Emily is Away, video game, box art, title, messenger, AIM, Windows XP

Review: Emily is Away

Declared a ‘friend-zone simulator’ on Steam reviews, Kim found this little title to be much more than that. How did she and Phil find revisiting their teenage years?

Title overview   |   Initial impressions   |   Plot   |   Gameplay   |
Visuals and audio   |   Replay and innovation   |
Screenshots and videos   |   Final thoughts   |   Review round-up

Title overview
Name: Emily is Away
Developer: Kyle Seeley
Publisher: Kyle Seeley
Release date: November 2015
PEGI rating: Not listed
Genre: Adventure
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
More information: Official website

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Initial impressions

In an interview with We Got This Covered around three months ago, developer Kyle Seeley said of his project: “Emily is Away was born out of my own nostalgia and desire to romanticize [the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM)] era of computing. I used instant messengers a lot during middle school and high school – some of my most formative memories and conversations took place over AIM… We’ve always been obsessed with throwbacks to certain eras, with 80s throwbacks being really huge right now, but we’ve only just began to explore the late 90s / early 00s. The underlying game and mechanics just fell into place once I made the instant messenger shell.”

I was a teenager in the 1990s and there are a number of things I remember about using MSN Messenger after school. You’d spend ages agonising over which font colour to use; it was considered ‘cool’ to include song lyrics in your username and profile description, the more obscure and meaningful the better; and the best way to get someone’s attention was to appear on- and offline at carefully timed moments. Emily is Away is a short game that won’t appeal to everyone, but it successfully captures the desire to be accepted and feelings of social awkwardness that we all experience in our teenage years.

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The game’s plot centres around its namesake and her relationship with your character, showing their online chat conversations via AIM from 2002 to 2006. Without giving too much away, the description on the Steam page sums it up rather nicely: “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 colour to lime green so people know you’re the coolest kid in school.”

It appears that Emily doesn’t have many fans if the Steam reviews are anything to go by.

While your character’s sex is never mentioned, as you get deeper into the conversations it does feel as if the chats are taking place on the desktop of an American teenaged boy. It also appears that Emily doesn’t have many fans if the Steam reviews are anything to go by. With Gumi writing ‘You are constantly stonewalled and treated like a sucker, no matter what you do, by a hypocritical, guilt-tripping ♥♥♥♥♥ that you for some reason are still talking to after give years’ and Bilbo Baggins stating ‘Hope you will die, Emily’, it’s clear to see that she isn’t particularly liked.

Personally I think it’s more complex than that; and without wanting to get into an in-depth discussion about how women are represented within video games, this does seem to be a very male-orientated opinion. Perhaps I say that because I’m female myself and experienced similar chat conversations from Emily’s side back when I was younger. Regardless, there’s something that strikes me as a little odd about the narrative of Emily is Away: at the beginning of the title both characters state that they’re best friends, yet during the gameplay they only chat with each other once a year.

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The gameplay here is extremely simple. After entering your screen-name (either one typed yourself or a title randomly generated for you) and selecting your Buddy Icon, you’re presented with a Buddy List containing the details of everyone online at the moment. Pay attention and you may even see the names of some of your Steam friends – a nice little touch. Emily pops up to say hello and three possible options are provided as responses; players are then able to select which they’d like to go for and press random keys on their keyboard to produce the text in the chat box.

We’ve all changed parts of our messages after re-reading them several times before hitting the send button.

As the conversation progresses, at certain points your character will automatically choose to delete what they’ve entered and reword this to change the tone of their response. For example, ‘You’re my best friend’ becomes ‘You’re one of my best friends’; and towards the end of Emily is Away heartfelt questions such as ‘Is this it for us?’ are updated to ‘How’s the weather been there?’. We’ve all changed parts of our messages after re-reading them several times before hitting the send button, and as Seeley said in his interview: “This mechanic exists in the game and lets you kind of see into the rawer thoughts of the main character.”

Very slight spoiler ahead:

I streamed the title on Twitch recently, before Phil took over and attempted to woo Emily. When both of our efforts failed we took to being as obnoxious as we could, calling friend Travis ‘a dick’ and denouncing her current boyfriend as ‘an asshole’, to see if that changed the ending. While we found that the options selected as responses altered the direction or tone of the conversation, they ultimately steer the player into one of two outcomes – neither of them particularly happy. chriss2k summed it up in his review: “I will one day, be with Emily! Update: I tried every possible way. F*ck her.”

It’s for this reason that many players have called Emily is Away a ‘friend-zone simulator’ in their Steam reviews and some have rated it negatively for the limited number of endings. While I agree that the title won’t appeal to everyone, I’m not sure it would have been so effective in its delivery if more outcomes had been added. I’ll go into this a little more in the final paragraphs of this review.

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Visuals and audio

Everything about the presentation of Emily is Away screams nostalgia.

Everything about the presentation of this game screams nostalgia: the backdrop is a recreation of a Windows XP desktop including the sound-effects. When choosing your Buddy Icon you’ll be presented with pictures of band logos and film names, and clicking on the profiles of online friends reveals the song lyrics they’ve entered into their descriptions. You’ll hear key presses as you enter your responses and every now and again, a door will open or those in the background.

Seeley stated in his interview: “I also added some more modern features for the player. For example, when Emily is responding the client will show ‘emerly35 is typing…’ That feature didn’t exist in the old client, but it adds so much potential for engagement and narrative design that I had to include it.” For those of us who remember sitting in front of AIM or MSN Messenger on our computers back in the 1990s, it’s just like being there all over again. Such touches enhance the plot’s effect and make it hit closer to home – and older players will find themselves cringing as they recall some of their past online chats.

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Replay and innovation

A single playthrough of Emily is Away will take between twenty and thirty minutes to complete and it’s likely you’ll dive straight back in for another attempt to woo your love interest. Entering different screen-names each time will unlock further Buddy Icons and using these results in Steam achievements. There’s therefore some replayability value here, and myself and Phil spent ninety minutes in total playing the title; however, neither of us has returned to it since and I suspect this may be the case for a lot of other players too.

If the complexities of the relationship could be further explored, it may have left a more lasting impression.

As for innovation, the game is inventive in that it’s one of the only titles which takes place entirely within a chat messenger. Although it didn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of Her Story in terms of originality, it definitely contains something unique. Perhaps if the conversations between Emily and your character were a little longer and took place more frequently than once a year (hours were spent on MSN Messenger when I was younger), the complexities of their relationship could be further explored and would have left a more lasting impression.

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Screenshots and videos

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Final thoughts

Emily is Away was a Digital Selection at IndieCade 2015, and was an Official Selection at both the Boston Festival of Indie Games (FIG) and Indie Dev Super Show in the same year. It also has a ‘Very Positive’ rating on Steam at the present time with 89% of almost 20,000 reviews giving it a thumbs-up, so it has clearly made an impact.

Does that mean it should be included in future 1001 lists? I’m not entirely sure how to answer that question, if I’m honest. Younger players who weren’t around during the days of AIM and MSN Messenger may not ‘get’ the title in the same way that those of an older generation do and this could possibly explain some of the negative reactions – including those that are frustrated that the game doesn’t include a happy ending. It makes it hard to score this release any higher than we have done below, but at the same time it’s one I’d recommend checking out some time for the following reasons.

We were all that teenager once, and Seeley’s project does a remarkable job at capturing that feeling.

As mentioned above, I don’t think Emily is Away would have worked so well if there was a positive outcome. It’s the potential of a happy ending that makes it the title it is – and the end result just causes the whole thing to hit closer to home. How many of us have had a crush on someone at school, and tried to further that relationship through the use of a messenger client after home-time only to have it fail awkwardly? We were all that teenager once and, even though it won’t appeal to everyone and would benefit from a little more content, Seeley’s project does a remarkable job at capturing that feeling.

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Review round-up
Reviewed: PC
Source: We downloaded the game for free from Steam
Positive: A unique mechanic that captures what it was like to be a teenager in the 1990s
Negative: More content would have enabled the relationship between the characters to be further explored
Score: 31 out of 60
Grade: Worth a look
Emily is Away, video game, review, graph, Worth a look

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6 thoughts on “Review: Emily is Away

  1. Hmmm, this seems very similar to another recent indie game “Digital love story”. that games takes place in a much earlier time period and has your interface set up like an Amiga desktop and with you connecting to the web via BBS’s. That story is a deal more Sci-Fi in nature but its very very similar. I think the love interests name is even Emilia, similar to Emily.


    1. I’d never heard of Digital Love Story before playing Emily is Away, but it’s mentioned in a lot of articles about the game. Maybe I’ll have to check it out!


  2. When it comes to indies, I usually find myself gravitating towards gameplay-heavy experiences such as Shovel Knight and La-Mulana. I have a similar attitude towards visual novels; the few I’ve played are the Ace Attorney series and the Zero Escape trilogy – all of which have gameplay to go along with their stories. Emily is Away looks like another one of those indie titles that revolves around a certain storytelling gimmick that is genuinely unique, but doesn’t stop the experience from being one-dimensional (sort of like The Stanley Parable).

    I have to say I’ve been far more impressed with the indie games of this decade than the previous one. We’ve reached the point where games made by a single person, such as Undertale and Papers, Please, can surpass the average AAA effort in terms of both ingenuity and creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’d say give it a go if you have half an hour to spare, but you’ll enjoy it more for the nostalgia than the gameplay. I’m interested to see where the dev goes next – whether he’ll improve on the ‘chat’ mechanic or move in a completely different direction.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed Emily is Away for the short length that it lasts. Most of my enjoyment came from being brought back to the days where AOL ruled supreme however and the little touches of the time periods the game represents, with music and film icons and the like.

    Regarding all of the negative hate on user reviews, of course they are hateful because its gamers, and more importantly, angry male gamers. My story with Emily is Away didn’t even involve my character “chasing” after Emily or being “manipulated and used” by her. We talked and some things were obviously leaning one way or the other because there’s only so many choices the game presents, but the relationship was mostly just distant friends and my choices reflected that, even including my character having a real relationship with someone that was close to him and not fawning after Emily.

    My story was one of a friendship withering away and the sudden and abrupt ending to the game was still sad because of that, it reflected real life and the sad fact that even the closest of friends can just drift apart and things just end, with no real closure or reason.

    Its a game worth playing.

    Liked by 1 person

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