I’m sitting at my computer, watching an old internet video of a cat playing groovy tunes on the piano. To the right of my screen are recommended videos for a flash mob, Chocolate Rain, and the first asdfmovie. I can’t remember the last time things were so simple.
These videos are being hosted on a retro parody site called “YouToob” inside emily is away <3 — one that mimics the clunky, unoptimized, almost innocent era of YouTube that didn’t know its future. It’s an era that was swiftly executed by a sleeker SEO and revenue-focused media behemoths. But here, that juvenile web lives on untouched, like a rare ant encased in amber, for us to gaze at and wonder how something like this even existed.
That’s the power of emily is away <3. Developed by Kyle Seeley, this social media/dating simulator for the year 2008 instantly transports you back to a time of Lolcats, Crazy Frog, Twilight discourse, and Lonely Island music videos. From the start it asks you to sign up for a blue site called “Facenook,” quickly submerging the player into a digital environment rife with nostalgia and the heartwarming cringe of early online relationships. What could go wrong?
You play as a high school senior. Their friend group is growing apart due to online miscommunication and the looming fear of what will happen after prom. The narrative setup isn’t that different from the series’ first two predecessors, which focused on AIM, but this story marks the first foray into a world where the funniest things online were high pitched Alvin and the Chipmunks covers of Top 40 songs. emily is away <3 nails that e-historic tone so, so well. And it finds strength in accurately recreating social media platforms and the interpersonal drama that was always bound to birth from them.
The bulk of the game is interacting with people like Mat, an excitable Facenook enthusiast, Evelyn, a pop-punk diehard, and the titular Emily, who really enjoys video games. Your choices affect the outcome of the entire friend group, too. There are about nine different endings you can reach depending on interactive choices. Ambient computer hums and the click clack of an old keyboard soundtrack your conversations (which are often happening at the same time as ongoing poke wars and News Feed updates). All this helps further emulate the post, scroll, DM cycle of this plugged-in age of communication.
Characterization comes through back and forth messaging, but also in unique bursts via personality quizzes and wall posts that show a more unprocessed look at what each user feels. If you’re getting along well with someone, they might even send you their exclusive YouToob playlist where you can listen along to hits from artists like Kanye West, Senses Fail, or 3OH!3. Learning the characters’ musical taste is just as effective at fleshing out their personalities in-game as it can be in real life. And emily is away <3 does it with ease.
For the most part, the rest of the dialogue feels appropriately of its time. It constantly throws out late 2000s references that lead you down rabbit holes for upwards of 30 minutes at a time. I was very young during this particular online period, and mostly experienced the echoes of these memes and cultural moments, so I maneuvered through Facenook like a visitor to a museum. It was so fun pulling out my phone to research more about the lore of certain videos and scratching my head at the thought of Facebook as the trendy spot to be online.
The game runs just a few hours long, but apart from a handful of moments that feel stretched out, that feels like the perfect amount of time to make a profile that is totally “awesome sauce” and dive into a portal of virtual memories.
emily is away <3 ends up being a short and flexible hypertext experience that makes you think about what a “meme” is, and question how some funny things manage to stand the test of time, while others are lost in the wind and forgotten. Regardless of your feelings toward the era, this playable story is a fantastically researched tour through internet history that anyone with a few hours to spare should give a chance.