SN Messenger has been offline for more than a year. I must have logged in at least 3, 000 hours on MSN Messenger, sneaking in occasionally-appropriate nudges, abusing the “Away” status, and using group chats to organize hangouts with friends. Although Emily Is Away is based on AOL Instant Messenger, which I’ve never used, the detail in this free Steam game is familiar nonetheless. All the way down to the lyrics of Mad World on some sad sack’s profile.
It can be finished in less than an hour, but it does what it needs to and gets out before it feels draggy. Using an online chatting interface, it tells a simple, but relatable story over a series of online conversations between a young lady named Emily and the main character.
The game is five chapters-long, they all begin with choosing the right profile pic from pop culture from 2002 to 2006 that best represents your unfathomable ennui to your online friends such as BradDarko23 or the ever-mysterious, xXJules21Xx. I, myself, stuck with Sk8tr Boi for the five year span to show just how atypical I was. After that, you sign in, and chat with Emily by picking from three responses. There’s an irrefutable je ne sais quoi from the tactile feel of randomly typing to make the text of your response appear. There’s very little in the way of gameplay mechanics here, Steel Battalion, this is not, but that’s fine as the game design is purposely simple. Your character sees other friends, but you can only chat with Emily. It works here, because the game is not about nostalgic immersion, but rather focused on the long distance friendship between Emily and you.
Finishing the game felt quite close to home. As someone who moved quite often, it’s disheartening when you recognize your online conversations with treasured friends begin to stagnate. There are only so many ways you can respond to, “How are things?” or “How’s school?”. As your new life builds up, you both drift away from increasingly outdated snapshots you have of each other. It’s no one’s fault though, I’d reckon the best relationship-building experiences are usually away from the keyboard. We don't have to hate each other for growing apart. We just have to forgive ourselves for growing up. By the end, the game literally erases your agency as you try to find the words to save both of you from becoming strangers.
The game doesn’t reward second playthroughs, but it’s still worth a try. If nothing else, it’ll make you remember the joy of seeing a crush come online, and you being gifted with a chat window as they begin another chat with you.