As I type these words, The Woman In Black is playing in the background. It’s a film I’ve heard so many good things about – it’s “terrifying,” it’s “gripping,” – and yet as I watch, I feel nothing. I haven’t jumped, I haven’t felt a cold chill run down my spine… Nothing. It’s a typical ghost story, ably led by a post Harry Potter Daniel Radcliffe. It just doesn’t scare me in any way.

Films rarely have much emotional impact with me – I’m just not a particularly emotional person when it comes to art. When I first came across Emily is Away on Itch.io, I thought I was just playing a simple throwaway game, that would fill an hour or so of my time, and that would be that.But the more I played it, the more I felt… something. It wasn’t fun, but I didn’t dislike it. It was an emotional response to the content of the game, and it was more powerful than any I’ve ever felt from a game before. I wasn’t just empathising with the main character of the game – I was the main character of the game.

Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

Emily Is Away is a text adventure, designed to look like AOL instant messenger. For those of you born too late to remember it, AIM was the chat client that everyone used before Skype and Facebook existed. During the 2000’s, this was the easiest way to chat with your friends after school, and I spent whole evenings of my life on AIM. In a strange way, I had friendships that were confined entirely to on screen interactions, even though I knew these people in real life.

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This game did an amazing job of bringing me aboard its time machine and taking me on a nostalgia trip to my teenage years. The interface is a perfect recreation of Windows XP, right down to the desktop, and sound effects. The aesthetic offers nothing to the gameplay in itself, and yet it makes the whole thing feel so much more real, which makes the story hit that much closer to home. It’s odd to see the old operating system again; it’s something I used to see and hear so regularly, and now it’s little more than a distant memory. In a way, this game highlights the short attention span we’ve developed in this digital age – with technology constantly advancing, we forget about the old technology so easily. It makes me wonder, how long will it be before the technology that seems so final right now, becomes a forgotten relic of the past?

The game follows a string of conversations, set between 2002 and 2006, between a teenage version of yourself, and Emily, a close friend from high school. You choose from a set of three responses, and tap keys at random to write them into the chat box. Each choice you make takes the conversation down a different path.

Emily Is Away is an amazing example of how a video game can hold a mirror in your face and show you a lot about who you are as a person.

And no matter how confident I felt in my choices, nothing went quite the way I hoped it would. The consequences of your choices snowball on you, and the story rolls on like a runaway train. The game took only an hour to complete, but that was all it needed to tell a satisfying, if heartbreaking narrative. I was a helpless passenger, watching on as a relationship slowly died before my eyes.

And that’s why Emily Is Away hit so close to home. I once was that teenager – I have watched relationships die just like this one. People drift apart as the passage of time and space comes between them. That’s just how life is. Think back to your best friends from school. How many of them do you regularly see, or even speak to? Odds are, there’s at least one person you thought you’d never lose touch with, and you have no idea what they’re doing right now.

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Emily Is Away is an amazing example of how a video game can hold a mirror in your face and show you a lot about who you are as a person. Watching a naïve, young version of myself screw-up over and over, I realize how much I’ve changed as a person since those days. Every mistake he makes, I’ve already made it, and learned and grown from the experience.

Of course, Emily Is Away is, in essence, a love story, and in my playthrough, I didn’t “get the girl”. Perhaps there’s some way in which you arrive at a happy ending, but if so, I have yet to find it. Unless you’re made of stone, I’m sure you have memories of a childhood love that didn’t pan out the way you dreamt it would – the one that got away as it were.

It’s amazing how accurately Emily is Away captures every mistake I ever made with a girl, in just five chapters. You can see every word you type, even if you delete them and never send them to Emily, and that adds so much to the story. Sometimes the words you don’t say provide more insight into the story than what you do. You desperately lay out your innermost thoughts, and then replace them with inane small talk.

By the end of the game, as Emily actively ignored me, the story was progressing entirely through words I never said.

“Will we ever be the way we were?” was deleted, and replaced with “Watch any good movies lately?”.

”Is this it for us?” became ”How’s the weather been there?”.

The relationship was dead in the water, and it was heart-breaking to watch, as my in-game self try to hold it together.

As I said earlier, I tend to be fairly detached from pieces of art in general. Sad films don’t make me cry, beautiful songs don’t bring me out in goosebumps… And yet, where all these art forms failed, Emily Is Away succeeded. It resonated with me in an incredibly poignant way – I had a lump in my throat, and damn near tears in my eyes by the end. It did something that so few games succeed in doing – it really stopped me in my tracks.

Since playing Emily is Away, I’ve thought about it a lot. I didn’t love this game – I didn’t even like it. And yet, it made me feel more than any other game I’ve ever played. Not since This War of Mine have I played a game that hurt to play, and yet I’m glad that I played it.The game is free to play, and you can get it from Itch.io and Steam. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if this review has piqued your interest, you should definitely give it a shot.

If you don’t have a nostalgic attachment to AIM, it likely won’t have the same effect on you that it had on me. For a niche market of people like me however, the story that unfolds in this game really cuts like a knife.  

About The Author

Contributor

As a composer and video game enthusiast, Philip has spent years searching for a way to combine his passions for both music and gaming. Then, one day, he figured he could just write about them. He loves to over-analyse the way music helps to shape the player's emotional response in a game. He also loves to criticise bad control schemes, because... Well, they just get on his nerves.

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