So much of my teen years were spent on AOL Instant Messenger. When I look back on that period of my life, I remember the 1 a.m. chats with crushes, the maundering conversations with my best friends, and spending an endless time concocting the perfect background and font color scheme. I deeply miss those days of my life — of that world — where the internet still had an undeniable new-frontier vibe and it still felt like this complimentary thing to life, and not the all encompassing beast it has morphed into.
But those days are over. Look at the internet now: it sucks, it’s horrible. The mystique, the adventure, it’s all gone. But what is not gone is the potent nostalgia from that era that still lingers to this day. The memories that engulf me every time I hear the word AOL, see its interface, or hear its sounds. Emily is Away Too hooks into these feelings of nostalgia and amplifies them to an unreal level. It takes you and drops you back in the mid 2000’s. And it just leaves you there. And for a few hours you’re back: blind to all of the laborious nonsense of adult life and utterly enraptured in resuscitated feelings and thoughts you believed to be long instinct.
As I get older, I yearn for new experiences in games more and more. Not only something that’s distinct from everything I’ve played before it, but experiences that wrench something out of me or imprint themselves onto my mind perpetually.
There are two great experiences in this world: experiences that you take something away from for the rest of your life, and experiences that take something away from you in perpetuity. The latter is a bit more obscure — difficult to describe — but it exists, and if you’ve ever experienced it you know how wonderfully uncanny it can be. When I saw the recent Mad Max movie for the first time: I left something behind in that theater. I don’t know what. But I felt it.
Back in 2015, Emily is Away — the predecessor of Emily is Away Too — quietly launched on PC. In a year of big releases like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Metal Gear Solid V, Bloodborne, Rocket League, and Fallout 4, it sticks out the most vividly when I look back and reflect on that year of my life. It was a game that very clearly and intensely played on my nostalgia and left me sunken ponderously by the weight of emotions and memories it dug out of me.
It was an experience that came with an emotional toll, and even a physical one to a certain degree. Games very rarely do that for me. And Emily is Away Too hit me in the same derailed, running loose freight-train way its predecessor, maybe even a bit harder. All of the same feels cascaded out again in an experience that felt similar, but deeper and more realized.
Just like Emily is Away, Emily is Away Too will simply resonate on vastly different levels for each person. If you didn’t grow up in the 2000’s: the era of AOL, the early days of Facebook, of the real Four Loko, and a time where Chamillionaire’s Ridin‘ had a 67% chance of being in your buddy info alongside a McLovin quote from Superbad, then Emily is Away Too will not elicit the same nostalgia-fueled experience that I lost myself in.
However, nostalgia aside, Emily is Away Too boasts exemplary writing and an incredible level of detail and execution, that any person, of any age or internet experience, can appreciate and enjoy.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now: Emily is Away Too is an interactive story presented through a chat client on Windows XP mimicking the style of AOL Instant messenger, specifically its early 2000 builds. In it you create a screename (TFishNasty), choose buddy icons, customize away messages and profiles, and most importantly spend far too much time over-analyzing every single thing you type.
All of these customization options never lend themselves to any momentous changes to the narrative — just different personal dialogue here and there — but they are substantial in regards to immersion, which is first-rate throughout the entirety of Emily is Away Too across every little, tiny detail.
The game follows a protagonist you know nothing about. There’s no history, no background information, nothing. He’s mostly a blank slate for you to project yourself on. You choose his sceenname, his real name, his cute lil’ nickname, his interest, his favorite movie, genre of music, etc. Emily is Away Too is all about making its story feel personal to you, which again is more climacteric when you consider the nucleus of this game is to be evocative.
Emily is Away too takes place in a completely separate universe from the first game: it’s not a direct sequel, but rather a spiritual successor. However, Emily — as a character — is back: and ready to break hearts once again. But this time she’s not alone. There’s also Evelyn. Where Emily is more self-effacing, shy, and mannerly, Evelyn is a punk rocker who is more forthright, edgy, and perhaps unconventional.
But what the two have in common is they both are rather reticent — and in pain due to people manipulating them in the past. The two just shroud these feelings completely differently, but underneath the outer layer there is commonality between the two, quite a bit actually. And you’re stuck right in the middle of it, of two friends who need you, and potentially in an involuted love triangle. Just like the good ol’ days.
The best part of Emily and Evelyn is they feel real. It genuinely feels like throughout Emily is Away Too that there is another person on the other side of that chat client thinking everything they’re typing and feeling every emotion that they convey. This is a product of excellent writing, and is perhaps no surprise, as it is quite evident both Emily and Evelyn are inspired by real people.
Most of the conversations I had on AOL were jejune, protracted, and inconsequential. This is the case in Emily is Away too, and the fact that despite this the game not only had my attention, but left me completely entranced from start to finish is — again — a testament to the writing in the game, which could have very easily ended up wide of the mark or too try-hardey.
Making the story beguiling — as it is rather predictable and conventional to how these conversations actual went down back in the day — is the fact, that unlike the first game, you have more direct control over the story and its branching paths, towards multiple endings. While I won’t go into too many details, I will say there are good endings and there are bad endings, all determined by the choices you make and how you interact with Evelyn and Emily throughout different key parts of Emily is Away Too.
But there are some problems with the game’s writing; however, these problems aren’t really unique to Emily is Away Too, but rather an unfortunate by-product of these type of games. In Emily is Away Too, you always have three options to choose from when you want to reply or send a message: nice/mean/funny or good/bad/neutral. And while normally the options generated from this formula were at the very least adequate, there were a few occasions where I was like “Nah, I wouldn’t say any of this.” In a game that is strongly held up by immersion, these pitfalls of branching dialogue systems felt more highlighted and thus stuck out more fiercely.
Perhaps the biggest, most notable change comes in the form of presentation. Emily is Away Too still looks the same: a pixelated version of the most beautiful thing to ever grace these eyes (the AOL interface). However, unlike the first game which took up the entire screen, Emily is Away too runs like an application, that sits on your actual desktop (with one of suggested classic mid-2000’s backrgounds) and it can open up links that Emily or Evelyn send your way, such as “YouToob” videos and their “Facenook” pages. The aforementioned is a bit more intractable than the latter: where you can click around and find all of viral videos, songs, etc. that defined the baby days of YouTube.
The pair can also file transfer you chat logs and homework that will pop-up on your actual desktop to view through at your leisure. All of these details individually are minuscule, perhaps inconsequential, but added together they form an exuberantly authentic experience, that better captures what it was like to be teenager during this time.
Another nice touch added for the sequel is the ability to have your replies auto-type. In the first game, when you picked a response you had to “type” it out. This reduced to one thing: key smashing. In the second game, you have the option of just clicking the response and watching it type on its own in front of you. Personally, I enjoy the actual typing — it adds a further layer of immersion — but for those who want a more passive (perhaps less repetitive) experience, this is a tiny tweak that will go a long way.
Going into Emily is Away too, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The first game nailed it: it nailed the vision, it nailed the execution, and it nailed the nostalgia. If Emily is Away Too was just going to be more Emily is Away, I wasn’t sure it would work: if there was enough of that magic for a second bottle. But my reservations never came to fruition: not only does Emily is Away Too recapture the same magic all over again, but it captures even more of it. I could have finished Emily is Away Too surfeited, but I wasn’t: I finished it wanting more: more nostalgia, more stories, more characters to talk to, and of course, more Emily.
Like its predecessor, I’m unlikely ever to forget Emily is Away Too. What developer Kyle Seeley has created is a great reminder that excellent immersive storytelling is reliant on only two things: an unique idea, and the vision and passion to see that idea materialize.