Three games about online communication give only the illusion of choice
Last week I completed the Emily Is Away trilogy. Each one ripped out my heart in less time than it takes to watch a Marvel movie.
I played all three of the games in a row, which meant I got my heart broken by Emily via AIM in the first game, got another heart-stomping from Evelyn on AIM in the next game, and then got dumped yet again by Evelyn on Facebook in the final game. The three games are set inside of early-’00s social media. Emily Is Away (2015) and Emily Is Away Too (2017) are both text adventures set in a series of AIM chat logs, and the third game is set on an approximation of 2008-era Facebook.
You’re playing as a classmate of Emily and Evelyn, and your interactions with them feel intimate and direct. You can fill in your own screen name and select some details for your profile. You pick through dialogue trees to define your character and their choices in life and romance. You don’t specify your gender in any of the three games, although you’re presumed to be attracted to girls. In the third game, you can choose among both feminine and masculine profile photos, each rendered in an abstract silhouette. I used my old AIM screen name and my real name in all three games, but now that I’ve beaten them all, I really wish I hadn’t.
For those of us who lived through high school and college during the height of instant messaging and the Proterozoic days of social media, the Emily Is Away trilogy will trigger micro-flashbacks and sense memories. The AIM sound effects. The clever imitation of Facebook’s interface and notifications. Era-appropriate song lyrics on friends’ profiles and a selection of cringeworthy lyrics to add to your own.
In the same way I liked digging through Facebook pages in 2008 to learn my new friends’ favorite movies and quotes, I loved navigating through little details on characters’ profiles that made them seem real, like their Facebook Notes app surveys and links to curated YouTube playlists reflecting each fictional teen’s tastes.
With each passing game, the series’ dialogue becomes more naturalistic. Emily, as a character, felt hollow in the first game, but by the time I finished Emily Is Away <3, both Emily and Evelyn seemed like real teen girls with real teen problems.
In fact, the realness is eerie. In Emily Is Away <3, the tense social media fights I had with Emily, Evelyn, and the other new characters raised my heart rate just like real-life fights I’ve had on social media with friends, crushes, and partners. After completing the trilogy, I genuinely felt as though I’d gotten dumped three times in a row. Since I used my real name and screen names and attempted to play “as myself” to the extent that it was possible, the rejections felt not that different from getting dumped by a real person via the internet.
But while the rejections felt familiar, even real, they did not feel personal.
Emily Is Away <3 has introduced more nuance and depth to the characters and dialogue compared to the prior two games, but this increased realism made one particular failing stick out all the more: I kept talking like a straight dude in these games. And that’s how other characters kept perceiving me. Except I’m a queer woman, and I used to be a queer teen girl, and that’s the person I kept on trying to be.
I’m not the only critic who has noted this rigidity. Back in 2015, Bruno Dias read the first game’s protagonist as male, writing, “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.” Emily Short described the game as “heteronormative,” pointing out that one of the interactions between Emily and the protagonist could be read as dubiously consensual, which “retrospectively colors some of [the protagonist’s] earlier behavior as entitled Nice Guy-ism rather than awkwardness and genuine concern.”
Like me, critic Avery Delany attempted to play the game from a queer lens and experienced less dissonance than I did, writing, “The absence of an explicit, predetermined gender set by the game and reinforced through the narrative gave me a sense of freedom to interpret my character and their relationships.”
The Emily Is Away games do indeed leave many interactions open to interpretation, and at times that’s the games’ strength, allowing any player to see a little of themselves within the protagonist. But even as I became more invested with each entry, I kept fantasizing about an alternate version of the protagonist who’s more clearly defined as a queer girl. The drama in my high school friends group about “who was dating who” got way more stressful once some of us came out of the closet (and sometimes headed back in again, depending on our insecurity levels that day).
In Emily Is Away <3, Evelyn had only dated guys prior to dating me (as far as the game tells me), and she broke up with me to date a guy (okay, so Evelyn told me she wasn’t leaving me for Steve, but c’mon, it was so obvious). Nobody in the game comments on this. Trust me, it would’ve made a lot more sense if these 2008-era characters had commented on Evelyn’s relationship history, especially if I’m supposed to be Evelyn’s first-ever girlfriend. I know what teens were like in 2008 — especially teens at Natick High School, where this game is set, because that’s the next town over from where I actually grew up.
What fascinated me more, while also breaking my immersion, was the way that my player character talked to these girls in the game, as well as how they perceived me. The ways that a teen girl might come off as creepy or annoying tend to differ from the ways that a teen boy would. Not always, of course — but there is a wealth of academic scholarship about how different people are socialized to communicate in different ways, depending on how other people perceive them.
In the first two Emily Is Away games, I’d often find myself with a string of dialogue options that didn’t sound like anything I’d ever say in my life. In the third game, that still happened, but less often. It might sound here like I think that the Emily Is Away series needed to include even more dialogue to allow for the life experiences of someone like me. And while I do think that the ups and downs of a teen queer social circle would make for a devastating game, that isn’t something I think Emily Is Away should necessarily attempt to do.
The strength of these games is that the protagonist actually is a defined character, a person who gains more definition with each successive game. Entering in my own personal information and attempting to play as myself, rather than coming along for the ride as a character who isn’t that much like me, resulted in me enjoying these three games less than I would have otherwise.
The Emily Is Away series doesn’t tell social media stories that everyone will be able to relate to. After all, not all of us used AIM in the early 2000s, or used Facebook in 2008. These games tell a specific story about characters who feel real and make tough decisions that are understandable, including the player character. I just wish I hadn’t spent my time with them imagining what a teenage version of myself would do.
Even if I had been able to play as my actual teenage self, I’m still pretty sure that Evelyn would have dumped me for Steve. Frickin’ Steve.