Traveling Back in Time with Emily is Away <3

Introduction

“It’s 2008 and AIM is dead” So begins Emily is Away <3. You, as the player protagonist, have just left AOL Instant Messaging (AIM) to join Facenook, the new and exciting thing on the Internet. While the game is set in Facenook, it looks and feels a lot like a platform you may have heard of called Facebook. In simulating Facebook from 2008, the game raises questions about how the Internet and social media have changed since 2008 as well as the role of technology companies in shaping daily life. In addition to being set at a pivotal moment for technology, the game is set at a pivotal moment for the characters, including the player, who are all seniors in high school. On his website, Kyle Seeley, the game’s creator, writes Emily is Away ❤ “highlights the universal story of growing up and growing apart.” Throughout the game,  the relationships between the characters are constantly in flux and, depending on the decisions made by the player, these relationships may end up being very different by the end of the game, the summer after senior year, than they were at the beginning, the fall of senior year. This is particularly true of the relationship between the player protagonist and either Emily or Evelyn, one of whom the player will end up dating in the game’s first chapter.

Specificity & Immersion

The game is designed to immerse the player in the world of 2008 Facenook/Facebook. The game’s user interface looks dated and the sounds notifying users that the game has booted up or that they have received a message are reminiscent of older PCs. Upon installing the game, players are encouraged to close all other windows and programs on their laptop for full immersive effect. The game also provides several desktop backgrounds that the player can download and apply to their computer’s desktop. The game’s primary mode of storytelling, messaging, also feels quite realistic. Upon choosing from one of three message options, the player must then “type” out the message by typing randomly on their keyboard, though this is a setting that can be turned off. This has both the effect of making the experience feel more realistic and of drawing out the narrative. The messaging simulation additionally includes highly specific details, such as notifications indicating when the other character is typing or deleting, that add depth to the interaction with characters by indicating pauses or uncertainty as the character messages.

In addition to simulating the technology of 2008, the game is firmly grounded in the Internet and popular culture of 2008. At the beginning of each chapter, the player is encouraged to select their favorite movies, television, music, and books from a list where works are represented by pixelated icons rather than listed titles. The player needs to be quite familiar with a given work in order to recognize it from its icon, which requires the player to have specific knowledge of 2008 popular culture. Characters also constantly send the player links to Youtoob, which opens in the browser, where the player can listen to playlists and watch clips. Facenook quizzes also abound.

Nostalgia

The specificity and immersion of the game are meant to elicit a sense of nostalgia for the world of 2008 Facebook. However, as someone who was too young to use Facebook in 2008, this was not my personal experience of the game. The game seems to focus more on the positive aspects of social media platforms, such as their ability to create spaces of sociality. Because of this, I read the game as more of an innocent, naive view of social media. The game’s Facenook seems disconnected from the current reality of Facebook and the negative societal consequences of Facebook’s design, including polarization and data privacy issues. This is not necessarily a negative aspect of the game and may make it even more enjoyable for players, but, given Facebook’s current prominence in public debates, these issues were still top of mind for me as I was playing. 

Additionally, the Facebook/Facenook portrayed in the game did not really connect with my personal experiences of Facebook. For instance, as a player in 2022, I found the lack of political content on the platform to be particularly conspicuous. I found this to be an especially interesting choice given the game’s setting during the autumn of 2008 and, therefore, during the presidential election in which social media became an increasingly important part of campaigning. Likely in part due to my age, the game’s nostalgia was ultimately lost on me, though I found the game’s specificity to be impressive.

Anonymity & the Encyclopedic Nature of the Internet

Emily is Away ❤ alludes to but does not fully explore two important aspects of Internet life: anonymity and the Internet’s encyclopedic nature. The game is set before Facebook started requiring users to use their legal names on the platform, and the player can choose any name they would like as well as any of the profile images provided. Once in the game, however, the player is only ever allowed to interact with characters that the player (as a character) is supposed to know in real life. This limits the player’s ability to explore anonymity on the Internet, though the game does allow for one scenario in which the player protagonist can “experience” anonymity by using their friend Matt’s second Facenook profile to chat anonymously with the Jeff/Steve character.  Likewise, the player can, for the most part, only interact with content generated by these characters or brought to their attention by the characters, which limits the player’s ability to explore the encyclopedic nature of the Internet. The player can leave Facenook to visit Youtoob, but the Internet of Emily is Away ❤ is constrained to these two sites. Understandably, the player does not have the entire simulated Internet as it was in 2008 at their disposal; however, the game’s strict branching structure and the limited response options for the player compound this limitation. In comparison to Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too that take place over AOL Instant Messaging, Emily is Away ❤ does provide a richer and more encyclopedic version of the Internet for the player to explore. 

Gender & Sexuality 

It is also important to consider the many critiques, defenses, and views of the game’s treatment of gender and sexuality. In her article on Emily is Away <3, Maddy Myers nicely summarizes the points made by other critics and players and provides links to other articles on the topic. Because players must choose to date either Emily or Evelyn in the game, some critics, including Myers and Emily Short, have argued that the game is too rigid and exclusive in its treatment of gender and sexuality. For instance, Myers and Short point to hints at Emily/Evelyn’s past relationships with men and potential future relationships with Jeff/Steve. In writing about Emily is Away, Short says, “the bulk of the story reads to me as heteronormative” and notes there is nothing specifically in the story to support alternate readings. Similarly, Bruno Dias writes, “a lot of squinting is required to read it as anything but the story of a boy’s crush on a girl” about Emily is Away, but I believe this view is accurate for Emily is Away ❤ as well. In contrast to these views, Avery Delaney explains, “The absence of an explicit, predetermined gender set by the game and reinforced through the narrative gave me a sense of freedom to interpret my character and their relationships” and argues that the game’s core relationship can be read as a queer relationship. Ultimately, this aspect of the game raised questions for me about how to create inclusive first person games and when it may be appropriate or not to create a game played from a very specific perspective. 

Conclusion

In part due to my age, the specificity of Emily is Away ❤ and the nostalgia that it was supposed to induce went over my head. What I found most interesting about the game was not its story or characters. Instead, I was drawn to its attempt to encapsulate the specifics of a time (2008-2009) and place (the Internet). In many ways, the Internet of 2008 is the game’s most interesting character, and the aspects of the Internet that are emphasized in Emily is Away ❤ reveal a lot about how the Internet has changed (or not) since 2008. 

Sources

Corcoran, Nina. “Emily Is Away Re-Creates Social Media’s Awkward, Early Days.” https://www.wired.com/story/emily-is-away-social-media-nostalgia/.

Delaney, Avery. “Revisiting the Conversations of ‘Emily is Away’.” https://sidequest.zone/2018/12/27/revisiting-conversations-emily-is-away/.

Dias, Bruno. “Emily is Away: A Review.” https://medium.com/mammon-machine-zeal/emily-is-away-a-review-4e609247ca91.

Myers, Maddy. “The Emily Is Away trilogy makes DMing your crush into a doomed game.” https://www.polygon.com/22410368/emily-is-away-trilogy-social-media-facebook-aim.

Seeley, Kyle. “Emily is Away.” http://kyleseeley.com/emilyisaway.html.  

Short, Emily. “No Longer IF Comp 2015: Emily is Away.” https://emshort.blog/2015/10/16/no-longer-if-comp-2015-emily-is-away/.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s