If the medium is the message, then AOL’s messaging software—at least for my generation—has the same sentimentality as whatever we talked about over it. That’s the pitch of Emily Is Away Too, a new visual novel that plays out in “EOL” Instant Messenger windows, away messages and personal profiles.
I played its predecessor, 2015’s Emily Is Away, in the backyard of my childhood home. On that visit, the house was crawling with workmen preparing the house for sale. I was instructed to stay out of their way. My parents were “greiging” the house, real estate agents’ term for painting over our kitchen’s loud yellow wallpaper with an inoffensive beige. That way, potential buyers could imagine their new life there without the burden of our old one.
Yes, I was feeling nostalgic, imaging my mom in the window waving to me with flour on her hands. I wasn’t quite feeling sentimental, though. My childhood was mostly spent online rather than in that kitchen. In that moment, Emily Is Away’s fake AIM interface was a more persuasive bid for my nostalgia than gazing into the kitchen window.
Two years later, Emily Is Away Too is still all about longing for the simple details of childhood—your AIM window’s customizable blue background, the choice Captain Picard YTMND meme in a buddy’s profile, the well-timed and enigmatic away message. Its fake interface is more convincing. After you install the game, a phony install window pops up for Emily Is Away Too’s EOL Instant Messenger software, circa 2006. I could choose a random screen name—GameOvergREGGY, Trello65—or my own, plus a buddy icon. When my buddy list popped up, I spent a minute perusing my NPC friends’ Senses Fail or Radiohead lyrics, which complemented their profiles alongside some motto to live by. To interact with a buddy, you can hit one of three text options and then type any keys on your computer—your message appears letter by letter.
For those who have played Emily Is Away, Emily Is Away Too boasts the same nostalgia-ridden story of a relationship that lives and dies by EOL Instant Messenger. It begins with a quote from author Nicole Krauss: “Who is Emily. . . every person that anyone has ever loved.” You start off in the early stages of friendship with Emily (Emerz35), who likes Top 40 alt rock and doesn’t drink, and with Evelyn (Punk4eva), who does drink and plans on going to 2006’s Warped Tour. Over EOL, Emily and Evelyn want to know what music you like, what games you play, how your summer was. It’s mundane, but it’s the authentic experience of getting to know someone better online than you know them at school. After a while, your relationships season as the shadow of college is cast over them. I don’t want to spoil you, but by the game’s end, you’ll pine for that sweet simplicity.
Emily Is Away Too is equal parts tender, wistful and believable. Its characters very literally became a part of my life—so long as my life extends to my open Chrome tabs. In the game, your crush sends you a link to her Facenook, a very real web page tied to Emily Is Away Too. There, she’s written the note, “i’m bored so let’s do this question thing….” She’ll also offer YouToob clips of her current jam, maybe “Face Down” by Red Jumpsuit Apparatus (the internet is an effective and novel place for a game’s soundtrack). These pages are a part of the game, but they live on the same browser where I’m chatting on Facebook or watching Netflix.
After a bit, you might find yourself, as I did, browsing the internet or watching Netflix while playing Emily Is Away Too. The game integrates itself into your internet experience, and chatting with these imaginary friends easily becomes background noise to, say, online shopping. Your friends accept this with varying degrees of patience. After a bad day, Evelyn says she needs to “vent.” At the same time, Emily admits she’s going through a tough breakup. They simultaneously ask for your time, your compassion and your loyalty, but when I showed signs of distraction during Evelyn’s confessional, she turned on me. After a few minutes’ pause, she logs off angrily, upset that she confided in me at all.
Fake interface games are taking off. Last year, the Korean mobile dating simulator Mystic Messenger, which unfolded over text messages and push notifications, took Kotaku’s staff by storm. These games capitalize on patterns of communication we’ve established over messaging apps, which are wellsprings for subtle, emotional writing. They work. A common problem I’ve encountered, though, is that the writing often feels one-sided. NPCs are always confessing, venting, telling you their problems and shamelessly burdening you with their feelings. With exclamation points and emphatics, you tell them, Yes, you can always talk to me! The writing in these very believable fake interface games can run the risk of evoking all the one-sided relationships we’ve ever had, combined. I would welcome a fake interface-based game that didn’t use emotional labor as a plot-mover.
That said, Emily Is Away Too’s bid for emotional investment doesn’t feel gimmicky in part because its creator wrote it like a time-traveling journalist who lived in my ‘00s Dell tower. It’s also proof that “immersion,” a popular buzzword in gaming circles, doesn’t need to be technically advanced. Savvy design, good writing and a few well-placed hyperlinks can transport gamers to long-lost emotional spaces.