Essays, Games

Idle Animations: Playing and Not Playing in Cibele [GIFs]

Idle Animations is a recurring series in which I play games without playing them, exploring quiet, still moments, how games fill space and time, and what happens when you let a game play itself.

Star Maid Games’ Cibele isn’t a game you can play idly. Without your interaction, the story doesn’t progress, and story is the game’s real draw. By clicking your way through Nina’s desktop full of photos and poetry, as well as her game of Valtameri, you play through a story of first love and subsequent loss, drawn along not by puzzles or platforming or combat, but by the earnestness of the narrative.

Cibele, Star Maid Games, 2015

Idleness really isn’t part of the equation. You’re always looking at pictures or reading text or clicking to move Nina’s Valtameri avatar, the titular Cibele, through the game’s world. In fact, idleness is actively discouraged—you have to attack alongside Ichi, Nina’s love interest and fellow player of Valtameri, in order to draw out the bosses and advance the story. But clicking is all you do; it’s how you attack, how you open IMs, how you look at Nina’s selfies, and how you read her poetry. It’s simple, but at its basest level, that clicking is so much of what games actually are.

Allow me to digress for a moment here. Some of the reception to Cibele cited the game’s lack of a fail state and its straightforward click-to-progress gameplay as negatives. I, unsurprisingly, disagree—Cibele isn’t Prey or NieR: Automata or Breath of the Wild. It isn’t even a walking simulator like Firewatch or Gone Home, at least not in the sense that we normally think of it. What it is is a perfect encapsulation of a kind of idleness: a play that’s not really playing, more of an experience had while gaming than a gaming experience.

While playing Cibele, I was reminded of the years I spent playing World of Warcraft in the late 2000s. Not when we finally downed bosses in Icecrown Citadel, but when my guild would jump up and down on the bank in Orgrimmar while talking about our day. Not the actual 3:00 a.m. rep runs, but the feel of the 3:00 a.m. rep runs—the sense of community, the friends I made there, the drama and laughter and feeling of coordinating enough with others to do something impossible on our own. I was playing the game during these times, certainly, but I wasn’t really playing the game; I was socializing.

And, more importantly, I was clicking my way through rotations, responding to raid leaders and guild members in chat rather than engaging with the game. The best memories I have of World of Warcraft are the ones that were just about spending time with one another—the idle moments between raids, the complaining about lengthy dungeon queues, the goofiness of trade chat.

It’s this that Cibele captures perfectly: we’re seeing into the past, and it’s the conversation that sticks. The gameplay is secondary not because the design is lazy or uninspired, but because Nina, our point-of-view character, isn’t focused on it. She’s thinking about Ichi, as we are thinking about Ichi, and the simple system of clicking to attack reflects that. Actual MMO gameplay in a narrative game would be incredibly chaotic and unapproachable until the player becomes fluent in the game’s language—something that’s not going to happen in a game that’s just over an hour long, as Cibele is.

So, you can’t play Cibele without playing it. It’s entirely driven by your interaction, as Valtameri won’t open, the boss won’t spawn, and the FMV cutscenes that show Nina and Ichi’s out-of-game lives won’t play unless you progress. Idleness isn’t an option, despite how strongly the game reminded me of the idle hours I spent in WoW, despite the outrage of people who think that play only looks one way.

Cibele, Star Maid Games, 2015

That isn’t to say there’s no idleness at all in Cibele. If you choose not to click on enemies, Nina’s avatar looks decidedly nervous; her posture, knees together as she bounces, suggests a self-consciousness and her hair and dress blow in the wind. Stand still long enough and she’ll call for Ichi, who wanders off on his own—he tells what direction he’s gone and you can find him that way. If Nina leads by heading off in a new direction, Ichi continues wandering off on his own for a moment before following.

Contrast this to how she looks while attacking. Her stance now reads as confident, her legs apart, arms above her head as she twirls and raises her staff to cast spells. She’s an avatar in control, whereas, when idle, her animation looks lost and a bit nervous.

Cibele, Star Maid Games, 2015

I can’t make suppositions about Nina—real Nina or Cibele Nina—but I can say that, when I was playing WoW, the moments where I moved an avatar through a virtual space, no matter how much or little I was playing, were the times I felt most in control of my life. I was struggling in school, getting poor grades for the first time. I felt aimless, distant, unsure. When I could stab a dragon or exploit the buildings in Orgrimmar to end up under the city, I was in control. I could do difficult things. I could make progress. I had goals with tangible steps.

Cibele is a game about doing things. Final Fantasy XI, the game that inspired Valtameri, is a game about doing things. World of Warcraft, too, is a game about doing things. But it’s the moments where I did nothing, the moments filled in by idle chatter and goofing around, that I remember.

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