While the video game industry’s big hitters gathered at E3 this past week to show off the cinematic visuals of the likes of God Of War or the grand open-world playground of Days Gone, let’s not forget about the little guys.
Indie developers on the smallest scale – literally one or two-person teams relentlessly working on their games – are increasingly having their voices heard thanks to the rise of Steam as the go-to platform for both hardcore and casual PC gamers. And with the critical acclaim heaped on narrative-based games such as Fulbright’s Gone Home and Campo Santo’s Firewatch, the hunger for engaging games with a focus on storytelling continues to grow.
Step forward then, Emily Is Away Too – Kyle Seeley’s visual novel sequel to 2015’s Emily Is Away, set almost entirely within a pixelated version of AOL’s late-2000s instant messaging service as you interact with two of your fellow high-schoolers over the course of your senior year.
The gameplay’s as simple as it comes; just choose one of three options in response to either Emily or Evelyn – the only two characters you can interact with (others exist in the form of their very emo buddy info sections) – in 30-minute sessions where they’ll sometimes even link you to their Facenook page or a YouToob video. EIAT isn’t remotely complex and not at all visually appealing, so for some, it might be hard to even see the appeal.
Its draw comes from the way it serves up so much nostalgia from a time when the likes of AIM and MSN Messenger were all the rage and the chief form of interaction between teenager. A time when kids pored over what their crush had written in their buddy info; when your choice of text colour was meant to reflect everything about who you were as a person; and when the exchange of chat logs was the sneakiest move you could make. A time when ‘is typing’, ‘is deleting’, ‘is typing’ was a 10-second roller coaster of emotions; when one simple text-based emoticon could signal pure joy or utter devastation.
It was all very melodramatic and a tad cringeworthy to think about almost a decade on, but at the time it was everything to a lot of kids looking to find their way in a world where friendships and relationships meant everything.
EIAT taps into those youthful insecurities so fantastically well that you’re instantly transported back to the time – whether that’s for better or for worse.
There’s enough variety in the choices you’re able to make that you can become heavily involved emotionally with either one or both of Emily and Evelyn, or you can be super passive and just see how teenage life plays out if you really don’t give a shit. That’s not to say there aren’t moments where you’re pushed to make a decision for the sake of the narrative, but they’re rare and never feel as though they’re manufacturing your experience.
If you’ve played Emily Is Away, which can basically be seen as a demo (it’s free!) for EIAT, then you’ll have a sense of where things are going. Even though the Emily here is a different on to the original, she’s still very alternative – Snow Patrol and Sigur Ros are a massive influence – and she faces the same sort of tension with her friends and would-be suitors. To be thrown back into a world where you’re a teenager and what you say can have a catastrophic knock-on effect on other people’s lives is tough at times. They’re all AI, and you’re aware of that throughout, but the beauty of what Seeley’s created is that you still get caught up in all the emotion of it.
At one point Emily types those ill-fated words: “I’m fine”. Spoilers: she’s not. However ridiculous it sounds, you can have all your shit together in real life, but being put in that situation all over again is a heartbreaker.
The game’s heavily reliant on you having experienced these sorts of scenarios in your teenage years, and it’s skewed towards a straight, male gamer, but for anyone yearning for a nostalgic storytelling experience rarely found in film, TV or traditional video games, Emily Is Away Too is well worth the cost of admission.