When I was growing up, I didn’t have the same experiences as a lot of my peers. I never spent my childhood playing on a Nintendo console or a Game Boy, and while I did have a brief love affair of Pokémon cards and cartoons, I never fell into the whirlpool of games like so many of my friends. By the same token, I never did use the old AIM chat service that my generation had in the days before texting and social media changed our landscape.
But I did get a glimpse of those days and that chat culture through a free-to-play indie game called Emily is Away.
Developed by Kyle Seeley with the Ren’Py language, this visual novel recreates an old-school Windows chat program that you, the player, have on your computer. We follow the player and their relationship with Emily, a high school classmate, as they start college in 2002 and make various choices that lead to a major shift to them being more than friends by the end of the game in 2005.
Even though I didn’t go to high school at the same time as these characters (Class of 2005, go Highlanders!), I can relate to their experiences of maintaining friendships online and how things change during college. Especially when it comes to relationships. And that’s what makes the game engaging for so many players, myself included. We can recognize our own ups and downs in the different dialogue options presented in-game (as well as groan at some of the user icon options that we might’ve had back in the day, as the game so lovingly recreates).
Emily is fascinating as an enigma. She has an on-again, off-again boyfriend, and their break-up gives the player the option to either be a comforting friend, a jealous love interest, or a savvy rebound hookup. And the player’s dialogue options have their own subtext, changing from what we want to say to a more underhanded sentence being typed out in AIM.
While most roads lead to the same not-so-cheery ending, I did enjoy the brief but meaningful time I spent playing Emily is Away. Besides being a nostalgia trip like Gone Home, it told a story with a beginning, middle, and end that followed two young adults on an awkward journey of emotions. It was short, but it left its mark, and for a simple dialogue exercise, you can’t ask for more than that.
Bibliography: Emily is Away. Designed and written by Kyle Seeley. Ren’Py (engine). Microsoft Windows; Mac OS X; Linux. Original release date: November 20, 2015.