Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of GAMEBUOY.ORG as a whole.
I’m sitting here writing this on a rainy Sunday afternoon. I’ve just finished playing Emily is Away, the free to play visual novel by Kyle Seeley that simulates chatting on AOL Instant Messenger. Not only did it hit me right in the nostalgia feels, but it made me reflect upon a few things – like the debate over what is or isn’t a game, and how audiences interpret games. This isn’t so much a review as it is a collection of thoughts, which I feel are worth exploring.
Nostalgia Simulator XP
Emily is Away takes place entirely in a recreation of AOL Instant Messenger from 2002-2006, starting with your senior year in high school. Immediately upon signing in, you’re asked to choose a buddy icon (choices include Harry Potter, blink-182, and Lord of the Rings). Your friend, Emily, starts talking to you about Coldplay. Over the years, you get to choose new icons, and Emily’s icons and profile text will reflect the music of the time – I loved that she had a Muse icon at one point and song lyrics in her profile to match. As someone who was the same age as these characters during this time period whose primary form of social interaction was chatting on AIM, the pop culture references resonated with me in the same way the AIM interface did – you can look at people’s profiles (which of course have angsty song lyrics), you can see when Emily is typing (or deleting), and the mechanism of gameplay involves randomly pressing keys after you’ve made a dialogue choice. You can even change the color of your text and background. All in all, the accuracy is totally on point, and at first it comes across as whimsical.
However, once you start interacting more with Emily, and the years pass, the gameplay starts to get more personal. It hits hard on many levels – the way people drift apart after high school, the way communication can be interpreted (and misinterpreted) in a digital setting, and the way that these interactions can affect us. As Emily and I grew more and more distant, the insecurities of my college days came flooding back, and I immediately reflected upon my own instances of AIM drama of the era. It was a bit uncomfortable, but the fact that the game was able to elicit this sort of emotional response makes me consider it a success. Although the game is very heteronormative, at least to me, I was still able to relate to the themes and sentiment of the game.
A Game or Not a Game? That is the Question
This is a much bigger discussion than can be covered in the scope of what I’m talking about today, but recently there’s been a lot of discussion over what is or isn’t a game. This particularly has been targeted at games built in Twine, which allow for an interactive fiction experience often described as being similar to a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Tools like Twine have allowed game development to become accessible to anyone who so desires – which can be a point of contention for certain groups of gamers who have a very specific (and arguably outdated) idea of what a game is. As I said, this is a much bigger discussion that I’ll likely return to at another point – but one needs look no further than the reaction to Zoe Quinn’s Depression Quest to see how polarizing interactive fiction can be.
Personally, I happen to view works like Depression Quest, Coming Out Simulator 2014 by Nicky Case, Digital: A Love Story by Christine Love, Hatoful Boyfriend by Hato Moa, and of course, Emily is Away as games. It’s relatively simple to me – text-based games have been around forever, and while I was born a bit too late to experience them in their infancy, I always had an awareness of their existence, and I never recall any debate about whether or not they were games. Visual novels have long been a popular genre in Japan, as well. It’s only been recently that this has seemed to become a hot-button issue, and of course, we can definitely infer that complaints that these experiences aren’t games to be a cover for some gamers’ true, malicious intentions.
Friend Zoning and the Toxic Masculinity of Gamer Bro Culture
Depending on the route you take and your own interpretation of the game, there can be implied romantic feelings between you and Emily, with one option even leading to a hookup. While I thought this was a pretty realistic situation for two young adults in the burgeoning digital age, I had a bad feeling about the greater reaction to this would be online.
There has been a lot of discussion on the concept of “friend zoning” pop up in recent years. Essentially, the idea of the friend zone is the expectation from certain heterosexual men that, if he becomes romantically attracted to a female friend and the feeling is not mutual, that the fault is on the woman for not returning his affection or interest in a sexual relationship. It ties in with the whole trope of the “nice guy” and the “white knight,” both concepts that hit a little too close to home when we consider the issues that women in gaming have been facing. This is another discussion that is too big to cover in its entirety today, but the idea of the unpopular gamer nerd being rejected by a girl he likes in favor of the hot football jock is also a stereotype at this point. With the anonymity of the internet, this has resulted in a culture of toxic masculinity that is prevalent among the “gamer bro” culture.
For the most part, I won’t be including any names, because I don’t think calling people out is appropriate in this case – I don’t want to contribute to any dogpiling, even if the things these people are saying is shitty. But here’s a sampling of comments that you can easily find on the Steam community page for Emily is Alone:
“10/10 Friend Zone Simulator”
“Can we have a good ending in this game ? or we just got friendzoned all the time?”
“emily you stuck up ho
i got that cute piggy avatar and you didnt let me block buster n chill
“This game is just like real life, no matter how you try to escape from friendzone, once you get caught in it, you can never escape from it. NEVER! 10/10 would be friendzoned again!”
“How to get laid – With this guide you’ll stick your boner in every Emily holes.”
“How to get dat pu$$y – How to win the girl and get the booty and the pu$$y.”
While I don’t find the game itself to be problematic in its presentation of the relationship between the player and Emily, I take issue with reactions like this. There are ways to intelligently talk about the relationship dynamics between people and how digital communication has affected that, as well as the reality of drifting away from people you were once close to, even in the digital age. To reduce discussion of the game to the “friend zone” and how Emily won’t let you get “the booty and the pu$$y” (or, “every Emily holes”) is not only disrespectful to the source material, but contributes to the objectification of women and the already problematic toxic masculinity of the gamer bro culture.
I’m sure this was not Seeley’s intent, and I hold nothing against him for creating a game that led to these reactions; I just find it unfortunate that gaming culture right now is in a place where things like this are being said. Even PewDiePie, the immensely popular Let’s Play-er (how is that a noun now?), titled his Let’s Play of Emily is Away as “FRIENDZONE SIMULATOR” – and as someone who has millions of followers on YouTube (known as the “Bro Army”), who once came under fire for making rape jokes, I just can’t help but find that irresponsible to spread that line of thought to millions of impressionable gamers.
Slagkick is Away
To wrap things up, I think it’s fascinating that a short game (I had 28 minutes of playtime on Steam upon finishing) that is arguably not a game in the eyes of some caused me to spend more time reflecting and writing about it than I spent actually playing. I definitely consider interactive fiction and visual novels to be games, and I think Emily is Away is really powerful in its presentation. I’d like to see more from Kyle Seeley in the future based on what he was able to do here.
However, I also want to put my voice out there and say that I think there are ways to talk about relationship dynamics – including sex and rejection – in mature ways that don’t dehumanize women, and it’s kind of ridiculous to think of a fun hobby like video games means that we have to have discussions that basically boil down to, “Don’t be a douche.”
But if games have the impact for these conversations to happen, even if they are difficult and met with resistance, then I think it speaks to the importance and relevance of gaming in our culture, and hopefully those who reduced Emily is Away to a “friend zone simulator” can reevaluate their perspective and understand what makes that point of view problematic.