The Sad Story of Emmeline Burns is by no means a perfect game. The writing, for example, is replete with poorly constructed sentences and tone problems. And at times, the handful of characters we see look less like beautiful young maidens than they do eerie Victorian era dolls. Yet in the grand scheme of things, these minor quibbles don’t hold a lot of weight, and I want to take the game more seriously than nitpicking it would allow. For looking past the surface blemishes, we find a tender narrative with a relatively well considered approach to its subject matter. Unfortunately, the game covers multiple subjects, neither one proving as compatible with the other as the game would like them to be.

To be more specific, the game follows two concurrent storylines that it switches between on the fly. (I’ll go into more detail about that later.) The core narrative looks at the romance between two 19th century girls: the playful Emmeline Burns and her slightly more serious friend Cornelia Linton. The game depicts their relationship in very idealistic terms, using a lot of sensual, flowery language to describe their budding relationship. Yet in spite of such language, Emmeline Burns portrays the characters’ romance with a surprising amount of clarity. The game is perfectly aware of who these characters are: children without any prior romantic experience. Emmeline and Cornelia are playful in their interactions. They’re carefree, and maybe a little petty when the other crosses a line.

At the same time, though, the two of them are fully aware of what the feelings they have for each other mean. What they have isn’t some deep friendship or passing childhood phase; they really are in love with each other. And it’s here that we see what really makes the game work: the balance it strikes between recognizing the legitimacy and limits of their relationship allows it to portray their relationship as important only for what it is. If the game stressed the legitimacy too much, it would risk using their relationship as a mere tool to make a greater value judgment (see: Read Only Memories). Lean too hard on the limits, though, and you risk hiding their relationship altogether. But by striding down this middle road, Emmeline Burns is able to lend their love an inherent worth.


This is an attitude the game carries over into its second storyline: the sad story of Toma Andrews. Rather than focus on any of Toma’s romantic relationships, her story looks at her familial ones. She spends so much of her life processing her mother’s hatred for those around her and being dragged along wherever said mother goes that she has trouble seeing anything that’s truly hers in life. As heavily wrought as this tale might be, it’s only ever told through Toma’s personal narration, which is a more important narrative choice than it might initially appear. By presenting the world entirely through Toma’s eyes, we gain access to thoughts that might otherwise be inaccessible. We can see her reasoning things out and reacting to them as they happen. She isn’t fulfilling some ritual that was decided without her input; she’s actively processing the events in her life as they happen to her. All this prevents her from becoming the passive object she fears herself to be, lending her character a little depth and credibility in the process. Not to mention added emotional weight to what she experiences.

However, for as strong as these divergent narratives are individually, Emmeline Burns runs into a few problems when it comes to merging them together. The first of these problems: pacing. While both stories share roughly the same amount of time in the spotlight, the game switches between them so frequently that it’s hard to tell what the game is trying to do with them. Does one story frame the other? Is one of them just a diversion? It feels like they’re running in parallel to each other rather than initiating any kind of meaningful back and forth.

That’s not to say the game doesn’t have the two plotlines interact. Unfortunately, they only interact through the most predictable and awkward twist imaginable. Without spoiling anything too major, the game tries to solve Toma’s identity crisis through Emmeline’s romance (sub?)plot. All this approach achieves is to disrespect Toma’s autonomy far more than any event in her life before it. So to make the leap from this to Toma appreciating the identity she’s had all along feels contrived and overly convenient, like the writing doesn’t understand the severity of her problems. Yet the game is still willing to follow through on this twist, even as one of the characters is quick to point out the problems it introduces? (I’d also point out that a kinetic novel isn’t the best place for Toma to find her much-needed self-efficacy, but in light of much these larger problems, I’m willing to overlook it.)

In the end, I see Emmeline Burns’ problems as stemming from a lack of confidence. It’s apparent that the game wants to be nothing more than a love story between two girls, something that’s well within its grasp. So why does it feel the need to tack on a largely unrelated story about a young girl’s identity issues? This move reeks of unconfidence. It’s as though the game felt obligated to set up its story in a totally unnecessary way. But flipping the script, we see that the romance dominates so heavily that it doesn’t give Toma’s side of the story enough room to breath. The issue isn’t that either story on their own is weak. It’s that by forcing both of them together, neither one can serve the other.