In college, I had to read a book for an interactive media/graphic design course called The Medium is the Massage. Yes, “massage,” not “message.” That juxtaposition was the crux of the course; using media, design, and art to convey a message to an audience.
That idea that the medium is the message stuck with me. Thinking about it, that’s part of why I love storytelling in video games. The marriage of stories with interactivity elevates the experience for me. Throw in lessons from film and captivating music, and video games become a powerful amalgamation of entertainment and art. This is undoubtedly why I love games that put “it” on the stick.
Emily is Away <3 encapsulates that design philosophy wholeheartedly. The medium is two-fold, both the online Facenook world that creator Kyle Seeley has loving crafted as well as the actual laptop I played the game on. Clicking and clacking my way through the 2008 time capsule that is Facenook felt familiar and comforting. It was like wearing rose-tinted glasses, looking back at the way I used to interact with people online, without that pang of longing for time gone by. Facenook is perfectly balanced in its design of lighthearted jokes, throwback references, and focusing on the story at hand. There is no bloat here.
This entry is more than just a story about your relationship with Emily or Evelyn. In building a faux-social network, Kyle has made this game truly about the friends you have at the end of high school. I loved the richness in those friendships and seeing them play out beyond my messaging interactions through photos, posts, and events. This group of people Kyle has created feels real. And even if you don’t meet or interact with a character due to a choice you made, it doesn’t mean that they have no depth: It just means you’ll have to play again to dig a little deeper.
This is easier to do now with a decision tree at the end of each chapter showing that chunk’s critical choice. You can compare your response with the percentages fueled by other folks’ decisions. It’s a fun mechanic to see how much of a monster you may or may not be. It can also be a tool to use to replay chapters to dig deeper and learn more about the people surrounding your profile and to change your decisions.
There was a chunk in Chapter 4 or so when Emily shared an indie music playlist with me she made on YouToob. I listened along and kept the tracks going as I played through the chapter; chatting along and exploring new pages and invites. As the playlist and chapter went on, a character posted a new status that was lyrics from the song I was listening too. It was this lightbulb moment that these playlists were curated not simply because of their significance in 2008-09, but as music to elevate the game, just like any other game with a bopping score. Even longer songs that built over the course of time mirrored the rising tension in conversations and decisions.
Kyle fully leverages the medium, understanding the way social interactions used to be far beyond just looking like websites of old. He understands the essence of being a senior heading off into the unknown of college navigating the new social pressures of profiles and Facenook official status. There is nothing quite like trying to save a relationship over the sound of clacking keys late into the night. The story is a portal to years past that has an awareness and maturity I certainly did not have in high school.
Emily is Away <3 is wonderful game that understands putting you in the heart of the narrative, not just by becoming emotionally invested, but by leveraging the medium of games to elevate the story beyond the written word.