Recently, an old friend of mine lost his father unexpectedly. We had attended the same schools growing up in Hawaii. I've known this person since the 6th grade, but unfortunately, reunions in the last several years have been few in number. Life, work, family, and, frankly, half of the Pacific Ocean conspires to keep us apart. Text messages, Facebook IMs, and the occasional Skype call are all we have. It isn't enough, but it sustains our friendship for a remarkable future handshake and hug.
I learned of his tragedy through social media where every important event in all our lives is cataloged and stored. Another close friend from Hawaii (now based in Japan) told me the sad news. Between the two of them, they constitute the bulk of my non-family friendships that have lasted since childhood. Growing up, we were inseparable, and I consider these two closer than some of my own blood relatives.
We needed to support our grieving friend somehow. A phone call would be difficult with the time difference. Finally, we started just chatting on Facebook. More than two hours later, it felt almost like a real reunion. Several times between the numerous inappropriate jokes and vulgar comments, we lamented a future reunion. The instant messages sustained us, and provided for a connection that was desperately needed.
There was a time when instant messenger programs felt so extremely important. Before Facebook and Twitter and even before Xanga and Multiply, AOL IM, ICQ, mIRC was everything you needed to keep in touch with distant friends. There was a cadence to the messages and the written record allowed us to save, obsess, and cherish over every conversation.
Emily is Away is a wonderful game based in the late 1990s, early 2000s Internet era. Replicating the AOL IM experience from the dial-up modem to that trademark messenger chime, the game pounces on nostalgia and delivers an effective emotional journey. Akin to the story beats of Gone Home, Emily is Away is another great example of a small games resonating in big ways.
From the start of the game, you need to input a screen name and IRL name. It works best if you use your old screen name for real immersion. Emily is Away is a series of IM conversations with your friend Emily from high school through the end of college. What really stands out is the great attention to detail. Every person on your Buddy List has a little profile or an Away message that changes through over time which reflects the character's personality and life. By pressing any keys, it simulates "typing" which seems silly at first, but it works in immersing the player.
There is a real sense of longing and lost love that envelops Emily is Away. While the nostalgia for the time period is strong, the game is even more effective in reminding me of the hopeless and confused romantic that I was in my early twenties. Emily is Away like Gone Home and Life is Strange stresses that time in a young person's life where love and relationships are young and naive. Not to say that one would ever just "figure" out love, but there is idealism and hopefulness that eventually slams into cold reality.
Emily is Away made me think of relationships long ago, romantic or otherwise. It made me think of how easily the nature of such relationships can change and vanish. The invocation of past mistakes and past regrets makes Emily is Away a tremendous and personal piece of interactive fiction. It is a powerful, short, and interesting game.
The game takes about 30-40 mins to get through the entire story and is available for free on Steam.