Emily is Away Too review
I’m holding IM conversations with two women at the same time, and I’m telling them different things, building different versions of myself. I know I’m going to be scored on how much I match their tastes and beliefs, and sometimes on how well I remember facts about both. The game has set them up as a prize for me to get, and, an hour or so into it, my working theory is that this is the winning strategy.
In late 2015, I wrote a review of a game called Emily is Away. That game is a text-based, lightly branching narrative, essentially one long dialogue tree standing in for IM conversations held over the course of a couple years with a girl called Emily.
That game had a lot of problems, chief among them a portrayal of relationships and consent that left a bad taste in my mouth. It seemed to play into nasty tropes about how women behave and about relationships; it seemed very much like a narrative about the tired stereotype of the “nice guy” waiting in the wings for a woman to realize he’s good for her. I’m proud of that review. But it’s also perhaps the most aggressive thing I have ever written about a game.
A year and a half later, Emily is Away Too has come out. It’s not a direct sequel; rather, it’s an expanded version of the same idea. I felt more or less beholden to playing it. I needed to answer the question: would this bigger and better version of Emily evolve? Would it keep the things that other people praised about the original, while dropping the distasteful aspects that I wrote about?
Well, I just spent four hours with that game, and I can report that the answer is a firm and decisive “kind of.”
Instead of talking just to Emily, you can also talk to Evelyn, often concurrently... This doesn’t fully work because Emily and Evelyn just aren’t that different from each other.
The biggest expansion in Emily is Away Too is that it doubles up. Instead of talking just to Emily, you can also talk to Evelyn, often concurrently, and what you tell each of them, and how you choose between them, is a key theme. This doesn’t fully work because Emily and Evelyn just aren’t that different from each other. They have different superficial tastes and different outlooks on their future, but they share exactly the same arc. The major difference seems to be that Emily is dating a jerk, while Evelyn still isn’t over the jerk she used to date.
Indeed, their parallelism is part of the point; in chapter three, they both have basically the same crisis, simultaneously, and you have to try and juggle two conversations at the same time. This brings an unwelcome real-time element into the game; you have to respond to both of them fast enough, or you’ll derail the conversation. In Emily is Away, once you choose a dialogue option you have to mash your keyboard to “type” it out. Emily is Away Too adds an option to automatically type for you, but the game does so at a glacial pace that makes those real-time segments unplayable.
And you have to provide the correct responses, too. The game actively tries to trip you up by giving you wrong ones that show you’re not really listening to what they’re saying. The whole sequence feels like a simulation of saying “uh huh” to placate someone without really caring about what they’re saying. This is, at its core, a dating sim; it’s about getting the girl. And dating sims as a genre can become uncomfortable when the mechanics of how you get the girl are too simplistic, which I do think they are, here.
At one point, Emily and Evelyn will explicitly rate you based on what they view is your compatibility; whether you have the same tastes and outlook. A lot of this means the game is asking fairly inane questions early on, such as “what is your favorite kind of music?” Because this is a game about extremely basic teenagers in 2006, the choices are generic: “punk rock,” “alternative,” and “hip hop.” I don’t think this rating actually matters all that much; pretty explicitly, their evaluation of you is based more on whether you are able to help them through their crisis in chapter three, than about whether you are “compatible.” Not that those characters seem to have a good handle on compatibility, anyway.
Emily is Away Too, then, is playing around with two separate models of relationships that we’ve seen in games: relationships as affinity (get the girl if you have the same ideas and tastes), and relationships as transaction (get the girl by being nice to her or helping her). Neither is very good; both, to be completely fair, crop up very often in other games. They do become worse when placed in a game that is entirely about relationships. And even though Emily is Away Too is a more thoughtful game than its smaller predecessor, it doesn’t fully escape the baggage of what this story arc feels like: you play as a put-upon nice guy waiting in the wings for the girl of your dreams to realize she’s dating a jerk. It’s not a great look.
So when the game set up this dynamic of trying to juggle both girls and present yourself as ideal to both of them, I was already dreading how it would all end. But I was pleasantly surprised: If you give each potential paramour a different version of yourself to consider, they’ll eventually compare notes and you’ll be exposed as the manipulative shitheel you are.
That the game recognizes and calls out the player character’s bad behavior was actually surprising given the content of Emily is Away, and it’s a definite step up. There’s more awareness here, and more agency and personality for Emily. Of course, the game still pushes you to play the cad role: according to the post-game statistics screen, about half of all players do that. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with tricking the player in this way.
Even as it punishes you for playing that role, it feels like this plot point is undercut by how it happens. There’s no independent source of truth in this game; there’s no underlying reality to reference. The game tells whether you lied to Emily (and Evelyn) or not based on whether you were consistent in your answers to both. This of course begs the question of whether, in a playthrough where we are consistent, we’re supposed to read the player character as honest, or just a passably competent liar.
You, the creep, would have gotten away with it, were it not for those pesky women talking to each other.
Moreover, your eventual downfall happens, predictably, when Emily and Evelyn meet up and compare notes. Which is to say: you, the creep, would have gotten away with it, were it not for those pesky women talking to each other behind your back.
So the game works out some of my frustrations with the original: there’s some awareness that the role it’s pushing you to play is that of the creep, and that is acknowledged and examined by the story.
Is that enough, though? Honestly, not for me. A lot of the popular reaction to the original Emily is Away was immature, misogynistic anger that a “good ending” wasn’t possible in that game, that Emily and the protagonist couldn’t end up together. A quick browse through that game’s Steam reviews will reveal that a segment of that game’s audience hated Emily for the lack of a “victory” state in the game.
In Emily is Away Too, you can get the happy ending. That nub of wish fulfillment doesn’t sit right with me, in light of whose wishes are being fulfilled. Emily is Away was a game about frustrating the idea of “getting the girl.” Emily is Away Too is a game about getting the girl. In a way, even though the girl has more agency and narrative sophistication, it almost feels like a step backwards. The original trafficked on ideas of the woman as a prize to be won, but ultimately frustrated those expectations. This one fully embraces the trope.
So I’m conflicted, here; yes, the game rewards you for not being a creep even though it seems, for most of its run, that it’s pushing you towards being a creep. But, the reward is getting the girl; the reward is still participating in that system where the love interest is set up as a gameplay reward.
It’s two steps forward, one step back. Emily is Away seemed to implicitly agree with its protagonist in assuming that Emily was dating a jerk because he was infatuated with her. Emily is Away Too goes all the way to making it explicit that she’s dating a jerk. Is that better? Is it an improvement to make the implicit narrative real and explicit? I’m genuinely not sure. The story arc of “girl hooks up with me because I helped her through her breakup with a jerk” is a childish fantasy held by many a high schooler and grown-ass man alike, but does that inherently taint this story for using it as a basic plot arc?
It's two steps forward, one step back.
Ultimately, I might be more inclined to be charitable towards those story elements if the game was good in other ways, but it really isn’t. The game riffs again on the pixel-art-meets-windows XP aesthetic of the original, and I don’t find it any more endearing the second time around. Structurally, the narrative is fairly linear and not that conducive to exploring different paths; unlike the first one, the game doesn’t really seem to react much to taking dialogue options that portray the PC as a possessive asshole; though those options are still around, they’re played off mostly as jokes. The writing still isn’t great: Emily and Evelyn might have more characterization, but that characterization is only ankle-deep at best, and subtext or wit is nowhere to be found.
I came to this game thinking there were two stories I might write: Maybe Emily is Away Too doubles down on the flaws of its predecessor, and I could write a scathing slam piece about it. Or maybe it’s an evolution, something that takes the mixture of nostalgia and juvenilia of the original and grows it into something better, something worthwhile.
What I actually found was, disappointingly, neither. It still traffics in the same glassy nostalgia of the original, it still puts you in the shoes of a creep who doesn’t realize he’s a creep. It’s neither better enough to salvage the whole enterprise nor worse enough to fail interestingly. If there’s something to be said for it, it’s that it made me feel like the creepy man-child the game was pushing me to act like; it is, at least, effective in doing that.
But in doing so it undercuts its own alternative path: I cannot decide if the protagonist in Emily is Away Too is a creep in every playthrough, or only some. The basic essence of the creep is an emptiness outside their relationship to the object of their infatuation. Emily is Away Too keeps itself locked into the IM chat window, never allowing its characters much of an independent life; and that makes the story very hard to look at through any lens other than that of suspicion at its subject.