As soon as I finished Emily is Away I tweeted at developer Kyle Seeley and told everyone I knew to stop what they're doing and check this game out. It captured my nostalgia and took me on a roller coaster of emotions I haven't felt since I was in high school. The game explores your relationship with a girl a named Emily over five years, as you get ready to leave high school and experience college. It's a coming of age text-based adventure game that takes place entirely through a simulated AOL Instant Messenger, original sounds and features included.
At the start of each chapter, you can pick a new icon that's typically relevant to that year. You can also change your font color and background to something really obnoxious if you want. AIM was at it's peak during my formidable years so it instantly grabbed me and I felt right at home. While Emily is the only person you actually talk to in the game, you can see the away messages for everyone on your friends lists, complete with song lyrics and emo messages. If you grew up with the chat program, the nostalgia will instantly hook you.
For everything you say in the game, you get to choose one of three options and Emily will respond accordingly. Certain selections can effect the outcome, allowing the game to have different endings. Your relationship with Emily my be totally different than mine. These choices will usually be noted with fading text that says things like "Emily will remember that." I don't want to get too much into the actual story as to not spoil your experience with it.
Where this game really got me was in how it made me feel talking to Emily. Yes, I do know that I was essentially talking to a bot. But this game still took me through all the anxieties and emotions I had when talking to girl on AIM in high school, analyzing (and often over analyzing) each thing to say. Does that sound too harsh? Should I play this cool? What ARE my plans this weekend? These are all things to consider that could ultimately effect your relationship with Emily. Then the texts pop up, "Emily is typing..." or "Emily is deleting." What was she deleting?! What was she going to say??
If you grew up in the era of Windows XP, buddy icons, and moody song lyrics in your bio, you can certainly appreciate the care that's been put into rebuilding that. If AIM wasn't part of your vernacular, that aspect may be lost on you. But with the story that's here to experience, that shouldn't matter. The basic themes here are ones that transcend time and are applicable to almost anyone who's grown up. It's easy to recreate AIM with all of its nostalgic bells and whistles. Using it in a meaningful way is difficult and it's something Seeley absolutely nails here.
Emily is Away is available for download at emilyisaway.com for PC, Mac, and Linux. It's available for a "name your own price" model, but you should toss over a few bucks. He's certainly earned it.
Review by Rich Belsan