One of the games from the August Humble Choice is Emily Is Away <3, the third game in the Emily Is Away series of nostalgic chat-based visual novels. The first Emily Is Away focuses on the internet of 2002-2006 and takes place through AIM Messenger. You play as a high school and subsequently college student with a crush on Emily, who is never away, because the gameplay is about talking to her through AIM. The first game is free, so I decided to give it a whirl before picking Emily Is Away <3, so that I can maybe give Emily ❤ away if someone else wants it.
As a nostalgia vehicle, Emily Is Away fails for me in particular for two reasons. First, I was ten in 2002 and fourteen in 2006, so the game’s initial hook of talking about Coldplay in AIM chat just doesn’t land for me. I used AIM as a teenager, but it was on the way out, and I never knew anyone who cared about Coldplay. Emily ❤ takes place on off-brand Facebook in 2008, when I was 16, and would line up much better.
Second, the game (at least in its first few interactions) relies heavily on a romantic entanglement between the protagonist and Emily, and I am an aromantic with a mind of metal and wheels who never cared who a girl I was interested in might be dating. There was more than one attractive girl in my circles, I was aware teenage relationships were fragile and temporary so a girl dating someone else didn’t really present a long term obstacle anyway, and my interests in relationships was pretty limited to begin with, especially for the amount of effort a relationship with a high school relationship usually requires.
Plus, the girl the protagonist is interested in is one they know in real life, and regularly see in person. The only reason they’re using AIM chat to stay in touch is because using the phone requires slightly more effort. Emily is exclusively the character you interact with early on (maybe for the whole game?), and it’s jarring to me that a 00s-era AIM conversation would end with a promise to meet up in real physical space at a party later that evening. When I was a teenager, the internet was another world with almost totally distinct inhabitants, and the friends I had online and used things like AIM chat to talk to were completely different people from who I saw at school.
None of this is a fatal flaw, though, because they’re obviously pretty specific to me. No, Emily Is Away’s fatal flaw is that after you pick a dialogue option, you have to hit keys on your keyboard to type it out. It doesn’t matter what keys you press, it’ll always match (more or less) the dialogue option you selected, so this is just a bit of friction between making a choice and seeing results. There is occasionally some characterization of the protagonist as they start to write one thing, then delete it and use a different phrasing (usually going from something very strong to something more restrained), but it’s really not worth the bit of friction introduced into every single player input. I keep thinking to myself “maybe it’ll be more relatable if I muscle through the opening conversations with Emily and find some side characters to talk to” or “maybe Emily ❤ will work better for me since it takes place in 2008 when I was 16,” but ultimately, I don’t want to struggle through fake-typing out all my responses when I still have over 170 games in my backlog.