Diegetic menus always pull me further into a game. Isaac Clarke’s health bar in Dead Space told me how much health I had left while also reminding me that I’m Isaac. Fallout 3 provided my character with music that I was also able to hear and enjoy. There’s something special about diegetic elements in games. It amplifies everything. It reduces instances where the immersion needs to be paused for the player to receive necessary information. It’s important for games to find the right balance between communicating to the player while also creating immersion between the player and the game. Emily is Away <3 is completely diegetic, blurring the outside world entirely, which creates complete immersion and pulls you straight into 2009 like it’s here and now instead of over ten years ago.
Status updates, messages, music playlists, selfies with friends (and in front of mirrors), and extra letters tossed at the end of words to add a playful and carefree touch. Everyone met up in person and did stuff too but Facebook is what defined it and made it all official. It’s how we added meaning to everything. Friends were tagged in photos, angst and depression put on display in status updates, and song lyrics thrown carelessly in our bios.
It was a lens for the world and a mirror for ourselves. Social media was how we figured out who we were and where our place was within our school, our circle of friends, and the world.
If it didn’t happen on Facebook then it probably didn’t happen.
Whatever it’s 2009!
It’s uh… a bit different now. If it’s on Facebook now then it probably didn’t happen. If you were there at the time then you understand exactly what I mean. Everything was just so different and felt magical, new, and like you could be whoever you wanted to be. If you weren’t there then Emily is Away <3 can take you there. It’ll take you back to the years 2008 and 2009, whether you were there or not. Once the game is booted up and the faux install process is completed on your Windows XP computer, you’ll get nostalgia if you were there or something unfamiliar waiting to be discovered if you’ve never heard the hum of a CRT monitor next to a loud fan on a Dell computer.
Emily is Away Too is the previous game in the series. It took place almost entirely in AIM (That’s AOL Instant Messenger if you’re not cool or don’t remember) with some references to other websites, like Facenook and Youtoob. Those aren’t typos; the game changes the name since the websites are parodies. But everything but the actual name has been preserved; these websites truly feel and look like the older versions of websites that were once new and didn’t endlessly flood our parents with fascist propaganda.
Emily is Away <3 takes place entirely in Facenook and Youtoob because it’s 2008 and AIM, Yahoo! Messenger, and Limewire are dead. It’s the era of Facebook, dinosaurs, typing “RAWR” in text messages, pictures on playground equipment at night with friends, and typing ‘loveeeee’ and ‘laterssss’ instead of just spelling the words correctly. The experience of growing up and being in high school during this time is captured so accurately. My senior year of high school was the year after this game takes place and this game brought me back, whether I wanted to go or not.
You choose your name. You can go with your own name or make one up. Your character is a senior and is going through their final year in high school with classmates and friends Emily, Evelyn, Mat, Kelly and a few other kids as well. You communicate with everyone on Facenook. Friendships grow stronger or sustain damage in chats. Relationships are forged with Youtoob playlists, putting emotions on full display in another tab, and everyone is more insecure than they will ever be able to admit, even to themselves. It’s high school.
2008 YouTube Hit Different
You communicate by selecting responses to things the other characters say in messages. You have a few things to choose from. Sometimes responses communicate similar things but vary in tone but other times they’ll take the conversation in a different direction or leave a lasting impression. This can be positive, negative, or even just a subject change. No matter what you decide to say, it’s surreal seeing the text appear in front of you with the sounds of keys echoing along. You’ll see ‘Mat is typing…’ or ‘Emily is deleting…’ while you wait for what they say next. While this is happening you can wait in suspense, or you can do what everyone else did in 2008; you can click around on people’s Facenook profiles, change tracks on Youtoob, and laugh at ads on the right side of Facenook for movies you have no intention of seeing. The experience has been seamlessly replicated to the point where I felt like I was thirteen years younger.
When someone first sent me a Youtoob playlist to check out and it opened in a new tab, I just paused for a few seconds. Seeing hits from 3OH3!, Lady Gaga, and Kings of Leon play in front of me took me back. The formatting for videos is correct even, with things like ‘(HIGH QUALITY)’ and ‘(FULL LYRICS)’ next to video titles. The entire experience of the late 2000s is here. It isn’t just one thing either. It’s every little thing and they work in tandem to set both presentation and immersion.
Ambient noises can be adjusted in the menu but I couldn’t imagine turning them off or down. The whirring of an old computer while it works hard to load a video combined with the hum of its old, dusty fan gave me pause too many times to count. The details in Emily is Away <3 are just unreal. I know I’ve said this already but it needs to be said again: If you were there then you’ll immediately go back. If you were never there then you’ll be in an unrecognizable world and have your curiosity fed while you explore this different time.
I did adjust the ‘auto type’ option in the settings. If it’s not on then you have to tap keys to have your message text appear. I don’t think this is a bad thing but since I don’t know exactly how my response will display, I couldn’t type along and so seeing myself tap out random keys took me out of it while I watched the message appear. It worked a lot better for my experience and my immersion to just select answers and tune my brain’s frequency to the computer monitor’s hum while I watched the message type out.
The story is something I really don’t want to give specifics on because this is something people should experience on their own so I’m going to be vague here. You’ll go through the highs and lows of high school with your crew. Fights, helping each through hardship, laughing about videos on Youtoob, and yeah, discussing Guitar Hero because it was the game to play in 2008.
Millennials grew up online
Notifications will pop up when you’re tagged in photos and they’re just straight from the era. I didn’t realize how many specific things from my life experience were just something everyone did. This was back when social media connected the whole school but global awareness wasn’t where it is now, at least not for high schoolers. This was before Twitter was where it is now. Instagram wasn’t even a thought yet. We still had to get our music from watching MTV, Fuse, and YouTube while writing it all down to download later. It was just you and people you knew in real life for the most part, going through everything together. And Emily is Away <3 recalls so many aspects just as I remember it. Seeing pictures of people falling on each other or sitting on playground equipment was such a thing of the time. It’s surreal how well the era has been recreated visually.
The game is really smart with how the graphics are done. Facial features and smaller details aren’t there. Silhouettes and outlines with assigned colors bring out the emotions and feelings of people in uploaded photos and profile pictures. The words in message exchanges is where those details are filled in, just like back in 2009.
The game is almost infinitely replayable and not just for the sake of nostalgia or curiosity; there are different branching paths that happen based on what’s said to who in conversations. It’s both lifelike and high school. I graduated eleven years ago so I remember the drama, stakes, and language of the era. I’m also removed from it now though so the passage of time provides me with the clarity to know the stakes and drama aren’t really where the characters think but I also remember being 17. I remember circumstances and stakes feeling this big, even if it was just high school.
I can comfortably recommend this experience to everyone. I think you’ll get something out of it no matter what but it’ll differ based on your age and where you were in 2009. Curiosity and looking back on a different era that feels like it was far more than just twelve years ago will interest almost everyone. It might be for different reasons and the experience may vary but hey, that’s high school.