Left on Read

It’s 2008.

Slowly dying off are the days of the instant messenger.  The creaking door from AOL, the little chimes from MSN, the labyrinth that was ICQ: all started to fall to the rise of social media.  Technology became more accessible, and the want to keep up with your friends and family became easier by the year.  You were slow to the jump.  With your AIM messenger already made, why worry about the newest when you had the most recognized?  But you were eventually coaxed in and made to set up a profile: a piece of the internet to time capsule the moments you wanted to share and remember, a place to share photos and videos, to reconnect with old classmates.

To meet someone special.

Emily is Away ❤ follows your created high school senior as they indulge in the new website, “Facenook”, and catch up with your friends from Natick High School in Massachusetts.  Whatever name you want to go with will fit within the game, so I went with a couple randomizers and found my fleeting senior on the way to his life changing year as the days grew ever closer to the impending mystery and allure of College Life.  Say hello to Aiden Merriman.

After some help from his best friend Mat, Aiden’s profile is set up.  Barren with only a profile picture and a status, his friends soon pour in and introduce their online selves, greeting and congratulating Aiden on making it into the current day and leaving AIM behind.  You’ll react to each message with three options to continue the conversation, with an option to slap your keyboard like a maniac will mimic the typing of each sentence, though it’s toggleable for a more traditional Visual Novel experience.

As the months go by, friendships will soon blossom and bud depending on which parties and shindigs Aiden goes to.  Friends will discuss class schedules, listen to curated playlists on “YouToob”, and take those weird personality quizzes that asked for a little too much information to even get started.  Emily is Away ❤ paints a fun and nostalgic picture to the early days combined with secret little quips to FarmVille, Rick Rolling, Poking, and other late 2000s fads.

But where the love and care is put together to create an ample remembrance of early social media, the writing for its characters takes a back seat.  In previous titles, Emily is Away and Emily is Away Too, the minimalist scenery of an AIM profile with little customization kept viewers intertwined with the story that had been crafted, and what Kyle Seeley was able to do with those words were absolute gold.

To understand what I mean about this, you only need to give Emily is Away Too a playthrough.  The decision making on the fly with emotionally distraught friends will make you say things you may not mean, but will say just to make them feel better.  These words will mean something to one, but the complete opposite to another, and the social gymnastics with two heartbroken friends comes to an emotional train wreck if you weren’t careful, and the realization of what these two come to find out is such a gut-punch it’s impressive how much you hurt over words on a screen.

But Emily is Away ❤ takes more time in crafting an aesthetically pleasing product then an emotionally demanding and grueling experience akin to the previous two titles.  While this could be Seeley’s love letter to how love is so fleeting in the teenage years, it feels almost forced to be put in the situation that plays out.  Where previous titles’ issues were stumbled into by trying to be the good guy or finding the middle ground, Aiden felt destined to live the life of high school tragedy.  But where your character in Emily is Away was writing and deleting sentences in a mental see-saw with what he wanted to say and what he eventually succumbed to, none of the choices that Aiden was given in Emily is Away ❤ packed the punch for someone with the issues that were presented before him.

The payoff falls flat, to feel bad because the writer wanted you to feel bad and not because Aiden’s chosen actions brought him there.  While Emily is Away ❤ does provide multiple endings the first playthrough’s inevitable finish feels like a step back from what has been shown possible in this medium, and while the improvements are plentiful in the series’ third entry it’s hard to ask for multiple plays to see the true experience when the first doesn’t value your time as well as it should.

Reviewed on Steam.