Emily is Away is an interactive narrative by indie developer Kyle Seeley. As the player, you take on the role of a young man/woman as they navigate high school and college in the early-to-mid 2000s. Much of the plot revolves around a close friend named Emily and how your relationship develops over those memorable years. The gameplay is mainly text-based and the story is told completely through conversations on a simulated AOL Instant Messenger chat client (complete with a Windows XP interface and enough noughties pop culture references to make anyone born between ’90 and ’99 nostalgic).
I casually picked up the game because the instant messenger mechanic seemed like it would be immersive, not to mention that it was free on Steam. However, I did not expect it to be one of the most emotionally resonant experiences I’ve ever had with a piece of interactive media. For the one hour that it took me to complete the game, I was completely invested. It genuinely felt like I was going through the experiences of my character. I remember sitting in silence after the final conversation with Emily, reflecting on my own time in high school and university. I immediately downloaded the second game in the series, Emily is Away Too, and binged it on the same night.
I’d like to take some time to talk about these two games and how they’ve succeeded in creating romantic self-insert narratives that are engrossing, believable, relatable, and emotionally moving.
Emily is Away
When describing Emily is Away to others, I like to use an analogy shared by YouTuber TheDavoo in his video essay on the game. If you look up user reviews for Emily is Away on Steam, you’ll notice an interesting trend. Audience responses are either overwhelmingly positive or overwhelmingly negative. No matter what, the game seems to resonate deeply with everyone who plays it. More strikingly, however, is the fact that both proponents and critics are essentially saying the same thing: Emily didn’t treat them fairly, their actions didn’t make a difference, and they left the game feeling devastated. The unique impact this game leaves on players can be neatly summarized by this one user review:
With this in mind, let’s dive into things. Warning – this article will be going into spoiler territory and these games are much more powerful when you go in blind. Even if you have a passing interest in trying them out for yourself, I’d recommend playing through them first and coming back here (it’ll only take ~3 hours).
The first chapter of Emily is Away takes place during spring of your character’s high school senior year in 2002. You and Emily chat about your plans for college, your fears about the future, and how you want to keep in touch after graduating. Emily talks about how much you mean to her and then invites you to a party. You can either choose to attend it or skip out. The remaining four chapters take place during your character’s four years in college, from freshman year to senior year respectively (2003-2006).
During freshman year, you and Emily catch up on life. You talk about the friends you’ve made and Emily mentions that she’s seeing a guy. She confides that her boyfriend can lose his temper but tells you not to worry. You both say that you’re glad the other is doing well, yet no one seems to be saying everything that’s on their mind.
In sophomore year, Emily messages you out of the blue. She either asks why you didn’t come to the party back in high school or why you didn’t kiss her if you did attend, depending on which choice you made. Emily reveals that she has broken up with her boyfriend and asks to come visit you. She says she feels alone and needs someone. You can either hook up with Emily and cancel plans with a girl from your school, allow Emily to visit but only as a friend, or tell her that visiting would not be a good idea.
Emily doesn’t message again until your character’s junior year. She apologizes for being so distant and says she wants to talk about something from last year that’s been bothering her. If you previously chose to hook up with Emily, she admits to feeling taken advantage of. If you let her visit as a friend, she asks if you have feelings for her and confesses that she hoped you did. If you did not let her visit, she tells you that she felt abandoned. You can choose whether your character lets Emily open up or whether they say they don’t want to talk about it.
During senior year of college, your character decides to message Emily. If you gave her the cold shoulder during the previous chapter, she won’t want to speak to you. If you previously let her open up, the two of you engage in small talk. You chat about thesis work and your plans for after college. Emily mentions that she is back with her boyfriend. During this conversation, you can choose when your character leaves. If you decide to drag it on, your character will try to ask things like “will we ever be the same?” before deleting their message and reverting back to small talk. Things remain platonic and the conversation ends.
I feel like the experiences captured in Emily is Away are relatable to anyone who has moved away for university or college: lamenting over missed romantic opportunities, growing apart from old friends you still care about, trying in vain to rekindle fading relationships. No matter how you respond to Emily, the endpoint is inevitably the same. Some people have criticized Emily is Away for giving players an illusion of choice but I would argue that this is what makes the story so realistic. In real life, there are no “correct” dialogue responses. Sometimes, there is nothing you can do to prevent circumstances like this from unfolding. You can, however, control how you choose to cope with these circumstances. Emily is Away recognizes this and portrays it beautifully in its dialogue.
No matter what you say to Emily, the outcomes of your conversations will never change. However, the rapport between you and her can vary dramatically. In chapter two, you can choose how much your character pries into Emily’s private matters. In chapter three, you can choose how much your character supports Emily in a time of crisis while still setting boundaries. In chapter four, you can choose how open you are to discuss past issues. Most importantly, in chapter five you can choose when to move on.
The game gives you complete freedom in how you want to straddle the line between being a supportive friend and keeping an appropriate distance. If you let Emily take over your character’s life, her dialogue will grow more controlling and yours more desperate. If you actively dismiss Emily, her tone will grow more dejected until she cuts you off as a friend. If you remain supportive but keep an appropriate distance, the conversations will remain comfortable. You will always grow apart from Emily by the end of the game but it doesn’t have to be on bad terms.
Emily is Away Too
Emily is Away Too provides a markedly different experience for players, with a more romantic plot overall and the opportunity for a good ending. This game takes place over the course of nine months, during your character’s last year of high school in 2006-2007. Throughout the game, your character chats on AIM with two classmates from different friend groups: Emily (unrelated to the one from the previous game) and Evelyn. Your character’s relationship with these girls develops over the school year and you eventually get the opportunity to ask one of them out.
The first two chapters of Emily is Away Too let’s you learn more about Emily and Evelyn and open up to them about yourself. During the first chapter, things are pretty casual. You joke around with your two friends and share 144p YouTube videos of your favourite mid-2000s music. You’ll have a chance to talk about your interests and tastes with Emily and Evelyn and see if you’re into the same things as them. In the second chapter, the conversation gets more personal. Emily and Evelyn open up about their (coincidentally opposite) views on things like alcohol, sex, and whether they want to start a family in the future. Both of them ask for your personal opinion on these matters and whether you share their feelings.
In chapter three, both Emily and Evelyn come to you in a time of crisis and you must choose between them. A time limit is set so that it eventually becomes physically impossible to speak to both at once. The one you ignore for too long will grow impatient. When you explain that you’re helping another friend the same time, they’ll comment that you clearly have your priorities in order and angrily log off. The one you’re left supporting will tell your character more about her crisis. You will be able to choose the advice your character gives on how she should resolve it. After listening and consoling her for a few more minutes, she tells your character that this means a lot and that she feels like you are more than friends.
In chapter four, the girl you supported tells you that your advice worked and that you were a lifesaver. After some more pleasantries, you will have the opportunity to ask her out to prom. She will accept and comment that she’s been waiting “so long” for you to ask her. After this conversation ends, you’re approached by the girl you ignored in chapter three. She will apologize for what she said and ask to be friends again.
In chapter five, your character is in a relationship with whichever girl you supported in chapter three. During an initial conversation, you learn that Emily and Evelyn have recently met. This triggers one of two endings, depending on your responses to Emily and Evelyn’s personal questions in chapter two. If what you told them was different, your character’s girlfriend will be heartbroken, lament that she’s unsure whether she even knows the real you, and end the relationship. If your stories were consistent, all is well and your girlfriend asserts “it’s just nice to know you’re real”.
The neat thing about Emily is Away Too is that, in some ways, your dialogue choices don’t make too much of a difference here either. The girls won’t like your character any less for having different taste in music or different personal views. They’ll always laugh if you choose to make your character tell a joke. No matter what advice you give in chapter three, it will end up being the right advice. Even the girl you let down will always come back to reconcile with your character. As long as your story is consistent in chapter two, everything else will work out. This is why I find Emily is Away Too so refreshing as a romantic video game. It doesn’t reward you for being compatible with its characters, it rewards you for being honest with them.
That said, no relationship will ever progress this perfectly in real life. Some may feel that this mechanic takes away from the story’s realism, thus dampening one’s immersion in it. I would disagree with this and argue that it’s important to consider what the goal of a romantic video game should be and how this design choice would positively impact one’s experience during a blind playthrough. If there were dialogue options that Emily and Evelyn would respond better or worse to, the game would be reduced to nothing more than “find the pattern in the girl’s preferences and exploit it.” As is, there is no pattern to find and it is never made clear that your choices won’t have negative consequences. When presented with this uncertainty, I found myself defaulting with whatever I would actually say in these sorts of conversations. It was frightening to put myself out there and not know what kind of response I’d get. When Evelyn (in my case) reciprocated, it genuinely felt like I was connecting with someone right for me. I believe that capturing this feeling should be the goal of romantic video games.
I’d also like to acknowledge that so much of Emily is Away Too’s success is due to the fact that Kyle Seeley phenomenally masked the game’s inner workings behind its characters and dialogue. Both Emily and Evelyn radiate with unique personalities, an endearing sense of humour, and genuine teenage insecurity. They respond to and play off your character in ways that make them feel like autonomous people. They’ll notice when you change your message before replying or don’t listen to the music they share and playfully call you out on it. They’ll comment on changes you make to your profile. Like with real friends, it takes time for Emily and Evelyn to open up to you and, when they finally do, you can’t help but care about them. Dialogue throughout the game always felt like two-way conversations that were unfolding naturally and made my character’s relationships with the two girls feel genuinely intimate. No joke, I held my breath after asking Evelyn to prom and waiting for her to type her response. I was more nervous here than I was asking my real prom date back in high school. If that’s not a sign of strong characters, I don’t know what is.
Both Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too take drastically different approaches to interactive romantic storytelling. However, both succeed in their own unique ways. The first game captures the painful experience of a missed romantic opportunity and emulates it with harrowing accuracy. The second game captures the feeling of growing close with someone you genuinely care about. With the series’ third game, Emily is Away < 3, scheduled to release soon, I’m excited to see where Seeley takes this genre next.