design and limited to a single sequence of storytelling. Those clicks, a form of interaction, will not disrupt the linearity of the original story at all. However, this does not mean that their participation is not important to the game, instead, Cibele presents a balanced way of dealing with interaction and linearity. Although the plot has already been settled, the players’ clicks of new emails and messages during playing Valtameri are triggers of new conversations between Nina and Blake without which the story will not develop but only stop at killing monsters. The three settings of Valtameri respectively represent different acts of the online romance spanning six months. It is only when the players successfully defeat the boss in each setting can the relationship between Nina and Blake advances to the next stage. Therefore, their participation functions as an indispensable step to maintain the linearity and continuity of the whole story so that as the game advances, Nina and Blake can share thoughts and contact information and finally decide to meet in person.
Cibele was introduced at NYFF as a project signifying the comeback of FMV games, and its interactivity is presented in a way that both resembles and makes adaptions to the old arcade video games. Like old FMV games, the story of Cibele is also linked by three short films with actual scenes instead of computer graphics. In contrast to old arcade video games like Atari’s Mad Dog McCree usually promises the players a protagonist position (Huhtamo), Cibele does not emphasize a sense of protagonism in that the relationships between Nina, Cibele and the players never independently proceed but intersects with each other. Therefore, the subject is situational, changing from time to time when the players begin to read Nina’s files, play Valtameri and watch short films. Moreover, as an interactive game, the nature of the interactivity of Cibele does not center on providing immersive gaming experience for its players but is functional and goal-oriented, containing instructions “either explicitly or by letting the user learn as s/he proceeds” (Huhtamo) and requiring the players to interpret topics like love, sex, online relationship, etc. in a way that the designers expect.
However, this goal-oriented interactivity may arouse a question on the authenticity of its interactive nature, that whether the interactivity of a video game should serve more for its content or gameplay. In fact, playing Valtameri does not require any complicated operations besides continuously clicking a monster in order to defeat it which is an extremely easy action. However, on one hand, repeatedly meaningless clicking really causes a concern for the pleasure that the players can actually gain from playing this game; on the other, it also casts doubt on the real contribution that a player can devote to the game, since it seems that the story will always advance to a new stage when the players have made enough clicks. As Nina Freeman suggests on her website, adding short films with actual scenes to Cibele can improve a sense of reality in players’ mind, however, these three short films also play as the only goal of playing Valtameri without which, the game itself becomes meaningless and irresponsive clicking. Therefore, while Cibele declares a successful comeback by solving technical unreliability and expensive access which caused a fall of old FMV games in the 1990s, it will probably still encounter a problem of its longevity due to its functional and goal-oriented interactivity which overly focuses on its content and story while reduces the pleasure and meaning of gameplay itself.
More info at: http://cibelegame.com and you can also download it on steam.
Dove, Toni. “The Space Between: Telepresence, Re-animation and the Re-casting of the Invisible”. New Screen Media: Cinema/Art/Narrative. London: BFI, 2002. 207-220.
Huhtamo, Erkki. “Seeking Deeper Contact Interactive Art as Metacommentary”. Ken Feingold artworks.