When I was a teenager, I spent all of my time in role-playing chatrooms. As soon as I got home from school, I’d boot up the family’s iMac and wait impatiently as AOL dialed into its servers. I would waste my evenings pretending to be someone else for strangers on the Internet.
I’ll admit, when I think about those years, a twinge of shame runs through me. I was a young girl discovering who I was and I was doing it on the internet–I was just beginning to understand my own sexuality and how I wanted to connect with people. While my real life friends were meeting in each other’s basements and getting their older siblings to sneak them alcohol, sneaking away into closets and bathrooms to explore each other’s bodies, I was on the internet, typing out strings of fiction like, “She walked towards him, katana brandished, lips parted,” and other absolute nonsense that makes me cringe to think about.
the latest game from indie developer and Fullbright Company level designer , is about meeting people on the Internet and then meeting them in real life to have sex. Freeman plays a fictionalized version of herself in this FMV game, in which we see and hear her play an online fantasy game as a magical girl named Cibele. As Cibele, Freeman meets a young man online with the gamer tag Ichi, and soon the two are flirting and sending each other photos of themselves. We see her defend the time she spends with Ichi in emails to other friends, listen to her take in his self-centered chatter, and pose in a bra for a photo to send to him.
It’s all very real, and I respect Freeman’s bravery. She confirmed that this is her story, a story that has taken her years to work through and something that she has come to terms with and grown stronger for. Freeman is expressive and bright, and listening to her talk about this encounter brings me back to my own puberty on the Internet. Being a woman on the Internet these days can be a little rough, but growing up on the Internet was another beast entirely. Between ads that persuaded you to look a certain way or buy certain things and forum posts and chatrooms that where people wrote why you should act a certain way, the endless hallway of clicking and reading could make you question your self worth. Am I pretty? Am I smart? Would anyone ever want to sleep with me? As I grew into a young woman, I was spending time in cyberspace, where everyone with a keyboard and internet connection could tell me why I was or was not pretty and how I needed to be in order to be loved.
It was harrowing, and really crappy. But the Internet and its horde of strange friends were the lens some of us used to examine ourselves in our formative years.
Discovering myself and other people while hiding behind a computer screen offered safety, comfort, and deception: I could be whoever I wanted to be, and no one would be the wiser. But when you romance on the Internet, the person you develop feelings for could be anyone, especially not who they say you are. You could find yourself attracted to a work of fiction, a phantom–or in Freeman’s case, someone who got what they wanted and disappeared.
Freeman’s character spends most of her time in an online RPG. For Freeman that real-life RPG was Final Fantasy Online, and there are echoes of Final Fantasy and anime visual themes in the RPG she constructed for Cibele. After exploring Cibele’s desktop–a small collection of folders containing real photos of Freeman and her teenage friends, poems she has written, chat logs and blog entries–you can dive into that online game and fight some monsters with Ichi. It feels a little voyeuristic digging through these photos and files–after all, Freeman says they were all taken from old computers she had during this time in her life. But it’s all a brilliant trail of narrative breadcrumbs painting a picture of a lonely, deep-feeling young woman who wants so badly to connect with a young man.
But through playing Cibele, my own feelings of guilt connected to my sexual awakening on the Internet faded. Freeman and I agree: these feelings, these things, have happened to more people than they may care to admit. We weren’t alone in using the Internet and online games as a way to connect with others and grow, and it’s not something to feel ashamed of. In some ways, those more dangerous days of the internet were the perfect way to learn social skills and street smarts when it comes to romance and relationships; by throwing ourselves in the murky deep end, we prepared ourselves for an adulthood of better choices for our own well being.
In Cibele’s online game, there’s one moment that struck me: after defeating an in-game boss with Ichi, he shouts, “Yes, I got the final hit on that boss!” This insinuated, at least to me, that Ichi could be a selfish individual, calling all the shots and taking all the spoils–in this case experience points, and later Cibele’s heart. It’s tiny additions like this line, and like the Livejournal-esque entries buried in the maze of folders on Cibele’s desktop, that make the game such a brilliant construction. The story isn’t pushing into your face, and it leaves much open for you to discover on your own and ponder.
Playing through Freeman’s story made me feel a little happier about my own. I’m curious to see what others will feel playing Cibele, especially men who may have been in Ichi’s position or others who didn’t grow up on the Internet. My colleague Austin Walker at Giant Bomb and the way he talks about experiencing Freeman’s Internet awakening makes me excited for others to try it. Cibele is a rare window into a rare story, and Freeman’s voice and presence make it all the more heartfelt.