My boyfriend told me that I should watch an anime called Girl’s Monthly Nozaki-Kun. It’s a comedy and it made me cry these ugly wracking sobs and he had to call me so I could stop and go to sleep. In the end Nozaki-kun is a young woman’s story about unrequited love, about a man who hurts her not because he wants to but because he is too young to understand how not to. Everything that this girl, Sakura Chiyo, does for Nozaki is her way of trying to say that she loves him. He’ll never get it. She’ll always, kind of, love him. It’s not supposed to make people cry, but I had snot running out of my nose and water spots on my glasses.
When I first started playing Cibele, developed by Nina Freeman, I sort of knew that I was going to talk about AC, a guy that used to be my camp counselor that I kinda dated in college because so many things in Cibele immediately reminded me of him. In the game, we are playing as Nina Freeman, a freshman in college in 2009, who has a crush on someone who plays the same MMORPG with her, Valtameri.
For a lot of Cibele I felt like I was going to vomit. It was that same tilting, on-the-edge feeling I got at the end of Nozaki-kun, that same tightness in my throat, blurring of my vision. I know how these stories end.
I met AC when I was sixteen and at arts camp. He was about to graduate from a very good school, and all the girls would whisper to each other about how handsome and weird he was. He taught the improv class, he liked comics. He liked me, or at least liked to talk to me. My friends would tell me that he would check me out but I was sure that wasn’t true. What would that sixteen year old girl say if I told her that, in a few years, AC would sigh contentedly at the sight of her? That he would grip her so tight he’d leave marks on her skin? That much later she’d think back on the things he’d say (“You are this perfect creature that I get to fuck and I don’t know what I did to deserve it”) and try to choke back tears in the shower? That she’d see him on the L at Clark and Lake and hide under the stairs?
In stories like this I get fixated on the endings. Nina Freeman, playing a character named Cibele, runs raids with Ichi, who she has a crush on, and they flirt awkwardly. Ichi won’t stop telling Nina how beautiful he thinks she is, and we see, through chat archives on her desktop, that she’s afraid he doesn’t like her back.
It works because it is so genuine, such a well-honed facsimile of how we interact with people on the internet, in games. The way Nina types is so much more self-assured than when she’s in voice chat with Ichi. I played with subtitles on, and at times every line began and ended with “awkward laugh.” She’s sort of always trying to get Ichi to say that’s she’s pretty, but she seems to really believe that she’s not. Their conversations ramble—they tell each other little details of their backgrounds, their lives—and you can feel the things that are unsaid, especially when Nina gets messages from her friends assuring her that it’s okay, go ahead, he talks about you all the time.
We see a little of the rest of her life too—her poetry, photos of her friends, some of her emails. Before you open up a representation of her desktop, there’s a short video of what she’s doing just before, and when you log off of Valtameri, there’s a video of what she does just after. The line between the girl in this game and the woman who made it is pretty blurry, even if it’s still liminal enough for me to project myself onto her. There’s a fullness to this character, especially in how her entire focus is on Ichi. Even before they make plans to meet, before they say, “I love you,” before he breathlessly tells her, “Please, call me Blake,” he’s all over her desktop, her chatlogs, her folder of pictures. She’s young, she’s in love, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. And neither does he.
AC would alternate between begging me to call him or entertain him at work and ignoring me entirely. I’m still not sure if he meant to hurt me or if he didn’t know what to do with a girl so young, so in love, so unsure of what to do. In Cibele, Blake is much more clearly just confused and afraid. Like Nina, he’s never been in a relationship and, in that 19 year old way, isn’t sure he ever wants one. He doesn’t mean to hurt her—he just does.
It’s very difficult for me to talk about this game without dwelling on my own pain. AC let things go a lot farther than Blake ever did. I met AC’s mom and AC’s sister at their beach house, I’d regularly catch a bus from college to stay at his apartment for a weekend. He bought me drinks, he bought me drugs, he’d pick up a rosebud from the sidewalk and tell me it was beautiful, like me. And then he’d be gone. He’d tell me exactly what I wanted to hear because he was, “afraid to hurt me,” and then never want to talk about it again.
But AC was older than me—Blake is Nina’s age, figuring things out in the same way that Nina is. Freeman doesn’t portray Blake with an ounce of bitterness, even when he is at the precipice of breaking her heart, even after he tells her that it was a mistake to come visit. This isn’t a tragedy. This is just a thing that happened, once, a real love that was honest and then ended. Unlike the man I dated, Blake really wasn’t trying to hurt her. And he probably did love her. He just doesn’t know how.
There are parts of Cibele that are clumsy, too earnest, but I don’t know what I would change. Would it have touched me so deeply if it didn’t wear it’s heart on its sleeve so much, if it didn’t want to so accurately portray that kind of female, teenage experience, blog posts and all? Perhaps its ending is too abrupt—but I’m not sure that Freeman wants to linger on this version of herself all alone. It’s what I want, to see her pain when she logs back into the game and has to deal with the emptiness where Ichi, Blake, used to be. But the game isn’t really about her pain. It’s about how she loved.
The end of Nozaki-kun isn’t supposed to make you cry. It’s supposed to ease you out of a first love, it’s supposed to help you let go. Freeman ends the game with a quote attributed to herself—why not, in a game so saturated with herself—that tells us that she’s glad she had this first love. Cibele, I don’t think, was supposed to make me cry, I don’t think it wants me to linger on how things ended. It’s supposed to help me let go. I hope that I will.
Cibele was developed by Star Maid Games. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for Mac.
Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold.