Do you remember your first social media account? In 2010, I joined Facebook, excited to interact with my mother and grandparents through the power of this crazy thing called “the internet” that I had previously only experienced through Webkinz and Typer Shark. It’s easy to forget that social media wasn’t always the integral part of society it is now, but developer Kyle Seeley’s newest installment in the “Emily is Away” series — “Emily is Away <3” — is a nostalgic reminder that, even in its infancy, social media changed the way we interacted with one another.
“Emily is Away <3” is a point-and-click visual novel like its predecessors, but this time set on “Facenook” rather than AIM. The story revolves around the player’s changing relationships with their group of friends throughout their senior year of high school. One run-through of the story took me around four hours, but that was only one of the many branching storylines that result from the player’s dialogue choices. These choices are the main gameplay function and occur entirely within Facenook’s messenger function. The player picks one of three options for each response, and the characters remember these choices and carry them through to the game’s end. If you tell a character you enjoy indie music, they’ll send you playlists, but if you tell them you hate indie music, they might respond negatively when you discuss music later in the game. Along with the branching dialogue options, the way the player responds to event invites is central to the outcome of the game, as it leaves strong, lasting effects on the player’s various relationships.
The detail of “Emily is Away <3” is extremely impressive. There are external links to functional “YouToob” playlists of songs that will transport you to the back to the contents of your first iPod and — through advertisements that are entirely optional to click on — a variety of websites like “EGN” that are accurate models of their real mid-2000s counterparts. The soundscape is highly immersive, with the sounds of an old desktop computer playing through the entire game, message notification sounds and wonderfully loud keyboard clicks whenever the player types a message.
There are many other interactive sections of the game, including poking characters, posting statuses, writing notes and taking a quiz. Writing notes and statuses functions similarly to dialogue — there are three options for each that other characters will respond to differently. The quiz that the player takes is a typical multiple-choice quiz that appears like a perfect replica of early Facebook “apps” (right down to the completely random questions that have nothing to do with the topic of the quiz). All of these extra gameplay features bring me back to poke wars with my best friends in middle school and crossing my fingers that my crush and I would be compatible according to a “who is your soulmate?” quiz.
Like the previous two in the series, “Emily is Away <3” is a heartbreaker. I could see what was coming, but there was no chance of stopping it. My choices had already been set in stone. Just like in real life, I didn’t realize my mistakes until it was much too late. Perhaps if I had just accepted that invite or sent a different message to that ex-friend things could have turned out a little better. Normally, it would be difficult to become emotionally attached to characters without a face, but the personality of each character is distinct enough in their messages to warrant investment in their lives both on and offline.
Although it is a dialogue-centered game, a few of the conversations feel a bit drawn-out. The majority of conversations feel natural, but occasionally some begin to feel artificially extended without reason. Perhaps this was a result of already forgetting my own awkward attempts at communicating as a high schooler, but it pulled me out of the immersion a few times.
“Emily is Away <3” is a game I’ll be coming back to until I see every possible ending. The end leaves players with a desperate desire to fix their mistakes, and although I’m not sure if I’ll ever get a completely happy ending, I want nothing more than to make it up to the characters I hurt and get revenge on those who hurt me. As part of a generation who watched their first loves, first heartbreaks and first fights with friends be plastered on the internet for all to see, “Emily is Away <3” is a coming-of-age story that hits painfully close to home.
Daily Arts Writer Harper Klotz can be reached at email@example.com.