Emily is Away: Retreading the 2000’s and Young Heartbreak

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.

Copyright © 2015 by Kyle Seeley
Copyright © 2015 by Kyle Seeley

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.

Emily is Away is free-to-play and available through Steam and itch.io.


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.

Life is Strange, Episode 2: Out of Time: A Hand Against a Storm

Having played through the first episode of Square Enix’s new title Life is Strange, I have to say I like the idea of playing through a game in multiple parts the same way I’d follow the first season of a new TV show. The first installment did its job in getting me hooked into the world and characters and now Episode 2: Out of Time shows me just a little more about the series’s premise.

After saving her friend Chloe from a storm and revealing her time-rewinding power, Max continues to investigate the strange things going on in Arcadia Bay and specifically at Blackwell Academy. While Chloe is all-too-eager to test out Max’s powers, Max herself begins to see the price she has to pay for them. Not to mention the fact that she’s trying hard to support her classmate Kate Marsh, whose life continues a potentially fatal downward spiral.

Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix
Copyright © 2015 by Square Enix

So what does Episode 2: Out of Time have to offer?

More Max and Chloe being awesome together.

After getting past the awkward reunion of Episode One, it’s nice to see a more casual interaction between Max and Chloe. Little in-jokes, shared memories, and two girls playing around a junkyard–it’s a warm little relationship that keeps the plot going. Even when you make choices that upset Chloe, she never stays mad at Max for too long (or else she’s doing a good job of covering it up with her devil-may-care attitude).

Chloe’s very unstable lifestyle.

Between conflicts with her mother and stepfather, being 3,000 dollars in debt, and getting busted for smoking pot, Chloe is not an easygoing as she thinks she is. And while I liked testing out Max’s powers with her, it became clear that Chloe really goes off the deep end around Max, especially when Max is trying to balance her friendship with Kate Marsh and triyng to do the right thing in other cases. I get that Chloe is supposed to be more radical than Max, but there were times where not going along with her gut reaction seemed like the smarter choice to make, though only future game episodes will bear that out.

Kate Marsh’s sad journey.

Perhaps even more heartbreaking than watching Chloe’s initial death in the first episode is the long, sad tale of Max’s classmate Kate Marsh. Plagued by a viral video and the aggressive hounding of David the security guard, Kate is driven to her breaking point. As Max, you have the power to intervene for good in Kate’s life or to brush off her concerns. However, this all leads to a very sad climax—and whatever choice you make in the finale of this episode will affect Kate’s life forever. However, it is possible to have a good ending with Kate, provided you treat her like a friend in every way possible (to say anymore would spoil the whole episode).

Paranoia about the rest of the cast.

Max continues to explore the mystery of Rachel Amber’s disappearance and the horrible secrets of the Vortex Club. What this leads to is a series of confrontations and speculations about who’s responsible for Rachel disappearing and for whatever else is being hushed up. Obviously, aggressive types like Nathan Prescott and David are prime suspects, but not even Max’s idol Mark Jefferson is immune from the occasional odd behavior. Perhaps all of them are red herrings, but it still makes me vigilant about every character interaction and whatever clues to the truth are floating around.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the second part of Life is Strange, especially when I could help out poor Kate Marsh and talk to random strangers on the street. While I wasn’t as thrilled with some established characters like Chloe and Warren, I liked their roles in Max’s journey and hope to see where else this strange road is leading.

Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time is available for purchase and download through Steam. The following episode will be released around June of this year.


Bibliography: Life is Strange Episode 2: Out of Time. Developed by DONTNOD Entertainment. Published by Square Enix. Directed by Raoul Barbet and Michel Koch. Produced by Luc Baghadoust. Designed by Baptiste Moisan, Sebastien Judit, and Sebastien Gaillard. Art by Amaury Balandier. Written by Christian Divine. Unreal Engine 3 (engine). Microsoft Windows; PlayStation 3, Playstation 4; Xbox One, Xbox 360. Original release date: March 24, 2015.

Getting Lost in Lovely Landscapes: Dream by HyperSloth

Copyright © 2014 by Hypersloth
Copyright © 2014 by Hypersloth

Indie video games offer a pretty great opportunity for new environments and new styles of gameplay, whether it’s killing demons with a BFG or wandering through a deserted island like in Dear Esther.

Speaking of Dear Esther, it was a major influence on Hypersloth, a small UK developer who produced the indie game Dream.

Dream is about a young grad student named Howard Phillips, who lives alone in a house left to him by his Uncle Edward and undergoes a series of strange dreams each night. As the player, you get to traverse those dreamscapes, from brightly-colored deserts to never-ending mazes and Escher stairs. You solve puzzles in each environment and explore new layers of your subconscious, which seem to revolve around internalized stress and your uncle’s legacy… at first, anyway.

Copyright © 2014 by Hypersloth
Copyright © 2014 by Hypersloth

What attracted me to the game at first was the beautifully rendered landscapes, like the desert where you begin or the Escher stair sequence. Honestly, most maps in this game are gorgeous. The amount of detail in this game is impressive; it’s clear that open landscape games like Dear Esther were an inspiration. I could just wander around and feel good about it, and the idea of solving puzzles in these finely designed territories really got me interested.

However, once you get past the beauty of the landscape, it’s the rest of the gameplay where I felt less enchanted and more frustrated. For example, the mazes in the desert are clever, but you have to travel them while eluding a smoke monster—one that’s more irritating up close, but with a terrifying motor sound. Fortunately, all it can do is drop you out of the maze without undoing your progress, but given enough encounters, it’s quite aggravating.

The same can’t exactly be said for some of the other puzzles; I’ve gone through so many walkthrough videos just to figure out half of them. Even then, when you switch between maps, they don’t stay solved, so if you’ve only completed two out of four maze challenges and reload the game later, you have to go back and solve all four challenges in the same sitting in order to advance. But then again, this game is designed for non-linear storytelling, so I suppose it’s only fair the gameplay is non-linear, too.

Speaking of smoke monsters, another aspect about Dream is that it very quickly changed to a horror game with no clear end in sight. Some players may like the creepy atmosphere and dark environments you have to navigate at times, but not me. I’m more a fan of semi-dark, desolate areas like the island from Dear Esther or the Enrichment Center in Portal than some creaking old house where something’s moving through the shadows and the background music suddenly cuts out.

While I had high hopes for an exploratory, imaginative puzzle game like Dream, I just wasn’t satisfied with the results. Yes, it’s big and unusual, but after a while, you find yourself wondering what’s the point after you fail the Graveyard Puzzle for the 87th consecutive time and you can’t bloody figure out the sequence. I feel like a good puzzle game is based around a single mechanic, like the Portal Gun in Portal or rewinding through time in Braid. In those games, you have a single tool, but the trick is how you use it to solve different challenges. Here, all you have is an inventory of random objects that you collect, no clear direction, and several bizarre clues or twists that don’t seem to really tie into Howard’s waking life. At least, not so far as I can tell.

Dream is available for purchase and download on Steam.


Bibliography: Dream (video game). Designed by Ashley Sidebottom, Lewis Bibby, and Samuel Reed. Developed by HyperSloth Ltd. Steam relase date: August 13, 2013.

Simulated Sorrows Ahead: Depression Quest

By now, a lot of people have heard about this indie video game known as Depression Quest. Many more people have no doubt heard of it in the context of its developer Zoe Quinn and her role in a social media mayhem involving Reddit users and adultery accusations. This led to further controversy regarding Ms. Quinn’s value as a developer and the unfortunate timing of the game’s release around the recent suicide of beloved comedian Robin Williams.

But I’ve waded through those dark and turbulent waters enough and I’d rather spare my audience any of that nonsense. So, instead, I’d like to give the developer some space and actually talk about the game she made on its own merits.

Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn
Copyright © 2013 by Zoe Quinn

Depression Quest is a free-to-play (or pay-what-you-like) text game. You’re dropped into the role of a person in their 20’s with a caring girlfriend named Alex, a loose circle of friends, a lackluster 9-to-5 job, and a pair of supportive but unresponsive parents. You make various choices throughout the game, taking new routes, forming new relationships, and taking the occasional risk. However, the nature of the game limits some optimistic options, like shrugging off stress and enjoying yourself or your work. Despite what some characters will tell you, you can’t in fact “get over it” just like that. Even when you think you’re improving, you can still have bad days.

It’s a game that recognizes depression not as a voluntary quality but as a neurochemical breakdown that makes daily life difficult at times. It really captures the sense of how a person might struggle even with things that make them happy, like a lover, a pet cat, socializing with friends, or working on a project of passion. Obviously, this isn’t a lighthearted, play-when-you’re-bored game. It’s educational and informative in a very engaging and simple way.

On a personal level, while I’ve never been suicidal or diagnosed with clinical depression, I have experienced a lot of the downturns showcased in Depression Quest. My issue is more social anxiety with the occasional depressive moment and even then I’ve done better at some parties than our nameless protagonist does. But many scenarios or conversations in this game really hit home for me and I think it’s great when any form of media, let alone a video game, can reach out and catch someone’s attention like that.

Regardless of how you feel about Zoe Quinn or the whole concept of a game about depression, if you’re interested in seeing the world through those eyes, then I recommend giving this title a look, even if you don’t want to play for long or pay anything at all for it.

I’d also like to point out that, if any readers are feeling pretty low and you need someone to talk to, all you have to do is drop me a line.

Depression Quest is available for download through its official website and Steam.


Bibliography: Depression Quest. Developed by Zoe Quinn. Written by Zoe Quinn and Patrick Lindsey. Edited by Patrick Lindsey. Twine (engine). Original release date: February 14, 2013.

My First Experience with Garry’s Mod

So, thanks to this year’s Steam Summer Sale, I’ve been able to better manage my budget and time for playing video games. Thus far, it’s included such purchases as The Shivah (wherein I play a rabbi trying to solve a murder mystery) and the much-acclaimed Garry’s Mod (wherein I wreak havoc on the physics of an open sandbox world).

It’s quite a pleasant world when you first appear, but really, that’s just an invitation to litter it with junk and blow up as many things as possible (or so depraved gamers like me think). First thing I want to do is get rid of my default old man avatar and try someone nicer. Like Chell from Portal 2, but with blue pants!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And oh look, you can summon an NPC like Alyx Vance! Except something must have gone wrong when I tried out the face poser controls because oh dear God that’s way too much mass and too many angles for a human face.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then one thing leads to another and you find that you can experiment with matching things together.

Exhibit A: a folding chair with wheels and a thruster. Goes nowhere, but it looks great! Kind of!

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Exhibit B: a high-backed leather office chair… with wheels and a thruster. Better-looking than the first construct and about as operational (which is to say, not very).

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

And then the next thing you know, you’re tapping into user-created and pre-existing mods, and then you’re flying modified airboats across the maps, leaving devastation and brilliant colored vapor trails in your wake.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

I’ve got to say that I have some mixed feelings about these open sandbox games. I mean, I love the fact that I can go anywhere in a game environment instead of the pre-defined course from Game Start to Game Over. But on the other hand, having the whole world to yourself can be a little intimidating. When is it enough? How many hours do you want to spend trying to cobble together fantastic vehicles and buildings out of a million odd pieces when you could just be playing Half-Life 2 or any of the other Valve games that this mod was based on?

While it’d be easy to complain about camera angles and random glitches, I will say that Garry’s Mod ultimately leaves me feeling with an odd sense of satisfaction. I may not have gotten much done while I played it (at least, compared to other players), but I walk away knowing that I played and provoked my little virtual world for a few good hours and not a second more.

Which is a roundabout way of saying why I won’t ever be a Minecraft addict anytime soon. Plus, only in Garry’s Mod can you have endless fun blasting away watermelons with a Gravity Gun.

Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation
Copyright © 2004 by Valve Corporation

Garry’s Mod is available for download and purchase on Steam.

Update (8/1/2014): I’m taking a break for the rest of the month to focus on my job, catching up with old friends, and getting through my ever-growing list of shows to watch, games to play, and other forms of media that I’ll ultimately write a review for. See you all in September!


Bibliography: Garry’s Mod. Developed by Facepunch Studios. Published by Valve Corporation. Source (engine). Microsoft Windows, Mac OS X, Linux. Original release date: December 24, 2004.