Emily Is Away <3 Review
As the clock hits 6 PM, my computer screen is almost entirely filled with the whitest of white lights that burns my eyes. Two-fifths of the centre screen is filled with a small, almost static news feed. Blue names list their new relationship status, or what they are planning to do for the day. A bar at the bottom of my screen pops, and my eyes hone in on a tiny box containing a message.
“I hereby declare a poke war!”
I feel a crunching sensation in the back of my head. I can’t place it exactly. It’s a discomfort that exists between a nagging reminder of my existence in relation to others and a deeply buried, long forgotten horror that was left behind years ago, being unearthed.
Taking place in 2008, entirely on the retro-Facebook homage platform “Facenook”, this is Emily Was Away <3.
Cool beans for cool teens
The Emily series has always focused on the cultural nostalgia for retro interfaces and the relationships maintained through them. The past two titles were entirely played on a homage to the ill-fated AIM, as a revival of a lost form that many of us have forgotten. It was charming and easy to go back to that point in time, due to the distance the game had from the era of AIM’s heyday. However, the third game in the series diverging to take place on Facenook feels much closer to our current moment.
Honestly, probably too close.
The game attempts to create a charming time machine, back to a time where high schoolers were on Facebook, which was also the new, trendy social media platform. It’s a period I grew up in, and I see some familiar elements in Facenook. Friends are posting angsty, ambiguous lyrics on each others’ walls. Pictures of swooping haircuts and shutter shades fill the timeline. Birthday reminders suggest giving a kiss or birthday cake .png as a gift. It was a moment where our “additional sense organs” of augmented perception of sense and spatiality became a widely recognised pleasure.
Yet, in all of these, I also see and also feel things that are familiar. Like Facebook, a Facenook message feels like another responsibility I have to manage among the many other emails, messages, and video calls received in a day. It’s not even someone I particularly want to talk to, like an acquaintance who is kind of creepy and makes discomforting jokes. Or a girl who constantly wants you to listen to her playlists, wants to talk about being bored, and wants you to take internet quizzes to prove your friendship.
10 hours of Sandstorm by Darude
Even beyond the phenomenological experience of being on Facenook, Emily Is Away <3 also feels naïve in its discussion of its themes about being around the platform. Every feature of Facenook, from poke wars to photo galleries, is something characters share with you with constant bubbliness. Characters also love to encourage you to use the platform more by pressing to friend people you don’t know, and engaging with the platform when you don’t want to.
Looking back on this period of my life, I feel a heavy weight of discomfort from having to sit through these interactions. For me, Facebook’s introduction to my social life created unhealthy dynamics and expectations between many whoI knew. It also drowned my not-yet-known anxiety with information that made interacting very difficult for me. To see such a bubbly depiction of this period and platform feels dissonant with my own experience.
I don’t just feel harshly towards this period of my life, but also worn out by the already stressful state of our interconnectedness. On top of this, the platform which the game is giving a nostalgic homage to has become one of the most despicable globalised corporations of our time. It’s impossible to hold sweet, charming feelings towards the social media, knowing that currently its real-life parallel is a foundational platform that exploits its employees for white supremacy’s benefit, and commits privacy invasions among countless other problems.
In watching the ways that people chatted on the platform in its earliest days, I also see how the social media giant has created an environment that fostered unhealthy interactions. Users post online as a form of community building and computational pleasure. Friends send messages riling up one another because of a misunderstood post that is, frankly, none of their business. Then you have people lying to each other, ditching friendships, and breaking up with one another online. I’m still talking about Emily is Away <3, but I’m also not.
This game presents a very normative, happy retrospective for what was the basis of our interactions becoming commodified by surveillance. It’s impossible to untangle the complex mess of pop culture and corporate harm from one another. Yet, Emily is Away <3 seems to only remember the sugary sweet poke wars. That doesn’t make it a bad game, but it does make it a naïve one.
At the end of Emily was Away <3 you get to see a timeline of choices you made and how they played out. However, I imagined it ending more like The Breakfast Club with the following stills (play 3oh!3’s “Choke Chain” in the background for full impact).
Mat becomes a computer engineer at Facenook where he worked on the AI that will consequently lead many to conservative communities and news.
Evelyn founded a tea party Facenook group in 2009 and becomes a racist conservative.
Emily never used a social media platform again after seeing news of the 2011 FTC privacy charges.
Waverly discovers disabling depressive-anxiety during her years of using Facenook and now lays in bed from pain half of the day.
Facenook becomes one of the 10 largest world corporations by market capitalisation, lobbying against the U.S. government to continue exploiting its users’ privacy and preying upon victims worldwide.