Nina Freeman's heartbreaking, intimate new game about young love in an online game points to fast-disappearing strangeness in virtual spaces.

I often think about the fact we don't really have 'online lives' any more. When I was small, to have a 'handle', to get on the Information Superhighway, was like attending a masquerade ball on a brand-new planet. All of you were suddenly someplace else, strange and new.

Even a few years ago it was common to make friends via Weird Twitter; now, anyone could be a creeper or a rando. The people who have total freedom over their online selves, safe spaces separate from the things they do in real life, feel more and more like exceptions—online is real life now. When did that happen?

Nina Freeman's Cibele is a gentle but involving callback to a youth when the realm of internet chat—here, visualized quite literally through an online fantasy game—could be an all-consuming, furtive repository for everything fraught and unexpressed in our real lives. Cibele is an autobiographical game about a time in Freeman's own life when she met a boy playing Final Fantasy XI, a youthful fling that culminated in her first sexual experience.

(Some story spoilers follow.)

The game puts the player in front of a simulacrum of Freeman's own computer at the time, where they can log into the FFXI-alike Valtameri, a pastel nonsense world of click-to-combat and lifelike chat interfaces. Even though the "online game" is mainly a superficial interface for the story elements, its structure and visual vocabulary is instantly familiar. As you 'play' the game-within-a-game, Freeman's audio conversations with her enigmatic guild leader, Blake, unfold. Their internet relationship intensifies, until Blake decides to lie to his mom and fly across the country to consummate their superheated connection.


Most of the game takes place across this intuitive computer interface; any time you're not playing Valtameri with Blake, you can rifle through desktop folders stuffed with juvenile selfies that become increasingly mature as the online relationship grows. LiveJournal logs and poetry give the player an insight into the geeky but romantic kid Freeman was when she met this first love, and—being also a woman who had my first romance with a Person From The Internet—I feel a little voyeuristic, but mostly very nostalgic. It's the little touches, like the anime desktop wallpaper or a young Freeman's long, biographical lists of favorite games, that make her feel like someone from the world of then, someone like I was, someone I would have been internet-friends with.

Complicating the experience, Freeman is someone I'm friends with. Cibele is a very intimate game, interspersed with real-world footage of the author at her computer. The erotic selfies Freeman sends to Blake are really hers, and in the climactic scene where the two meet and have sex, Freeman and her real-life partner Emmett play the couple in bed. The adult Freeman acting out the experiences of her virginal 19 year-old self makes for a genuine, unique creative choice—we know what we are actually watching is a sexually-mature woman in full possession of the ability to tell the story of her youth. It's not graphic, but it is almost uncomfortably intimate.

There is no doubt that a woman game developer undressing to her underwear to tell a real, human story about girlhood and sex is, in the present climate, an act of revolutionary bravery. A considered, unflinching attitude to intimacy characterizes all Freeman's games, which are all personal vignettes about topics including eating disorders and sexual assault. Although Cibele is significantly richer in scope than her prior works, it still has that vignette quality: It is a story with an untidy, existential ending, not an experience the player can "win."

Yet the intimacy and sexuality of Cibele is still less interesting to me than the brief story it tells about glancing, troubled human connection forged in a virtual space. It's bitter, strange, and probably nearly universal (Freeman has said that since publishing the game she's had more personal stories and emails in response than may be sustainable for her to address). What drove that weird, youthsome search for others online, and what determined which names on a screen we "fell in love with"?


Freeman's conversation with Blake is never of earth-shattering substance. Cibele is built in part from actual chat logs and artifacts she kept, and the relationship between the pair feels very much of its time—to a lonely boy, the very fact he is talking to a girl whose picture he has seen seems to be sufficient for excitement. Their conversation is charmingly young, mostly limited to nudges designed to elicit an increase in the temperature as the two fumble toward "what would you do if I were there right now" and its simple ilk.

Shy Blake never has suggestions more lewd than kissing. It's Freeman who demonstrates much of the appetite, the agency—it's her idea initially to meet in real life, while her companion defers worriedly. At more than one point he candidly tells her he's more comfortable keeping his virtual relationships virtual, and that he doesn't feel enthusiastic about the idea of intimacy and partnership in real life, nor with the potential obligations that he fears might come with it. Eventually their mutual sexual curiosity overrides that strange and unique condition, but not without consequences.

It never took much, back then. To connect at all was unusual—that you typed something and someone responded. That every day after school the familiar names would be in your channel, on your buddy list, and that from there you could forge years-long bonds built just on snippets of song lyrics and "nothing much, u? ;-)" The simulated chat client in Cibele's fictional online game is a wonderful window into the wider social politics of the game, showing the ways that the bond between "Cibby" and "Ichi" affected their other digital pals.

There will always be stories of young love, and people probably meet online now more than ever, perfunctorily, but it fascinates me that these stories will never again happen in exactly this way. Not long before I played Cibele, I played Emily Is Away, another game about the heyday of chat client friendships. In Emily is Away AOL's Instant Messenger provides your only connection across years to Emily, a girl on whom you might have a crush.

The game's best beats come in the emotional pauses in the simulated chat client, and the understanding that even in brief, unsentimental sentences, the choice of one word over another might have unexpected intonation. The game has been criticized (spoilers at the link) for the player's ultimate lack of agency over the relationship and its outcome, and especially the lack of transparency on exactly what goes on between the "couple" offline.


But I think that's exactly the strength of digital love stories—bringing them into the realm of the real is always dangerous, always unknown, often unwise, complicated, confusing and painful. It's supposed to be messy and ambiguous. The in-person interactions always risk losing the clarity, the familiar scope, of the virtual ones, but at the shrine of the machine we somehow cannot resist the inexorable desire for embodiment.

Is that weird pull, those magical silences, the special weight of a certain person's sign-in alert even part of the human experience any more? Virtual communication is no longer magic. It's no longer rare and risky, and as time passes, more and more of us will be much the same person "here" as we are "there." Lots of us today spend more time on devices than we do off them. Friends and colleagues report being overwhelmed, not intrigued, by Reddit threads, Twitter replies, Tinder messages, Facebook notifications, Google Calendar invites, iMessages and texts. Now, for me, meeting someone in a club late at night who has read my articles actually recalls that old sinking feeling of finding out someone in your internet roleplay group actually goes to your school—they've accidentally found the real-life me, the secret me. The script has reversed: nowadays, in the age of remote working and Real Name Policies, some corners of real life feel more forbidden, more secret, than the internet does or perhaps ever will again.

Games like Cibele and Emily is Away are not just memoirs; they're memorials. When today's young people want to whisper their secret longing and loneliness into the night in search of others, will they still put it online? If not, then where?