Emily is Away is a visual novel developed by Kyle Seeley about you and your friend, Emily and the time you spend chatting on an instant messaging program. The story takes place over 5 years in which you and Emily graduate from high school and go to college, and how close or distant you both become is determined by how you respond to Emily’s messages, choosing one of three lines to guide the game. Simple and concise, the game can be finished in much less than an hour, and purports a branching story that leads to multiple gameplay possibilities.
Emily is Away has a very interesting set-up, where your screen is the messenger window and your controls are your mouse and keyboard. A lot of little details work to immerse you in the story being told: You type out your messages with actual keystrokes; Your other friends sign in and out, and their profiles change with each passing year. Sometimes, you will start typing something and then think better of it or make a typo, so you’ll delete your text and put in something more appropriate. The intent is to make the player feel like they’re actually being spoken to, and it’s relatively successful.
However, this emphasis on verisimilitude creates some frustrations and is even self-defeating at times. As your responses are predetermined, you obviously cannot actually type out what you will say. You have to press keys like you are typing, which can get tedious and be kind of frustrating if you feel like following along only for the game to word something differently than expected.
Another disappointment is that some of the decisions seem a little forced. It would appear that if you don’t make certain choices, you will be left with a default ending, implying you didn’t do everything right. I attempted to be a genuinely supportive friend in one playthrough, and a pushy romantic in the second. Both ended with me alone and apparently upset about it, with Emily deciding to move on without me. At first I thought perhaps the game was trying to force me to try to go out with Emily, and my first instinct is to avoid obvious romance, so when I was faced with what seemed like a pretty unappealing ending, I decided to be less avoidant. No such luck! I got the same ending. Which suggests to me that either a) I am very bad at predicting what this game wants me to do or b) There is no other ending and that’s intentional. This bothers me a little, and makes me unlikely to play for a third time. However, I will give the game points for not “rewarding” you for plying Emily with alcohol.
Overall, I think Emily is Away is a mixed bag. It’s a cute visual novel with novel visuals and a decent narrative structure. Kyle Seeley’s attention to detail really shows. [Side note: However he does make an incorrect reference to Undertale in one of his easter eggs, referring to “friendliness petals” instead of “friendship pellets.” I don’t think this was intentional, as other references were accurate.] Though some of the game design choices may be better on paper than in practice, overall the game functions well and provides a unique spin on the visual novel genre. There is some weakness in the character of Emily, and your own character seems to have little going on. Some of the situations feel a bit stock, and there’s some question to how much you truly can affect them. If visual novels are your thing, then you may be interested in experiencing it. Otherwise, I’d say wait until it’s on sale if you get it at all.