It has been a long time since Facebook felt fresh. But, as hard as it might be to imagine now, there was a time when Facebook was the most exhilarating website to ever exist. Here was a place where we could not only chat with mates, crushes, and frenemies, but watch their lives spool out on the ever-updating wall. Emily Is Away <3, the latest in Kyle Seeley’s addictive narrative series, has bottled that essence, shaken it up with a wistful story about young love, and then let it fizz away like it’s a secretive Smirnoff Ice you might have chugged at 16.
The concept is simple. It’s 2008 and you’re in your senior year of high school. With people leaving AIM, you start the story by signing up to "Facenook" at the behest of your friend Mat. After a few minutes spent getting your profile sorted - the trials of writing your first status, pestering friends to hook you up with a profile picture or two - you’ll start chatting with your friends Emily and Evelyn, quickly developing a rapport with both. However, a choice you make early on means you’ll end up growing closer with one a lot more than the other, with a relationship slowly forming.
Emily Is Away <3 is exceptional in two regards. The first is the innovative setting for this story, with Facenook a collection of such keenly observed details that it’s like you’ve been ripped straight back into your teenage bedroom. From the way you’ll naturally start to creep on your friend’s pages to see what’s going on with them to getting drawn into a protracted poke war. Creator Kyle Seeley tells me over email about he managed to create such an evocative recreation of the then-nascent social media platform: “A good amount of external research and internal introspection. I use wayback machine and old screenshots to make sure I get the look right. But I grew up on these platforms, AIM and Facebook. So nailing the "feel" of Facenook means bringing a lot of my own personal memories to life.”
Of course, that setting wouldn’t make the impact it does if the story didn’t match it. But this is the game’s second masterstroke, capturing the heady mix of frantic feelings that come from first love via a computer screen. Seeley explains to me how he managed to evoke the recent past through his writing: “I put a lot of myself into these games - for better and for worse. I have memories of combing through a crush's note survey to see if they mention me. Or seeing two friends fighting by only writing lyrics on each other's walls. I think my work can feel so real because it kinda is real. Although the events and characters of my stories aren't 1:1 representations of my life or my friends, they are pretty close. And I think these personal memories resonate so much with others because, unfortunately, we were all awkward teenagers once.”
Chat Yrself Clean
That universality is key to the impression Emily Is Away <3 makes. I might never had to ask someone to prom (*sniff*) or compare class times with friends, but I do remember the rush of staying up late on Facebook chat and MSN messenger just because I didn’t want to stop talking to a crush. It also doesn’t skimp on the pain, awkwardness, and shameful moments that wriggle into your brain when you least expect them to. In my playthrough, I started to see that Emily was sending more and more public messages to a boy named Jeff, with Mat constantly asking if I felt jealous. The level-headed answers I gave in 2021 were almost certainly not the ones I would have given in 2008.
These moments are only heightened by the game’s expanded cast of immediate characters. The series has become more refined with each entry, with Facenook offering Seeley the chance to introduce a large group of people for your character to chat with. He tells me how about the challenge of scaling up the cast: “Scope! Oh my god, scope. Every character has a unique voice, taste, and that needs to be reflected in every interaction they're a part of. Lay on top of that the multiple branching paths and different endings, and you wind up with a lot of content. In Emily <3 there are 5 main endings, 250+ pixel-art photos and over 90k words of dialogue!”
That scope can be felt throughout. Partly, it’s in the way you discover music playlists floating on people’s profile or the relationship quiz that feels queasily accurate to the era, but it’s also in how the story is told. Whereas Emily 2’s story focused on juggling relationships, Emily is Away <3 smartly puts the emphasis on creating a group of friends who feel like your own. By the time you reach the game’s final chapter, you’ll have seen people grow in unexpected ways, even if that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll grow in the same direction. One conversation, where text becomes clipped and punctation suddenly appears, will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to have a tough conversation through Facebook.
And that makes Emily Is Away <3 such a nostalgic treat. It manages to find a vein of wistfulness without tipping into being overly twee, its pitch-perfect recreation of Facebook as impressive as the characters you’ll while away your time chatting to. Feeling like a teenager again is rarely a good thing, but this delight manages to capture the highs and lows in a way that highlights that technology might change, but those young feelings won’t.
Emily is Away <3 is out now on PC.