Games. Culture.

Emily is Away Convinced Me I’d Grown Up

This week let's talk about AIM, Nostalgia and Growing Up

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For some reason, I associate autumn with communication. It’s natural, as a college student, to presume this because hey, college is one big pool of people just trying to get by while transitioning into adulthood. Getting by includes talking to people to have some semblance of sanity as assignment after assignment whittles you down till you feel like a husk of the bright young man or woman that first walked through those halls on the first day of class. Sometimes you just need a friendly face to brighten your day. Throughout my teens, all I needed was to hear any one of these.

When I think communication, I think of the literal millions of messages me and the girl I liked traded through eighth grade. I remember leaving overly emotional away messages, speaking way too frankly and yes, quoting bad song lyrics. I remember looking at others doing the same and being able to scroll through my friends lives. AOL Instant Messenger a.k.a  AIM was my first social feed and my first experimentation with the idea of being a normal, social teen. Naturally, I was absolutely terrified. My social anxiety was born the day I made that horrendous screen name. So girls, anxiety, stumbling through adolescence, and moody music are all wrapped up in AIM. Why does that matter?

Well because this weeks Late to the Game is all about my favorite simulator, Emily is Away.

Now, it’s not technically a simulator. The events of the game play out over a fixed narrative, populated by fictional, defined characters. Thing is its gameplay is literally typing on your keyboard to mimic being in a chatroom, which brought me back to 2010. The whole game plays out like a simulation of teenage relationship, complete with awkward social interactions, attempts to find a soulmate, and parties. Instead of feeling like a knock off, Kyle Seeley, the sole developer, utilizes mimicry to craft a genuine love letter to those truly good ol’ days. Kyle and his game share a nostalgia for the days of AIM as many of us do because AIM wasn’t just a thing for me but rather a thing that defined the internet entirely between roughly 1997 and 2011. Businesses used it, teenagers used it and kids look at their older siblings using it and wanted in. In tying itself to AIM, Emily is Away was a game capable of speaking volumes to a whole generation(and then some) of people, right as they started missing it.

See for as ubiquitous as AIM was among us, nostalgia is even more universal. Associating these two things with one another made the most relatable game for millenials. It’s no biblical epic, it’s no post-modern exploration of existentialism, it’s not even a novella, nor does it need to be any of those things. It’s just a story of kids coming together and coming apart. It’s beautifully simple and tragic trying so desperately to chase that same thing we all wanted as kids and realizing that maybe we weren’t ready for it. It was something we all knew because we grew up on AIM doing the very same thing. It was universal.

The nostalgia the game is trying to invoke by tackling this subject matter is a tricky feeling to navigate. That yearning for the past is usually an obstacle in the way of forward progress. Simultaneously though, the act of remembrance isn’t bad in and of itself. It can provide fresh perspectives, lessons and bestow an appreciation of the small things. I say this because Emily is Away ran me through every possible feeling in the book. By the end of my ~two hour play through, I was emotionally exhausted…and so were my friends. Turns out that if you can appeal to one of us, you can appeal to all of us. What I’ve found is that through engrossing stories, games can do things they never thought like turn Emily is Away into a fun, but ultimately harrowing party game!

At the time, I was horribly depressed. I’d been kicked out of my dream school, resorted to a part time job to fill a hole in my life and all my friends were either too busy or very far away. I’d decided to escape upstate for a week to see my best friends from high school and boy was it magical. The best thing outside of the usual college shenanigans was them crowding around my laptop after hearing the AIM sounds originating from the conversations I was playing out with Emily. One by one, they peeled away from their day to day to help me make decisions that would, ideally, get my character laid because that’s all teenagers want. By the time we did get laid, we were all there to witness it and let out a cheer. It felt like we were all living vicariously through this kid because at one point or another, we were that kid. Then, like it had for all of us, it went to shit.

What teens don’t get about growing up is that absolutely zero percent of it is absolute fun. What started as a simple friendship became a sexual conquest and then evolved into sex politics. By the end of the game, the group was discussing possibilities regarding conversation choices. Realizing that any wrong choice could ruin all hope of reconciliation, debates happened. All of a sudden, reality had slapped us all communally across the face. “This has gotten really out of hand,” we all probably thought in unison. Emily is Away harkened back to a thing long buried and utilized it to solidify my growth and that of those around me because we slowly came to realize that night, as most do when they look back, that we weren’t kids anymore. If AIM was my introduction to the teenage world and the glue that bound us all together, Emily is Away was the final chapter of my adolescence.

I no longer find myself missing AIM. I don’t miss the sounds of someone signing on/off, that message tone, or the moody away messages. It dredged up feelings and conversations I’d rather not hurt over again. However, I feel eternally grateful that a game like this exists, if only because I finally got to look back and see how far I’d come.

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