The Digital Age has redefined the way we do, well, everything.
Take flirting, for example. In the days of AOL, instead of having to talk to your crush face-to-face, you could just get their screenname, and, after school or work when you were both undoubtedly online, you’d log in and out of AIM, flashing your “has signed in” status like a beacon. If you were lucky, they would see your distress signal and send you a message, perhaps even a single, smiley-less “hey” that sent your heart aflutter.
Maybe you were too young to navigate love in AIM. Or maybe you just want to relive the good old days of early digital courtship. Whatever the case may be, Emily is Away by Kyle Steeley is here to entertain you with its enticing love story that takes place over the course of five years, based entirely in a nostalgia-inducing AIM interface.
When you start the game, you’ll be greeted by the instantly recognizable Windows XP startup chime. Instead of user accounts, you’ll see chapter one, 2002. This is where Emily and your character’s story begins. This game is about immersing you into a story, so you do have the ability to choose a username and actual name that you’ll keep throughout. You do, however, get to change your icon, and one of the things I loved most was that depending on the year you play, the available icons change to relevant pop culture figures of the time. For example, in 2004 Green Day and “Mean Girls” icons are among the options. These details are small, and probably won’t mean anything to younger players, but for those of us who grew up in the early 2000s, they pack an incredible punch of nostalgia that instantly throws us further into the story.
Speaking of the story, Emily is Away is not a love story per se. Although it’s evident from your first exchange with Emily that your character is harboring a major crush, the story does an incredible job of inverting the dialogue and truly making the player feel the weight of their words. While playing, I was wondering how the things I said would affect Emily’s view of me, and your character exhibits small but genuine mannerisms that bring the story to life. Hesitation, for example, is shown when you see “Emily is typing…” stop, only to be replaced a heartbeat later with “Emily is deleting…” Your own character will begin to type things but then change them to make them sound less emotionally charged, which is something anyone who has ever texted their crush can relate to.
There is no music in this game, but the soundtrack of a whirring desktop, mouse clicks and fingers on a keyboard make up a rhythmic harmony. Emily is Away is much less of a game than it is a visual story. It’s not as static as a graphic novel but still limited to an incredibly defined point in time. There are six chapters in all, and each is comprised of a single chat. It’s interesting to watch your character grow between them, and to have memories revealed that you as a player directly influenced but were not present to witness. Each dialogue option is presented as a number you can click in your chat box. From there, you have to type on your keyboard to make the words appear before hitting enter. This was a cute touch that I liked at first, but towards the end of my first playthrough, I wound up just hitting one button repeatedly until I could send the message.
As the years progress, your character and Emily learn a lot about one another. There’s a constant sense of words left unsaid, and half the time you wish you could just type them out, but better judgement tells you to just let things be. There are several intimate moments in the game that truly turn you into the player. I sat biting my nails waiting for Emily to reply at a major turning point in the story, and more than once my fingers hesitated over the enter key.
Ultimately, this is not a story about two people falling in love but growing up. Sometimes we never get to tell people how much we care about them, and sometimes we do, but it’s not the right time. This is a game that, regardless of whether you’ve ever experienced the glare of unspoken words on a screen, aims to illustrate the ambivalence that can engulf a relationship and the difficulty of letting go – not just of those we once so deeply cared for but of our old selves too.
Download Emily is Away for free on Steam.