Windows XP. AOL Instant Messenger. Unrequited love. Those are the staples of my teenage years through the mid-2000s. The heartbreaking love story between Punkman1990 and Sammmyrules is one I thought to be unique to us and us alone. Turns out Kyle Seeley, an indie game developer, lived through the same tortured romance and then made it into a video game so that I could, I guess, relive that specific pubescent hell. The game, titled “Emily is Away,” tells an interactive story through AIM, where you, the protagonist, sit behind your computer screen and talk to Emily, your “best friend,” (aka love of your life, lol) through physically typing into your AIM chat window. With multiple responses to choose from, the game play is seemingly a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.
You and Emily discuss early 2000s things, like how much you hate or love Coldplay (a response that Emily will remember, the game insists) and whether or not you’re going to the cool party. Each chapter begins by you logging into your Windows XP home screen, and from senior year of high school to senior year of college, you watch your relationship with Emily ebb and flow, as your Buddy Icons change, your away messages grow more despondent, and your willingness to make things work between you meets the same fate as AIM will on December 15th of this year—non-existence. It’s a short game, playable in 30 minutes or less, and strikes a very specifically nostalgic and painful nerve.
Not only does the game force you to move through the exact audio and visual landscape of the founding father of social media—a shared experience—but it also allows an “emotional highlight reel” of your real, actual friendships and failed attempts at communicating to resurface in your mind. A brief and seemingly whimsical game is, in reality, a profoundly sad experience. It sticks with you after it’s over. It makes you consider, if only for a moment, sending a message to Punkman1990, who now lives across the continental United States with his wife and dog. Just to say hi. Just to say that you remember, long after the visceral feelings of young love have faded away. Whether you confess your love to Emily, you tell her you hate Coldplay, you ignore your feelings, you “do the right thing,” you do the absolute worst thing, the game always ends the same way: “Goodbye.”