Instant messaging: something we take for granted, but something that in a lot of ways has shaped an entire generation of friendships, conversations, and even whole personalities. It’s not just a tool for arranging plans, and it never has been: IM clients are an integral aspect of modern relationships which can foster romance, ruin friendships, and define whole periods of your life.
I know that was the case for my younger self, and many of my friends too. So a game like Emily is Away – and now its sequel, Emily is Away Too – was really long overdue. The game is played via a chat client, modelled after AOL’s instant messenger popular in the early 00’s, but still easily recognisable to anyone who jumped on the bandwagon a little later. Self-indulgent personal bios laden with contemporary alt. rock references, icons tracking the ceaseless rise and fall of popular culture, ostentatious and illegible coloured text – you name it, it’s all in there, recreated in a nostalgically pixelly style.
The story unfolds visual-novel style as you choose responses from a list of three, then hammer away at the keyboard to act out typing it. In this way, you negotiate your relationships with two friends, Emily and Evelyn, over the course of your final year of high school; you’ll get to know the interests, tastes and problems of these undeniably charming and believable characters, who are more than likely to resemble people from your own life.
The game does an exquisite job of capturing the distinct nostalgia of the IM generation, discovering via lyric quotes that your love rival has infuriatingly good taste in music.
For this reason, I recommend playing through the first time as close to ‘yourself’ as possible, answering the questions as they apply to your real experiences (or better yet, those of your teenage self). Playing the game with that extra layer of personal engagement really does make a lot of difference, and if the words ‘MSN Plus’, ’emoticon’, or ‘wubu2’ mean anything to you, this game is sure to seize those associations and run a mile down memory lane with them.
The game does an exquisite job of capturing the distinct nostalgia of the IM generation: late nights with a face lit by a laptop screen, forging weekend plans that never go anywhere, and discovering via lyric quotes that your love rival has infuriatingly good taste in music. More than anything, it’s a smart and sensitive meditation on an often overlooked aspect of the turn of the millennium. Emily Is Away Too follows in its predecessors footsteps, holding up a lens to the AOL (or, for latecomers like me, the MSN) chat client and all the unique social dynamics that came with it, many of which still linger with a lot of us today.
There are key differences from the original, though. Where the first game was a step into the territory, Emily is Away Too takes a bold stride, and the game adds a lot of depth and new features that make this a genuinely engaging, intermedial visual novel. You’re no longer restricted to the chat client, as your friends will send you their favourite songs on ‘YouToob’ links, framed with an impressively precise recreation of the actual YouTube layout of the time. Certain sections will require you to choose who you’re going to talk to, as time becomes a sensitive issue, and I found myself in that classic Telltale Games situation of having to make vital decisions as tensions rose and a timer bar depleted ominously by the second.
The game opens by offering a pixelly recreation of a classic Windows background to set as your desktop wallpaper, and I would encourage you to do so, as this little touch really does do wonders for immersion. Better yet, the music you’ll find (or be sent) in the game is actually good, and I found myself having old favourite after old favourite sent along to me, playing each one out in the background of the make-or-break conversations that unfolded across the game’s five chapters.
Another crucial note is that, whilst this game requires no knowledge of its predecessor at all, I would absolutely recommend playing that one first. It’s free on Steam, and will set you up nicely for the themes and format of Emily is Away Too, as well as being a heart-wrenching and beautiful game in and of itself. In both cases, the story is short, but they use their time extremely well, and the multiple directions you can take encourage at least a couple of playthroughs.
A smart and sensitive meditation on an often overlooked aspect of the turn of the millennium.
I can’t recommend this game to anyone who skipped the trend for instant messaging, as it really has nothing to offer someone for whom there are no IM memories to play off. However, if you spent your youth flirting with schoolmates in vibrant green text, downloading the flashiest and most obnoxious emotes with which to replace every letter of the alphabet, and staving off sleep until your best friend went offline at 2 in the morning, this is a game you can’t afford to miss out on.
Emily is Away Too is, simply put, the eulogy that the devoted IM client deserves. With a gorgeous and selectively-chosen soundtrack putting you squarely back in 2006/7, an impressive commitment to authentically recreating sites we still know and love today in their more primitive states, and a familiar story that will pull you right in, this is a treat you can do yourself for just £3.99 and a handful of hours of your time. After all, what’s another evening spent in front of an instant messenger on top of all the others?
Contributor James McCoull purchased this copy of the game through Steam. He spent two hours remembering how good 2007 was for music releases, and how bad it was for his ability to string legible sentences together.