Title: Emily is Away
Developer: Kyle Seely
Platform: PC, Mac
Genre: Simulator, Visual Novel
Release Date: November 20th, 2015
Review: Emily is Away
Emily is Away is a single player game with an interactive story. It was developed by Kyle Seely and published on Steam.
Remember a time before Facebook and Skype? When Windows XP was the next big thing and AIM was king. Relive that era with Emily is Away. Create a screenname and browse buddy infos in this chat-bot meets adventure game. Explore your relationship with Emily, a fellow high school student, in a branching narrative where you choose the outcome. And most importantly, change your text color to lime green so people know you’re the coolest kid in school.
After choosing a screen name and icon, the player gets to log onto AIM, the greatest instant message system of the 90’s and early 2000’s. Meet your high school pals: Brad, Jules, Travis, and, of course, Emily. Brad is an emo jerk and an aspiring musician. Travis is the standard jock/fratboy. Jules is a party girl, and Emily is… Emily.
All the characters are completely flat stock characters drudged up from a 1990’s teenage sitcom, and your character is no better. Regardless of how you try to play, you continuously act like a typical “nice guy” just waiting to jump out of the mythical “friend zone.” Your character judges every guy that Emily dates while waiting on the sidelines for her to pick up on his interest and choose him.
Over the next four years, experience a once a year interaction with the girl you have pined for since high school. Build your friendship, help her through her problems, and pussyfoot around making a move. Nothing you select actually changes the outcome of the game, and only a small handful of choices even affect minor parts of the story.
The story begins with you and Emily chatting on AIM just before graduation. Emily debates going to a party being thrown by her jock boyfriend, Travis, or staying home. During this conversation, she is being bothered by Brad and asks your advice on how to get rid of him. Whether you choose to go to the party or not, it changes nothing about your dynamic with Emily who is the only person you can interact with in the game. As the story continues through the years, Emily becomes increasingly unhappy with whoever she is in a relationship with, whether that is Brad or Travis, but nothing you say ever affects how her life turns out or yours.
There is one rather disturbing choice that comes up in the game. You can choose whether or not to have Emily come visit you, what you do, and whether or not there is drinking involved. If there is any alcohol involved then you and Emily have a one night stand and it is implied that it may or may not have been entirely consensual. Whether that was the intent of the creator or not, I’m not sure, but the dubious nature of this doesn’t help establish your character as the nicest guy with Emily’s best interests at heart. You can argue with her that you weren’t intending for the evening to go that way, but it doesn’t really change that it happened. Without further context (that we are never going to get) there is no way to tell just how consensual things were. The weirdest part about this is that whether or not you and Emily sleep together, Emily is equally upset with you and things are just as awkward. This was probably the least realistic aspect of the story and truly showcased to me the complete lack of real choice in the game.
The Visuals and Sound
I loved absolutely everything about the visuals. The look and sound was nailed perfectly, and I found myself clicking every aspect of the game just to see what other goodies were there. It is fun to hunt around and try to collect all of the AIM icons, but that is pretty much where the fun ends.
In order to talk to Emily, you select one of three options and then type on your keyboard. It doesn’t matter what keys you hit, just mash them and text will appear. This seemed really clever for the first chapter, but by the time the second chapter came around I was already sick of the gimmick. The whole game plays like an artless visual novel. You and Emily have unresolved feelings for each other and yet never seemed to make it work. Play once or play a dozen times, and the outcome will be the same. Even if you try to avoid a relationship with Emily, each conversation plays out more or less the exact same. By the end of the game, any option you select doesn’t mean anything because your character deletes your choice and types what they want anyway.
Overall the game was okay. It was sort of fun for the first play through, and I have since gone through another couple times. It really is unfortunate because I was so excited to see this game and remained fairly hyped for it up through about the second chapter. Those passing near my desk heard the familiar instant messenger noises and stopped, confused as to why I’d be communicating on such an archaic system. I explained the premised of the game with much gusto, overjoyed to bring them into my little realm of AOL-based nostlgia. Unfortunately, despite all of the interactivity, you can’t really change how anything plays out. Regardless of what school you go to and whether or not you meet up with Emily, conversations remain the same only with names and locations changed. All-in-all it is tedious and caused me to lose interest. I really can’t understand why games bother to include a false sense of agency when the story line remains fairly linear. You can’t affect anything outside of your interactions with Emily, and no matter what you do the end result is always the same. All characters involved including your own comes off as dislikable rather than relatable, and it really kills any desire to continue to play through in order to unlock further achievements.
While I do realize the the name of the game, Emily Is Away, signifies that Emily is unobtainable no matter what you do, I can’t forgive the ridiculous linear story and unrealistic dialogue. The AIM angle is a cute gimmick, but once you get past the retro appearance, there just isn’t enough substance to hold up under scrutiny. It is a poorly written visual novel without even the artwork to cover it up and not even playing to my 90’s/00’s nostalgia can make up for it. While I can appreciate the tragic beauty of the concept, it just falls flat in so many ways.
In the end, Emily Is Away becomes your own personal purgatory as you loop through the game over and over again just hoping for some form of change. The moral of the story? Walking away from hopeless situations is the best course of action. In this case, I’m walking away from this game. I award Emily is Away 4.2/10.
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