Back on November 20, 2015 lone-wolf developer Kyle Seeley released Emily Is Away, an interactive story presented through a chat client on Windows XP, mimicking to a T the style and feel of early 2000’s AOL Instant messenger. At the outset, things were pretty quiet as the game launched. But after a few select quick plays from various outlets and YouTubers, the game picked up some steam, and by the end of 2015 Emily is Away carved a substantial piece of the industry’s mind space.
Fast-forward to this past May, and a spiritual successor, Emily is Away Too, released. But unlike its predecessor, Emily Is Away Too had considerable buzz prior to and at launch. Buzz it capitalized on, as represented by our glowing review of the game.
In Emily Is Away Too, you message two characters — the returning Emily and Evelyn — opposed to the first game where you message only one. The game takes place over the course of your senior year, from one summer to another. Also unlike the first game, the story has been extended past the chat window with things like file transfers, and links to the baby-days of YouTube and Facebook.
All of that being said, recently we chatted with Seeley to talk all things Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too, as well as what’s next for the developer.
The following interview was conducted via email.
DualShockers: What Inspired you to originally create Emily is Away and why did you decide to return to the series with Emily is Away Too?
Kyle Seeley: For me, the Emily series is really a love letter to AOL instant messenger. When I came up with the original idea, I was trying to make a game that was unique to me – something that I personally attached to. It seemed like a good idea to focus on my childhood and looking back I realized that the internet played a big part in my upbringing. I had some of the most formative conversations of my teenage years over instant messengers.
And now a days, there’s no real analog to how I used AIM when I was kid. There’s texting and Facebook, but nothing that really captures the obtuseness of instant messaging. There’s no waiting for someone to come online when you get home from school. Or sneaking downstairs to use the family computer at night when everyone’s gone to bed. Social media has evolved to the point where we’re always online – and in a lot of ways it’s better than it used to be. But Emily is an attempt to recapture that obtuseness and tell a story in the early days of social media.
DS: Emily is Away kind of very quickly became prominent — in a sort off out-of-nowhere fashion. What do you think it is about Emily is Away and its sequel that captivated people?
KS: I think I got very lucky with Emily is Away. Looking back on it now I think it’s popularity is due to the one-two punch of nostalgia mixed with a relatable story. Immediately the game is interesting because it looks like an old school messaging client. It has 00’s pop culture references and is nostalgic for anyone that grew up in that time. I think that’s what drew most people in initially, and then the game delivers this very universal story about growing up and growing apart from someone. In a way, the nostalgia works overtime, both making the game approachable, while also priming players to remember their childhood.
It’s hard to ask players to inhabit a teenager, especially when those players have grown up since then, but by framing the story in a nostalgic setting players are already thinking about themselves when they were teenagers. This makes the universal story even more relatable – Emily stops being Emily and starts being the player’s ‘one that got away’.
DS: Was there ever a concern that the lighting in the bottle that the first game captured would be gone? Or perhaps that people would think of Emily is Away Too as a mere cash-in?
KS: Oh, hell yeah. The entire process of developing a sequel was very nerve-racking. Would players who like the first game like the sequel? Would the sequel be able to live up the popularity of the original? And even worse, if it failed, would Emily Too tarnish the reputation of Emily is Away? These concerns were in the back of my head the entire development cycle. I never really got over them, but I think I positioned myself in such a way where I could overlook them.
Emily Too incorporates a lot of feedback I received on the first game – mainly the inclusion of additional characters and multiple endings. And it’s also a narrative that I was excited about, one that I wanted to explore. I think knowing those things, I was able to overcome the worries of a sequel flop. That said – finally pressing the release button was very anxiety inducing.
DS: How much of the game is based on something that you experienced, because in many ways the game can feel very personal. How much of Emily or Evelyn are based off real people?
KS: The Emily series is heavily inspired by my own personal experiences. The stories are bent and rearranged to better serve the games narrative – but the emotions and conversations that occur are all grounded in real interactions I had growing up. Emily and Evelyn aren’t real people, but they’re both based off of many friends I had when I was a teenager. I kind of picked and chose different personality quirks from real people I knew and mashed them into two defined characters. When I was in highschool I belonged to both cliques that Emily and Evelyn personify, so I had ample source material for their characters.
DS: What made you shorten the time-frame the game takes place in from five years to just one?
KS: Just the narrative, really. Emily is Away is a story about growing apart from someone over a long period of time. So the time-frame of five years is more necessary there. Emily Too is a more dramatic story, one where the feelings burn hotter than the original. So relationships change quicker and the narrative can be told in the time-span of only a year.
DS: What was the most difficult part of the game to design?
KS: Honestly, probably the endings. I like to think that both Emily Too and Emily is Away have a message or moral at their core. With Emily is Away is very easy to convey that same message in every playthrough, because all the endings are relatively the same. With Emily Too, I knew I wanted to have multiple endings that varied in tone. So making sure that the same conclusions could be derived from those varied endings was one of the most difficult things to design.
DS: One of the biggest changes/additions for Emily is Away Too is that the game functions as an application on your computer, and thus the game extends to actual file shares and actual links that open on your browser to “Facenook” and YouToob.” That being said, how much research went into this game going back and figuring out what the internet, YouTube, Facebook, etc., look and feel like in 2006? Was it tough to write a game where everyone talks 2006 internet-speak?
KS: I have so many screenshots of UI from the mid 2000’s. Everything from Facebook profiles to how the volume sliders looked in Windows XP. Thankfully, because of the internet, it’s relatively easy to compile source material when recreating these interfaces. WaybackMachine was seriously my best friend. And thankfully, for the most part I remember how these interfaces felt to use. So if I want to hit a specific narrative beat in AOL Instant Messenger, I can kind of envision what mechanics will go along with that beat.
In terms of writing – writing a game where everyone talks 2006 internet-speak is so incredibly fun. I grew up in that time period, so mostly it’s remembering what I used to say, what me and my friends talked about, the phrases we used. And then just making those patterns fit the narrative I’m writing. And I used some tricks when trying to inhabit each character. When I wrote for Emily I’d listen to Snow Patrol and Sigur Ros, when I wrote for Evelyn I’d listen to Senses Fail and Against Me! Emily always uses apostraphes, spells “a lot” correctly and likes the phrase ‘cool beans’. Evelyn uses waaaaay mooore exaggerated letters, likes ‘lol’ not ‘haha’ and uses the phrase ‘awesomesaauce’. I’m probably better at writing mid 2000’s teenage drama than anything else.
DS: How are you finding the reaction to the second game compared to the first?
KS: It’s blown all my expectations out of the water. Like I was saying earlier, there was a lot riding on this release. I spent a good amount of time during it’s development doubting the game/the design/my abilities as a game dev. But yeah, the reaction has been insane, and I can’t help but thank everyone who’s supported it.
DS: Any chance we get Emily is Away Too in VR? Consoles? Mobile devices? Or is too much of the experience rooted in the nostalgia of sitting at a PC?
KS: Maybe! I’ve been thinking about bringing it to other platforms – but I do think something might be lost experience-wise. It’s something I’m looking into!
DS: It appears you have a bit of speciality for nostalgic-heavy immersive narratives. Have you ever thought about making a similar game with Facebook or MySpace?
KS: Uhh yes [winks].
DS: Do you think kids growing up now with Snapchat, Instagram, etc (and these might even be old by now, I have no clue) will have similar a nostalgia as the AOL generation? Or was this an era and place of the internet unique?
Absolutely! I think every generation is going to have that attachment to the social media that was big when they were growing up. It gets a little trickier when those platforms stay together through generations (like I’m nostalgic for old Facebook with wall posts and pokewars, not new Facebook). But I definitely think every generation will have profound knowledge about the social media they used growing up – I can’t wait to play this generation’s interface games when they get made!
DS: What’s next for you? Anymore Emily on the horizon?
KS: It’s definitely a possibility! The best thing about the Emily series is how loose the term ‘series’ is used. Almost any narrative can be told – and almost any nostalgic interface could be used. So the next Emily project is definitely something that’s on my mind.
In the immediate future – I get to catch up on everything I missed during Emily’s development! Step one of which is tracking down a Nintendo Switch.
DS: I gotta ask, Emily or Evelyn?
KS: [Laughs] Man, that’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite kid! I will say that if teenage me played this game in 2006, I’d probably pick Evelyn – punk4eva!
DS: Thanks for your time.