Emily is Away is a text-focused game that was originally entered in IF Comp 2015, but withdrawn because the author also planned to release it to the public as a paid commercial work. (Today, in fact!) IF Comp isn’t really a good place for submitting commercial games, for a host of reasons — you have to let people have free copies of your thing, and then you’re not allowed to talk about your own work for the duration of the competition, and so on.
Nonetheless, I did play this in the free beta version that I received as an IF Comp judge. My first impression of it was extremely positive, since it struck me as polished and inventive and very easy to get into. It uses a mockup of an instant messenger interface for five dialogue exchanges with your friend Emily (hence the title). These exchanges span a five-year period from senior year of high school to senior year of college, and plot out the course of your relationship.
The game does a number of cunning interface things: you make a dialogue choice from three options, but then you have to actually spam your keyboard to mime typing in your input. This might seem a bit gimmicky — indeed it is a bit gimmicky — but the game uses it to good effect, because you see what your character types and deletes and retypes before sending the final version of the message. And there are things where you can reset your profile picture and get Emily’s comments on it, or see the rest of your buddy list (even if there’s never any way to talk to anyone but Emily). The early stages of the game created a charming sense of connection for me.
I should note that it is entirely possible to name the protagonist a female name, and the randomizer at the beginning of the game will suggest some female names as options, but the bulk of the story reads to me as heteronormative. We only see Emily date men and we only see the protagonist date women. It’s possible that you’re lesbian and Emily is bisexual, but nothing in the narrative actively supports this view.
Once I’d played through the whole thing several times, I developed some more conflicted views about the content, and I’d like to talk about why; but this is going to be totally spoilery, so if you’re planning to play yourself, you should probably not click through.
(Edited to add: the author has now shared some of his own thoughts, both about his Comp participation and about the game content; see the bottom of the comment thread.)
Emily is Away is billed as a branching narrative, but as far as I can tell it is in fact a friendly gauntlet with largely cosmetic delayed consequence. You can be more or less dismissive or pleasant to Emily, go to a party she wants to go to or not, pick a business or engineering or art school for yourself, act worried or indifferent when she talks about entering what might be an abusive relationship. And these things are remembered and they do make some difference, but only around the edges of the story. Your actions can change which high school acquaintance Emily is dating in freshman year of college, but not whether she is dating one of them. And as far as I can tell, no matter what you do, your relationship will have come apart by the end of your senior year in college, and you’ll be reduced to exchanging platitudes.
The crux of this relationship disintegration happens because of an event in chapter 3, sophomore year. Emily tells you that she’s just broken up with her boyfriend, she’s upset, and she keeps wondering whether you and she might have gotten together in senior year of high school. Then she asks whether she can come visit you at your dorm.
You have some genuine options here.
You can say no, she can’t visit; in that case, in chapter 4, she’ll tell you that she’s felt differently about you ever since you refused to help her out in her time of depression.
You can say that she can visit but only as friends; later, in chapter 4, she’ll tell you that she’s felt differently about you ever since you didn’t act on the mutual attraction she was sure you both felt.
Or you can say she can visit, and not establish any particular boundaries. Then later, in chapter 4, she’ll tell you that she’s felt differently about you ever since your hookup, which felt like you planned it. She says it happened really fast, and that she thought you should have understood she was really vulnerable. This version appears to happen whether or not you agree to having alcohol during the visit, and whether or not you choose to spend the weekend hanging out with friends or going to parties. (If you do agree to have alcohol, she’ll also mention being drunk, but getting rid of alcohol from the situation does not make the rest of it go away.)
Here’s what squicks me out about this. It sounds as though in that last scenario, she’s describing a situation in which, at the very least, she and the protagonist had regrettable sex with dubious consent. I-the-player did not say that that was what I wanted to have happen. I had no control over the events of the narrative when this thing went down and I don’t have clear access to whether it was rape.
The protagonist does at one point type, then delete, that she had wanted to hook up — but we don’t know the circumstances around that. In some versions, she may not have been sober enough to give meaningful consent. In all versions, we don’t know whether the protagonist is being truthful and accurate. What I do know for sure is that Emily feels betrayed and upset about what happened between us and that years later she is uncomfortable even thinking about it.
So the game is assigning me complicity in that without my having had any preliminary agency or indeed any strong signs that that was what the outcome was likely to be. You can ask her if the protagonist did something wrong or if she had a bad time, and she’ll claim it was fine, but she very obviously feels that it was the opposite of fine. The way I read it, she seems to be trying to call you out on taking advantage of her without quite being ready to accuse you of rape. I found this rough to play through.
At the same time, Emily is Away frames the other outcomes of the visit as failures, in such a way that if I said “no” or “as friends”, I might go back and replay for a better outcome, and get funneled into the non-consensual outcome.
I think the intended arc of the game is supposed to be the gradual wistful discovery that you and Emily are never going to work out, despite your strong and badly suppressed feelings for her. By chapter 5, the game has stopped trying to pretend you have significant agency, since whenever you pick an option that would try to get her to talk about the past, you wind up deleting it and asking her inane stuff about movies and music instead. It’s the Rameses effect, used for more or less the same aims.
It’s also possible that there is some “right” solution that would have made things somehow better, which I happened not to find in half a dozen trips through the game.
But either way, I felt like the game had raised the issue of a possible sexual violation and then not really looked seriously at the aftermath of such an event. One of the peculiarities of this structure is that Emily sounds exactly as upset with you, in many of the same words, if you let her visit as friends. And in the late game it continues to be all about the protagonist’s feelings and the protagonist’s sadness that they couldn’t connect with Emily any more — a state of affairs that retrospectively colors some of their earlier behavior as entitled Nice Guy-ism rather than awkwardness and genuine concern.
“Doesn’t it suck how you never wind up with your crush?” is a pretty horrible final message if you didn’t respect her sexual boundaries. But there’s no way, within the game, to interrogate that behavior and its aftermath. Structurally, it’s portrayed as just another way your friendship can go sour.
(Edited to add: there are some additional thoughts on these topics at this ZEAL article by Bruno Dias.)