With its pixelated Window’s XP and AOL instant messenger interface Emily is Alone instantly charms its player with a nostalgic revisiting of the days of the early aughts. Coldplay ruled the charts, Borat was the height of humor, and a lot of us were really awkward with girls.
Emily is Away is a narrative entirely told through instant messenger conversations with one titular female spanning the senior year of high school to the senior year of college. You can pick your username, your image, and whether to be the sheepish nice guy in your responses or have the hubris to tell Emily that her favorite band is shit. All of this choice is, however, an illusion to serve the narrative, smoke and mirrors to get the player invested enough to carry the story to developer Kyle Seeley’s themes.
Illusion of choice is nothing new in interactive storytelling. Even before bits and bytes, dungeon masters would tell their players they could fight the gnoll or sneak past, having written in their notebook that either would result in confrontation. With the ever evolving medium of video games, however, we tend to label this as a limitation of technology and resources rather than artistic choice. Dragon Age: Origins, for example, went to a great deal of effort to make the intro and moments in the game very individual to the player, but a second playthrough reveals the zipper down the monster’s back of narrative choice: the structure isn’t an ever branching tree, it’s a funnel.
Seeley and his work seems very aware of this friction, even in its last chapter pulling the chair of agency out from beneath the player. This frustrates increasingly through repeated playthroughs as they try to “win” the game. There’s something purposely uncomfortable at work here. By attempting over and over to to replay chapters to achieve a happy ending, truthfully what the player is trying to do is control Emily, her feelings, and her reactions. It’s gross how quickly we are enchanted into thinking that her feelings aren’t her own, but the result of us somehow not articulating ourselves effectively or, worse, not telling the right lie.
This is echoed in the way the game traps the player between Emily’s disappointment at inaction and dubious consent. Emily is Away can more effectively articulate an equally frustrating male perspective on navigating sex and relationships than any man can with words. Video games are no longer played in a vacuum, and Let’s Play videos exasperate this message. You can watch men get angry with Emily, annoyed with how she feels about the choices they have made. Thus, Emily is Away forces us to acknowledge a possible truth: that this consent conversation is a lot more complicated and nuanced, not just having clear victims and perpetrators.
Even if you disagree with that message, you have to admire the way that the game delivers it. The mechanics of Emily is Away, the give and take of control, mirror how relationships work in real life. Social media, even in this early form of instant message, deludes us into thinking we have more agency in our life than we actually do. In reality, you can pick your image, but you can’t pick how people view you.