Welcome to I’m Still Talking About… My 2015 end of the year feature where I find fifteen games that defined the indie game scene for me this year.  These aren’t the best games of 2015, they’re not the must-plays, they are the games that have refused to leave my thoughts, the games that got under my skin.  For better or worse, these are the games I’m still talking about.

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I love a good title.  A little ambiguous with multiple meanings, evocative and honest, a good title is a beautiful thing.  Especially in video games where titles have just become so horrendously lazy.  Just look at games like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (blah) or Battlefield: Hardline (barf), even Fallout 4 is just using a creative title from years ago with a number stuck at the end of it.  Emily is Away is a great title for one of the most surprising games this year.

Emily is Away is the kind of game that people chat you about after you’ve played it.  I think it struggles with how it connects to certain people, but for a specific (and likely large) audience, it really hit its mark.  It’s personal yet universal, a rare feat for a game.  It tells a simple story, but that story strikes so close to home that it feels important.  Emily is Away is a coming-of-age tale, something all too uncommon in video games.  All of these reasons, and a couple more, is why I’m still talking about Emily is Away.

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Is it really THAT good?

Emily is Away is a simple game.  Players sign into a mock AOL Instant Messenger and engage a friend of theirs, Emily, in the regular conversation of kids in their later teens through their early twenties.  It’s a choice based, text adventure and manages to be even more simple than it sounds.  Does it have gameplay?  Not really.  Mechanics?  Well, not really.  Is it fun?  Um, that’s not really the point.  So it’s fair to wonder what is the point of Emily is Away.  That’s a fair question.  The only answer I can give is that there are different types of video games for different types of people.  

The reductive nature of Emily is Away doesn’t make it a bad game, but it’s hard to stand by it as an massive interactive artistic achievement when it is so small in scope and so one dimensional in its design.  The game only has one outcome, so even it’s choices aren’t really a significant part of the gameplay.

 

So why are you talking about it?

Small and simple don’t categorically mean that a game is bad.  Emily is Away may be a straightforward experience, but it weaves such an interesting tale and creates such an illusion of choice that it still does an impressive job of getting players to invest in the world it’s building and the story it’s telling.  The point of video games isn’t alway to challenge us or to waste hours upon hours of our time, it is to create a suspension of disbelief which carries us away to another time and place where we invest ourselves in fictitious people, places, and things.  In the end, you hopefully come away with a rewarding experience.  All of these things are true with Emily is Away.

While Emily is Away may not be ambitious in its scope, the decision to make the game small results in something exceedingly rare in the video game: intimacy.  If you guided a two dimensional character through a pixelated college dorm room, it would create a disconnect between you and the experience.  It’s not that this disconnect is irreparable, but it leaves you with a third-person experience from which you can easily detach yourself.  If the game had cutscenes that covered the action away from the AOL Instant Messenger you use to communicate to Emily, you would again feel your personal investment be stretched as you went from participant to observer.

Furthermore, Emily is Away makes an ambitious statement about the choices we make.  The game’s metanarrative could be interpreted as a commentary on fate and the fact that it’s not really our choices affect a relationship but rather who we are as people.  Often we agonize over singular moments in a relationship.  We believe that if we had only said the right thing or made the right move, we could salvage a relationship that ended poorly.  But Emily is Away suggests that maybe the reason for failed relationships extends beyond our own actions.  After all, it’s a rather self-centered opinion that your actions alone (or your partner’s actions alone) ruined something that is shared by two people.  In retrospect we tend to find that it is the very makeup of our personality (and our partner’s) that caused a relationship to fail.  

All of this musing comes from Emily is Away.  Suddenly the game doesn’t seem so small or simple, does it?

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Okay, that sounds alright.  But what is the real reason I should play this game?

Emily is Away does so much with so little.  It all starts with the small artistic decisions to help build the reality of this little AIM set-up Kyle Seeley has made.  From the home screen to the way players sign in to begin the game, Seeley manages to capture the world of AOL Instant Messenger in a way that speaks to a generation who grew up with the service.  In addition to the look of instant messenger, there are avatars which correlate to the years the game is set in that encapsulate popular movies and music of the era.  From Snow Patrol to V for Vendetta, Emily is Away strikes at a time where the millennial generation was coming of age and starting to explore the grassroot beginnings of social media.  Your buddy list contains status messages filled with moody song lyrics and personal feelings that are being shouted within a group of friends.  Emily is Away, in addition to being an intimate game about failed young love, is also about how the internet opened up a new way for a young generation to communicate, for better or worse.

 

So you’d recommend it to anyone?

This is my trouble with Emily is Away.  As I stated in my feature I wrote about the game, I’m not sure it speaks to everyone.  The game seems to hyper-focus on straight men.  After speaking with Indie Haven’s own Simon Rankin about the game, he said that as a gay man Emily is Away did connect to his past, but not in the same way it did for me.  I can’t really speak for other sexual orientations or genders, so maybe I should just stop before I dig myself too deep, but I still feel like this game doesn’t play the same to all audience members.  

About The Author

The Glorious Predecessor

As I write this, I am listening to Striking Matches and eating a blueberry muffin. The music is good, the muffin is even better. I dance when I drink and have been known to occasionally free-style rap, none of which benefits society.

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