A rare example of a first-time indie game developer pushing past a wave of judgement - Emily is Away is a game you begin out of sheer boredom, though soon becomes the most relatable game ever produced. GAME SPOILERS AHEAD - PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
As a Mac gamer, I'm one of the few (3%) on Steam that has to scrounge for games like an old man scrounging for his wife's shaven leg hair to glue onto his balding head - which means I have very little to play. I have around 50 games, and while this sounds like a lot, the vast majority of either free or fairly cheap, there isn't a single AAA, blockbuster title that's been released in recent years, besides perhaps Tomb Raider and Hitman: Absoloution. I'm often trawling through the "Mac" and "Free to Play" categories on Steam, desperately waiting for something that doesn't look like arse (I'm looking at you, Puzzle Pirates!). This is when I came across Emily is Away.
Being that old man mentioned earlier, I quickly download the 60mb of HD space the game totals to and click play, and once past the Unity preferences pane, I hear the oh-so-familiar...drone...of Windows XP booting itself up (You know the one), something I think anyone who grew up in the late-90s early-2000s will remember - the sound of information, technology and 1GB of RAM. I'm immediately greeted by a slightly pixelated, albeit nostalgic rendering of the default XP wallpaper, after which I get the screen "High School Senior Year - 2002" (What is it with you Americans' obsession with pointless words for years of school?), along with a tab asking me to give a nickname + my real one. After this NSA-style of personal-information-theft. I'm told that I'm supposed to choose a profile picture, and this is where the game gets really interesting. Before me are twelve preset options, but while they might appear dull and lifeless to begin with, eight of them are great little digitised pop culture references, all depicting the movies and music that were popular in the time period - 2002. Yes, that's right. The logo for 28 Weeks Later, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Blink-182, Eminem and Sk8erBoi are all options, plus others that I can't quite name, but at least recognise. I'm home.
Being at one with pre-ironic punk, I choose Blink-182 (Oh, how I Miss You."), at which point I'm loaded into the main meat of the game. Which is kinda skinny. But hang on, I'll get to the good stuff soon. So it appears I've signed up for some kind of online social networking site, perhaps akin to Friendster, that's given me some of kind of Buddy List, which I only get a few seconds to examine before I'm told that the game's focus (or antagonist, depending on how you look at it), emerly35, has signed in. She sounds like a nice enough person, but her profile picture is the cover photo of Coldplay's "Parachutes" album. Perhaps if I had seen that 2 years ago, we'd be best friends, however now, I fucking hate them (Sky Full of Stars? What kind of BS was that?). I'm given three options to choose from in the text box, reading "1. hey 2. hello 3. howdy". Easy enough. Being the living embodiment of the Sunshine Kid, I go with a simple "howdy". I was expecting, at this point, for the computer to drum out a response, but instead I have to write itself myself. Kinda. So for this example, where I say "howdy", I simply press any button and I get an H. Press another and I get O. You get the idea. This may seem like a rather strange and if anything, pointless feature, though I feel it's on the best mechanics of the game.
Accompanied with this, I even get the slow whir of the computer, plus the sweet, sweet sound of keyboard tapping when I do so - what's not to like! After giving my response, "emerly35" sends one my way too! "Hi!" she says, "I like your new buddy icon, Blink-182 is great!" #2RightBitch. "So, what's up?" I can reply: "1. nothing much! 2. the ceiling! (oh, the hilarity!) or 3. talking to you!" This idle chit-chat continues for a few moments, with you giving each individual key press. The temptation exists to spam it, and just let your fingers fly, however doing so made me nearly miss two of the first few nice things I noticed about this game. Firstly, your character will occasionally make little spelling errors of keyboard mishaps, such as writing "hey yhere (WE'VE ALL DONE IT, MKAY)", before he corrects it a moment later. While it may seem trivial, I find it sweet that the developer has done his best to emulate the fact that despite the fact that the hardware may have changed, we were still making the same mistakes in 2002 that we're making today. The second point is probably my favourite - if you choose the option "Because I care about you - you're my best friend" for the answers to the questions that Emily asks you, you'll of course type the first part, but when you get to "you're my best friend", your character will get through half of it, but then delete it and replace it "you're one of my best friends." It's this type of sweet little change that explains our obsession with social media quite so well. Ever had that guy/girl you liked, but were too scared to ask them? Instead you'd just try flattery and hope that they made the first move? You can easily see that in your character and the developer captured it perfectly.
The game is split into five chapters, with each one symbolising a year, from 2002 to 2006. Of course, at the start of every chapter (or year), you're given the option to choose a new buddy icon, or use one from previous chapters if you want to be hipster douchebag. As you progress through each one, the game chronicles your life, Emily's life and your relationship with her - who she dates, who you date, what are you studying at. Only thing is, it's explained through the medium of this simple chat window. You have to choose your life through your answers, but when you think about it, it's almost a metaphor for the fact that it becomes so easy to tweak your own life while on social media, simply to impress or interest other people. At some point (I won't mention when), your friendship with Emily is compromised by something, and you must choose how you handle that problem. And then the 5th chapter is when I realised that this was a game that I loved. There's something stale between the two, almost as if they're two ex's that never got over their problems with each other, until the final few moments that feel like a stab in the heart with every word. I don't want to spoil it but it's an incredible ending that I can't quite express my feelings towards. It's frankly a game that everyone needs to play at least once. Even though each "year" takes barely 15 minutes, you feel like you've travelled along with your character and Emily, learnt what their interests are, learnt who they are, their pasts and futures. It's borderline creepy, but at the same time, I love it.
A very large well done to Kyle Seeley, the developer who has crafted a masterpiece. Your game is frankly art, and we need more of it.
Felix is Away.