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Teenagers, sex and selfies: Cibele is an uncomfortable, often beautiful game

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I'm going through developer Nina Freeman's computer, and at the moment I'm flipping through pictures she's taken of herself. I'm afraid of seeing something I shouldn't, and I'm not sure how to react. It doesn't help that she's right behind me.

The entire situation is awkward, and it's hard to tell where the experience ends and the game begins. This is a virtual version of Freeman's computer, but I'm playing it on her actual computer, complete with the rhinestone and sticker-filled lid.

I feel like I'm looking through someone's diary, and a voyeuristic part of my brain is excited by the sense of intimacy. It doesn't feel like there's much space between Freeman and her game.

It's one of the most uncomfortable game demos I've ever received, and also one of the most interesting.

"I guess I always apologize," Freeman told me when I said how weird I felt. "One person got really mad at me." I can understand that reaction. It's not a violent or shocking game, but I also felt like I could have used some kind of warning. It's a game that gets very personal, very quickly.

Learning to be yourself online

Freeman's games often explore sexual situations, and her last game, How Do You Do It (which she has written about for Polygon), explored what it's like to be a child while trying to figure out what exactly sex is. Cibele is a very different game, but the theme remains; Freeman is dealing with characters who are young, interested in sexuality but in no way in control of their own feelings of attraction or power when it comes to sex.

There's a moment where the character in the game, who is based on a younger version of Freeman herself, sets up a sexually suggestive picture in her bra and panties. The character is supposed to be around the age of 18, and the scene isn't sexy; as an adult I want to reach through the screen and cover her up, to tell her to be careful. I no longer feel like a voyeur, now I feel protective.

"I used to play this online game. I met a guy there — we fell in love and had sex. Then, before I knew it, he was gone," the game's official site states. As an introduction to a game's world, it doesn't get much more interesting.

The first act of the game begins on a virtual version of Freeman's desktop, and you can click around pictures and notes and programs to get a sense of the young woman who lives and works in this space. A laptop is a personal thing, and this act feels like rifling through someone's drawers, seeing things that are very personal to them. The "game" aspect of Cibele begins when you log onto a fake version of an massive multiplayer online game, and you begin to talk with a young man you know from online.

The two characters talk. She seems a bit shy and reserved; he sounds more confident, but also like he's putting on a show. You can hear the sound of a young man trying to sound much more in control of himself than he actually is, and she doesn't quite know how to take compliments. The flirtation takes place over voice chat, but it has the authentic ring of young people experimenting with a relationship over late-night AIM conversations.

cibelle 2

That's not a strange feeling; the dialog is taken from re-written chat logs from Freeman's own life. This is the story of an online relationship that culminates in a sexual relationship, and it has all the brutal honesty of teenage hormones and uncertainty. This isn't a Hollywood version of teenage sexuality, the sort of thing 30-year-old actors portray in films like American Pie. This is much more raw and immediate.

"It’s easier to talk about it in terms of a character," she told me. 'It’s confusing if I’m referring to myself as myself, so I’ll talk about the character, even though it’s very literal to my experience."

There is space between her and the events in the game, she says. It's not weird to watch people playing through it, even though it shows her in moments of vulnerability, both physically and mentally. That sense of the personal and the vulnerable is something Freeman is exploring in her work, and it's a refreshing change from the power fantasies of most video games.

It's a stylized version of social gaming as a way to tell a story

She also didn't speak to the inspiration for the other character about the game, or versions of his words and actions being used in this context. For that reason she's careful to scrub any hints about who it may be, and to obscure certain details.

"I work really hard to keep the character distant from the actual person by not using any real place associations, real name associations or anything like that," She said. "I haven’t been in contact with the person in ages. I feel pretty comfortable with that strategy. I’ve done it with other games in the past."

The game you play in the game while these conversations are taking place is a stripped down version of Final Fantasy Online, a game Freeman played extensively. The game itself isn't important, it's the interactions of the characters inside the game that matters. I found myself listening to their conversation and trying to work out what was going on, and what their relationship was and what it could be in the future, while also half-thinking about the combat mechanics and clicking on the screen itself.

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I've actually played many games in this manner, where you're more interested in the people you're playing with than the game itself. It's a stylized version of social gaming as a way to tell a story.

It's rare to see sex dealt with in a mature way in gaming at all, but a developer using games to explore her younger self's ideas of sexuality and intimacy is almost unheard of. It felt real, even though so much of it has been filtered through Freeman's experiences and her distance from the story, both emotionally and in terms of real-world time.

Making games is a way to make sense of your own past, and Freeman had to almost investigate herself; going through old computers and looking at images and chat logs is what inspired the mechanic of having the player do the same thing to gain context. If you have to explain something that happened to someone else, you're going to learn more about it, and yourself.

"Making a game about it feels right," Freeman said. "I think if you’re able to explore something that you don’t fully understand, that may make the game better."

Cibele will be released in 2015.