[This essay was funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]
Emily is Away (Kyle Seeley) is a former entry in the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition, a simple choice-based narrative presented through an interface that mimics AOL instant messenger circa 2002. Though I also entered a game into the competition this year, Emily is Away’s withdrawal means that I can write about it without a conflict of interest. This review was originally drafted in mid-October. Since that coincided with the game’s withdrawal and with some harsh feelings towards it and Seleey from the IF author community, I decided it would be best to publish it in a general gaming outlet, rather than from within the interactive fiction community; ZEAL has graciously agreed to take it off my hands.
Emily is Away has, in the intervening time, attracted some attention from the games press for its use of early-aughts imagery — so far it’s been covered on Wired and Rock, Paper, Shotgun; it recently passed through Steam Greenlight. But there’s a severe gap in its coverage; besides Emily Short, nobody has taken the game’s actual content to task for what it contains.
This article contains spoilers; I don’t recommend playing the game in a real sense, but you may want to do so (it’s fairly short) for the sake of context. Reading Emily Short’s review will also give you a quick summary of what I am responding to here.
Emily is Away is, structurally, a very simple multiple-choice story with delayed branching in the Choice of Games mould, though it’s much smaller and less sophisticated than those games are. Its main distinguishing feature is the UI design: it’s a mostly faithful recreation of a Windows XP machine running AOL Instant Messenger. The entire story is told through several IM conversations between the viewpoint character and Emily, his high school friend and crush. The game, in fact, goes as far as requiring the player to mash their keyboard to mimic typing whichever dialogue option they chose.
(You can choose the name of the protagonist, and so theoretically their gender, but Emily is Away really isn’t written to encompass the possibility of a queer relationship; a lot of squinting is required to read it as anything but the story of a boy’s crush on a girl.)
On this overarching UI gimmick, I have to make two remarks. The first is that my reaction here is not so much the intended sense of nostalgia but rather a sort of protracted full-body cringe, which will soon be compounded by the actual contents of the piece. I have, at best, an ambiguous relationship with the past; at worst, a downright unpleasant one. Until my recent let’s-see-what-the-fuss-is-all-about moment, I actively avoided Emily is Away because the aughts are not a time I’m very interested in revisiting.
The second remark is that I’m immediately struck by one thing that the various reviews didn’t highlight — the game is rendered in a low-res, pixel art style, rather than the straightforward reconstruction of a Windows XP desktop that I had somehow assumed.
Pixel art, of course, has become the game equivalent of soft focus, a rosy tint seemingly meant to suggest: weren’t things simpler then? In this, it has become at times uncomfortable — think of Spelunky’s helpless buxom girls meant to be carried around like a robbed cultural artefact by the player character, one stroke of low-resolution imagery single-handedly airbrushing away both patriarchy and colonialism.
And of course: No, things weren’t simpler, let alone better, in the past. I can’t dissociate from the fact that this game is, in a small way, romanticizing an era where so many of the seeds of our presently damaged world were being planted, nor can I ignore my own half-lost recollections of that time. Maybe this is all a matter of execution; maybe I could have bought into a better-designed romantic vision of the past — I surely enjoyed Gone Home more than my fair share — but I didn’t. So instead I look at a blocky rendition of the Kill Bill logo and rattle unpleasantly on my chair, trying to squirm away from this game.
I’m a few years too young to be exactly the generation that this is laser-targeted at, but I still felt more pandered to than anything. This is not to say it’s a cloying paean to the era it’s depicting. If anything, that might have been preferable to what we actually get: a game about the early aughts with no point of view on that time at all. It doesn’t have the warmth and awareness that Gone Home had about its own nostalgia trip. In many ways, it doesn’t have anything in particular to say about the era; I could just as well have been mashing my keyboard into a pixel-art imitation of Facebook messaging, and not much would change.
Compare Emily is Away to Guilded Youth, Jim Munroe’s touching recreation of BBS culture. Guilded Youth has actual writing in it; actual characters that have actual voices: ways of thinking and talking and acting, in and out of a BBS. It speaks to people like me who have never come close to a BBS, in a way that Emily is Away will never speak to people who weren’t using AIM around 2002. While I don’t want to invalidate Emily is Away’s use of UI design to tell a story, I do think that there’s just not enough depth to the story it’s telling.
Ultimately, I don’t think the period trappings matter a whole lot to this piece, which is a clever turn from the developer because they suck so much attention in on themselves that they distract from the severe problems with the writing and story.
Emily is Away suffers from the fact that nobody in it has much in the way of a personality. The two principal characters, Emily and the protagonist, are defined mostly by their relationships to others rather than by their own attitudes. At the end of the story, I would be hard pressed to make any statements about Emily — is she petty? Kind? Repressed? Open? Cheerful? Depressive? Emily is a complete cypher, which is a huge problem when the game’s entire story revolves around the player character’s crush on her. The writing doesn’t really convey emotional depth in the limiting format of instant messaging. Subtext is a luxury in Emily is Away; you’re lucky that the conversations have text.
If Emily and the player character are one-dimensional characters, the various tertiary characters are more like props. Emily ends up with some guy from high school — in my first playthrough, “Brad”. Brad exists only to be the Jerk to the protagonist’s Nice Guy; he has, otherwise, no identifying characteristics. We don’t know if Brad is a jock, if he has a history of bullying the protagonist, if he walked into Emily’s life on a trail of broken hearts, if he’s actually a completely decent guy whom the protagonist is just projecting onto. We don’t learn anything real about him at all, except that he and Emily seem to argue a lot, and maybe that’s an abusive relationship, or maybe that’s just our protagonist reading too much into things — and at this point I don’t really trust the game’s writing enough to think it might be trying to suggest the latter.
Similarly, the protagonist’s own college girlfriend, Emma, doesn’t have much in the way of definition. She gets all of one point of distinctive characterization: You can pick whether she’s really kind, really funny, or really hot. Which is to say: The second female character in this story is defined entirely by what a man thinks of her, and in entirely generic terms at that.
Emily herself isn’t fortunate enough to get even that much characterization. If you’ve ever had a crush, you know that crushes have specificity to them; that people’s feelings reflect something they appreciate in one another — or, if you’re feeling cynical, some idealised feature they imagine one another to possess. The protagonist’s feelings for Emily seems less related to who she is, or even to whom the player character imagines her to be, than to the simple fact that she is there.
Emily is not someone with enough personality that someone might have a crush on her. And simultaneously, the protagonist does not have enough personality to have a crush on someone. And so their relationship is just vacuous; it doesn’t even rise to the height of pointless teenage infatuation. The story is clearly trying for wistfulness about their unrealized feelings, but it’s hard to be wistful for something so amorphous. A lot of care is given to the details of the period, but barely any thought is given to defining these characters.
Indeed, it doesn’t seem like those characters develop at all. In the final chapter, they hardly seem different from their high school selves; only their relationship has changed. It would feel like a shaggy dog story, if it wasn’t so short: Things happened and then very little at all was learned.
And then there’s the whole slippery question of how this game treats consent.
One of the story branches results in a worrying, dubiously consensual encounter with Emily — depending on player choice, either involving alcohol or just a potentially skeevy abuse of someone’s emotional vulnerability. This is, of course, troubling; and while the story clearly acknowledges that Emily is hurt, it doesn’t really deal with the magnitude or cause of the hurt — or do much to acknowledge that, in the worst case scenario, what took place goes very far beyond “hurt feelings” and is pretty unambiguously rape.
But here’s the thing: There is no path through this game that doesn’t make me at least somewhat uncomfortable. At no point did I think the player character’s feelings were healthy. From the first conversation, he evinces a sense of entitlement and a desire to control towards Emily that is at least worrying; any man that she dates is instantly labelled a jerk and put under his scrutiny. And because of the flat, direct way the piece delivers its story, it’s hard to sense that it contains a critique of those attitudes.
It’s really hard not to see this whole thing through the lens of the toxic masculine entitlement that leads to unironic usage of terms like “the friendzone.” We’re asked to empathise with a protagonist whose only real feature is this selfsame masculine entitlement; every substantive position he has amounts to versions of the same old saw: “All those other men are terrible; I’m a Nice Guy, and not only would I be good for you, you’re obligated to choose me over them.”
And we never reach a conclusion, or a denunciation, or a critique, or some form of catharsis about this; instead, the protagonist’s controlling attitudes towards Emily are just allowed to linger on like a rancid smell over the whole thing. The pixel-art nostalgia tinge, the ham-fisted attempts at producing wistfulness, the flat delivery of every line of text in the game, the heavy (physical!) identification of the player with this loathsome player character: All give me the impression that this game is not just unaware, but tacitly supportive of this kind of masculine behaviour.
Why, then, has the reception of it by some been so positive, all but rapturous?
There’s a real disconnect in how this game is talked about. There are two components to how Emily is Away tells its story: The UI design, and the writing. Those two halves work in concert: One sets up the piece’s emotional environment (wistful, nostalgic) and the other supplies the narrative arc and referential content that are supposed to play on those feelings. This doesn’t actually work; taken out of the context of the UI, the writing is bland and vaguely creepy at best, and so it doesn’t really support those themes and ideas.
But one is privileged over the other so enormously, that it highlights a fault line in how we perceive games: Because the presentation is doing so much work to sell this feeling of nostalgia, this is taken as the overall effect and content of the piece. Reviewers seem to barely read the lines of text popping out of the fake chat window, let alone read between them.
Consistently, we privilege effect, form, and presentation over story content, when we consider story at all. “Yeah, the story is nonsense, but that’s not really the point” has become a familiar refrain, nearly a cliché, in video game reviews. In some cases, this is comical — Shadow of Mordor involves a billion-dollar franchise, dozens of characters, nearly every big-name voice actor. All in service of writing that barely rises to the the level of bad fanfiction. This writing is then the object of maybe half a paragraph in reviews from the mainstream press. In what other medium do we barely notice such vast gulfs between expenditure and quality of outcome? Or between resources spent and attention paid?
And what attention is paid to storytelling in games, is disproportionately paid to presentation. How much ink has been spilled trying to decide whether Kevin Spacey’s face in Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is a technological achievement or a disturbing gift from the uncanny valley? How much less ink has been spilled contextualising or analysing the things that face is actually saying?
You might think: “What’s wrong with game reviewers having different priorities than you?”
I might think: But what are those priorities leaving by the wayside?
Female characters in video games are frequently just props for a man’s character arc. Shadow of Mordor’s murdered wife; Spelunky’s object in distress; Braid’s not-even-a-person-just-a-metaphor-for-nukes; Emily is Away’s blank recipient for male feelings. This point has become tiresome to make, given the richness of examples and the unceasing nature of the problem. But those are the exact same reasons that make it so necessary to point it out.
Our reflex is to ask: how did this make me feel? How did this present itself? What did this achieve, technologically? How do the actors come off? How do the animations look?
Our reflex is emphatically not to ask: What are the ideological underpinnings of this thing?
And on one level, I get it. Textual analysis is a violent, dangerous process, one that should not be undertaken without care, especially not alone. But stories in games keep repeating the same patterns over and over again. And those patterns are sometimes toxic. Whether mass-produced or handcrafted, big or small, pixel art or performance capture, they march out of bedrooms and media empires alike, to the drumbeat of the same refrain: “Sure, the story isn’t great, but that’s not really what it’s about.” And the number of voices willing to sit down and do the painful work of baring the ideas that ground those works is small. And the number of spaces willing to give those voices a platform is smaller yet.
It cuts both ways, too: How often do the positive reviews of 80 Days highlight its gentle yet pointed deconstruction of colonialist narratives? We don’t take toxic ideas to task any more than we cultivate progressive voices. The fact that there are game writers who are producing real, successful efforts that challenge those ideas— from Inkle (80 Days), to Failbetter (Sunless Sea), to Fullbright (Gone Home), to the many IF authors who submitted games to the IF Competition but didn’t achieve the same visibility that Emily is Away did — hasn’t really made much of a dent in how we treat those texts.
How much of the criticism of a Bioware game is a box-checking exercise where games are graded on whether they produce the right feelings at the right time? Do you know what it took to get people to talk about the subtext of one of those games? What it took was the camera in Mass Effect 2 being so insistent on putting Miranda’s ass right in front of the player’s face that even the most oblivious reviewer had to take notice. Before someone analysed a text beyond simply noting what it explicitly says or giving an experiential report of what it was like to play, said text had to bash players upside the head with the male gaze. Of course that the camera’s positioning and focus is deliberate and meaningful; but for it to be looked at, it had to be used in the most crass, unsubtle way possible. I imagine that prose, to be noticed, would have to be equally loud and boorish.
Braid, for one game, contains a significant amount of non-essential prose that it uses as its primary storytelling device. Remember those? The lines of books you had to wade through to get to the levels? Remember how many conversations revolved around that game’s mechanics? Remember how virtually no conversations at all revolved around those books, and the story they told, and the way it was yet another iteration of a woman existing just as the catalyst for a man’s emotional arc?
I can speculate on how this critical standard evolved, on the evolutionary pressures that forced it to arise — the prevalence, for a long time, of outright bad storytelling in games as the norm; the violent reactions of the audience to having things they like dissected like that. But it has a blindspot, and I don’t like the things that wriggle their way through that blindspot. Game critics love to talk about a game’s ability to transport us to another place, then disregard the ideas those places are built on. They lead us into the palace, pointing out that the doors work and the wallpaper is beautiful, failing to mention the rotting foundation.