Cross-posted from my personal blog.
Hi, folks. Crowbeak here. This is the newest video in my Let’s Talk About [GAME] series. Each episode focuses on a specific game — usually an indie game, since that’s mostly what I play — and things about the game that I think are worth talking about.
Although three videos isn’t really enough to establish a format yet, I’m gonna shake things up a bit and talk about two games this time, Emily is Away and Cibele.
These are the first narrative-heavy games I’m exploring with this series, and although I don’t go into any explicit spoiler territory, I do talk a bit about the plots of both games. If you are the kind of person who avoids spoilers and haven’t played one or both of these games, you should probably stop the video now.
Still here? Good.
When I first booted up Emily is Away, my immersion was instantaneous. It started out shortly before high school graduation in 2002, which is the year in which I graduated; all the sounds were perfect, from the Windows XP start up to hearing friends (cleverly populated from my current Steam friends list) logging in and out of a mock AOL Instant Messenger client; and all the pop culture related pictures I could choose to be my instant messenger icon were spot on for the established timeframe.
At its most basic, Emily is Away is a choose your own adventure game. However, it took one simple, extra step to maximize my immersion. Once I’d chosen an option, I had to tippity-tap at my real keyboard to get the full message out on the screen and press my real enter key to send it. The game even showed typos made and corrected, things typed out and then rephrased. Even though I wasn’t actually typing the lines myself, seeing mistakes typed and then fixed or reworded to avoid giving a wrong impression really enhanced the experience.
Between these details and the fact that the author did a great job of writing dialogue that felt accurate to how text chat conversations flow, it was easy to ignore most of the ways in which reality was glossed over. As the game advanced, skipping a year between conversations, I was simultaneously amused and unbothered by the fact that pretty much no one my age was really still using AOL Instant messenger in 2006.
Unfortunately, this wonerful state of immersion didn’t last. The game made it clear that I was into girls. It also made it clear that whether or not I was into Emily was going to be the focus of the narrative.
My immersion shattered and I immediately flipped from loving to hating the game.
Hatred is a strong word and not one I use lightly. I did finish the game, but I did so with a scowl on my face and angry tweets interrupting the flow of the game. I am not and have never been into girls or even dating and relationships at all.
The game had sucked me into some of the best immersion I’d ever experienced and then ripped it all away. To add insult to injury, it passed over an opportunity to run a unique narrative about helping a friend through an abusive relationship from a distance through text chatting in favor of Yet More Romance.
Rationally, I know that this is a silly reaction to have. The game is extremely well crafted. I might be graysexual, but most people are not; love stories are generally regarded as universal and exploring the relationship between two people is a natural direction to take for a piece of interactive fiction that revolves around instant messenger conversation. But there are so many other ways of addressing intimacy and relationships between two people. There are so many other conversations that can be and are had over instant messenger systems.
The fact that Emily is Away engendered such strong immersion in the first place before shattering it so brutally is the real reason the game upset me. Strange as this may seem, I feel like that is something that needs to be commended. The author hit all the right notes visually, audially, and with the writing of dialogue to thoroughly suck me in before punching out my teeth. They even did something excellent where diversity is concerned: the game is about your feelings for a girl, but nowhere are any indications given about your gender and the random name pool includes both male and female names.
My unpleasant experience with Emily is Away is in sharp contrast to my surprisingly pleasant experience with Cibele, which is also about stuttering through romance via the internet.
Cibele takes a similar approach to immersion as Emily is Away, making the game look like a computer screen. Cibele shows a full desktop, though, instead of focusing on just one part of it. Where Emily is Away gives the player freedom to ostensibly just be themselves, Cibele goes out of its way to make sure that you know you’re taking a walk in someone else’s shoes. My desktop never had that much pink on it; my high school poetry was quite different from the stuff found on Nina’s desktop; and the selfies I never took would have shown green hair instead of pink, surrounding a very different face. By filling the computer with these digital artifacts, the game sets up a character for you before you start up the MMO, Valtameri.
Valtameri serves a similar function to the instant messenger window in Emily is Away. Instead of giving the player control over the flow of conversation, however, the player gets to listen to the main character and her romantic interest engage in VoiP chatting while acting out the playing of the MMO.
Cibele gives players no control over the flow of narrative. As someone who’s spent hours and hours voice chatting with guild mates while engaging in the mindless hack and slash of the MMO grind, however, that didn’t matter to me. I found it amusing that this MMO was particularly shitty, but going back and forth between clicking to kill and text chatting, all while listening to the conversation, felt completely natural.
Since it wasn’t Me, Myself as the main character, I was only slightly disappointed when I caught on to the fact that Cibele was going to be another Yet Another Romance. I was still interested in the storytelling though, especially since I hadn’t yet played Emily is Away, and kept going.
In the end, I found the story of Cibele far more touching than I expected to. It’s been years since I played World of Warcraft, but I still talk to some of the friends I made in Azeroth. One of my nearest and dearest friends is one of these; we met in raid chat, started chatting outside of raids occasionally, and then exchanged Skype information and chatted daily for years. We may not chat as often as we used to since we are both adults with full time jobs and living on different continents, but we still talk as often as we can. It’s always a genuine pleasure to do so and I don’t anticipate the strength of the relationship fading anytime soon.
The strength of that relationship made it very easy for me to empathize with the main character of Cibele. The almost seven year relationship I have with this friend of mine may not be romantic in nature (and thank goodness I will never have to worry about it going the way of the one portrayed in the game), but it grew out of the game as naturally as the relationship in Cibele did.
I don’t necessarily think that Cibele is better than Emily is Away. I may personally hate the latter, but it’s far from a bad game. Both Emily is Away and Cibele do some clever things with presentation to tell stories about handling relationships through the internet, and I love that. The internet enables very real and sometimes intimate relationships to continue or start at long distance, and both of these games do a good job of exploring that idea in ways no other medium could do.
Have you played Emily is Away or Cibele? Leave a comment to share your thoughts on them. And if you liked this video, please consider hitting the like button, subscribing to my channel, or sharing the video.